The back of our truck was home on San Salvador in the Bahamas
Tropical Marine Ecology 2005
June 4, 2005
The Ocean as a Palette
The ocean is a very popular subject in the art of painting. When standing before the ocean itÕs easy to see why an artist would choose to paint such a place. It is a world filled with colors and beautiful creatures. The amazing colors are everywhere, starting with the tan sand at your feet and continuing to the vibrantly blue water that stretches as far as your eye can see. But the real fascination is what resides within this vast blue world. The sight under the water is a true delight. Yellow, purple, blue fish swim around green, orange, pink, corals and live among many colorful creatures, such as sea anemones, in a community of colors. The art that emerges from these waters is incredible in the way that it captures the true beauty that thrives in the ocean. But that beauty obviously isnÕt there for the sole purpose of being admired or turned into art. The colors of the ocean are significant parts to the workings of its complex ecosystem. In order to further explore its significance it is important for one to know where the colors are located, what purposes they serve, and how those particular colors came to be.
The coral reef is the most colorful area of the ocean. It is home to an abundance of vibrant underwater creatures. These creatures include but are not limited to, fish, coral, and octopuses. Many fish in the Bahamas, and elsewhere in the world, stand out to the human eye because of their remarkable colors. Some examples of such fish are Parrot fish, Angel fish, Blue Tang, and the Yellowtail Damsel. Their bright colors and designs actually help them to blend in to their environment. Many fish try to match the hues of their habitat backgrounds, therefore colorful coral reefs equal colorful fishes (Waller 330). The coral that fish aim to match come in numerous variations of shapes, sizes, and hues. A few examples of coral are the Common Sea Fan and Elkhorn coral. Each of these has a distinct form and color. The Common Sea Fan actually looks like a fan; its predominant colors are purple, red or yellow. Elkhorn coral is large and tree like; it is most commonly a brownish-yellow color. Octopuses are special creatures when it comes to coloration. In order to disguise itself, the Caribbean reef octopus frequently changes to an assortment of colors such as blue, pink, green, brown or red, but most typically it changes to a pattern of colors which perfectly blend in to its surroundings (Spalding 195).
Colors exist in the ocean for numerous reasons. When one looks at a coral reef they see many different colors. The bright colors that emanate from coral reefs signify that they are healthy. This is important because most life underwater thrives off of the coral reef. The main reason for the vibrant colors of fish is, believe it or not, protection. There are three ways that their colors do this. These ways are resemblance, obliteration shading, and disruptive coloration. As mentioned above, fish try to match the hues of their habitat background. Some fish actually have the ability to change their colors in order to match different backgrounds throughout their life. By resembling other objects around them, they are less likely to stand out and therefore have a good amount of protection from predators. Obliteration is common in most fish. In its simplest form the belly of the fish is pale and the dorsal surface of the fish is darker. This difference in shading helps the fish blend in from two different views. From the top, because of its dark dorsal, it blends in with the bottom of the ocean which has less light. The fish is more difficult to see when viewing it from below because the light belly blends in to the surface of the water where there is much more light. It is a simple idea, but an amazing use of color. Disruptive coloration is a concealment mechanism that uses patterns, banding, and patches of irregular contrasting colors. They change the shape of the fish in the eye of the predator. ItÕs like a fish disguise. A good example of this is the Four Eye Butterfly fish, which has a black spot on its fin that can easily be mistaken for its real eye. The complete opposite of these three protective adaptations is what is known as advertisement. There are some fish whose colors function to reveal their presence. It may be for sexual reasons, or simply just for display but most likely it is to warn their predators of their danger. In some cases, non-toxic fish mimic the colors of toxic fish in order to appear toxic (Waller 332). Octopuses also use their colors for protection and can easily adapt to many different surroundings. They also change their colors as a way to communicate, flashing from white to a shade close to black if they feel threatened, or they send pulses of color across their bodies like a display of lights when communicating with one another (Spalding 195).
