White is the color of Zero. The concept of Zero originates from old Indian philosophy. As it expanded its influence in many Asian cultures through Buddhism, it crystallized as an aesthetic value that lets beauty emerge from “less” or “nothing.” Zero is expressed by “空” in Chinese character, which means “sky”, “void”, or “empty.” Actually, there is a word in Japanese that combines sky (空 = zero), and white (白).
空白 means void, blank space or vacuum. But because of the combination of sky and white, it implies something vast, broad with no end.
So is white a color?
Or is it an absence of color?
The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp Rembrandt 1632 Public Domain
Rembrandt let the impressive white color emerge by relying on layers and layers of paint, which emphasizes the contrast of light and dark. The white is so powerful that you almost feel its mass.
Couple under umbrella in snow Suzuki Harunobu 1767 Public Domain
On the other hand, Suzuki Harunobu, the master of Ukiyo-e, chose not to apply paint to express the soft texture of white snow piled on the umbrella. The paint, or the color, is absent.
As you may know, Ukiyo-e was developed as woodblock printing to allow mass production. The drawing would be transplanted to a woodblock by carvers, and then printed on paper by printers. Both carvers and printers were highly talented/trained artists. Helped by their solid skills, Suzuki chose a technique called Kara-zuri. Kara-zuri does not use paint. Instead it relies on the texture of paper, and subtle unevenness left on paper to express the quality of white objects. It may be difficult to see from the