So, where do these creatures get all of this amazing color? Coral gets its color from the symbiotic algae Zooxanthellae, which lives inside of the coral. They share a mutual relationship. Zooxanthellae provide the corals with food in the form of photosynthetic products. In turn, the coral provides protection and access to light for the Zooxanthellae (Goreau et al 1979). Without it, coral would have no pigment at all and the ocean would be a very bland place. Fish and Octopuses both get their colors from chromatophores. The chromatophores provide the true color pigment of these creatures. In fish chromatophores are found in the dermis, either outside or under the scales. They are made up of four different pigments: black, yellow, orange, and red. Depending on the concentration of color pigment cells and how close the cells are located to the surface of the fishÕs dermal layer these four colors can create all of those miraculous colors that you see in tropical fish today. Chromatophores are what enable fish and Octopuses to change their colors.
Bringing the ocean to land would be an impossible task, but many painters do it quite well through their art. Two examples of these painters are Richard Vevers and Christian Riese Lassen. Both have very different styles, but are equally talented. Vevers uses the effects of water-on-light and perception in order to create movement and energy. ÒHe doesnÕt invite you to look 'at' underwater life, but to go 'into' it and feel the pulsating purity and energy of the subjectÓ (Raj Shant). In his painting titled ÒAnemone TwoÓ Vevers gets almost inside the anemone and focuses on its soothing colors and he illustrates movement through using different tones of blues. Looking at it fills you with a feeling of relaxation. In one of his others, titled ÒAnemone Bubbles,Ó Vevers takes something very little and simple that would most likely go by your eyes without notice and turns it into a beautiful composition. It reminds that viewer of the small complexities that take place in a coral reef, and not to let them go unnoticed because even the littlest things in the ocean are quite beautiful.
LassenÕs paintings are filled with fantasy. He pulls creatures together and creates a world filled with color and life. His subjects seem to be magical because of the vivid colors that he paints with, and his superb attention to detail. He turns the ocean into a very picturesque environment. ItÕs as if heÕs creating the perfect underwater world. It shows viewers that the ocean is a great place, and by doing this he has attracted the attention of millions of people. His paintings show people the absolute beauty that exists in the ocean. Even though most of his paintings are a bit fanciful they still capture the attention of many, which is important because this shows that we love the spectacle of the ocean. And because we love it so much it is even more important that we make this beauty last.
In order to keep the fish and the reefs and the thousands of other creatures in the ocean colorful and healthy we have to take steps in preserving our oceans. They are being destroyed by us, and if we donÕt change our ways they will surely be destroyed sooner than most of us can imagine. The oceans are being destroyed by things such as pollution, over fishing, and by simple thoughtlessness. There are things that can be done; most importantly people need to be educated about the threats of ocean pollution. For example, many people vacation on islands such as The Bahamas. They take rides on boats and spend time on the beach. Maybe they even take a few snorkeling trips. Most likely the entire time that they are doing this, they have very little concern for the well being of the ocean. While riding on the boats they possibly toss some garbage over the side, or while theyÕre spending time on the beach maybe they leave a few beer cans or plastic bags behind. While snorkeling they will see many pretty things which they might decide to take home with them. Maybe break off a little bit of coral here and steal a sand dollar there and with each creature that they touch, or take, they weaken the beautiful ecosystem that they have come to visit; not because they donÕt care but because they donÕt know. In order to help the beauty last people need to be aware of what we are increasingly losing. We are losing a place filled with color and beauty that people from all over the world come to see. An artist doesnÕt want a blank canvas.
Fujita, Rod. Heal the Ocean. Canada: New Society Publishers, 2003
Hayes, Bob, ed. The Art of Lassen. Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii: Lassen Publishing, 1993.
Spalding, Mark, D. A Guide to the Coral Reefs of the Caribbean. Berkley: The University of
California Press, 2004.
Waller, Geoffrey, ed. Sea Life. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996
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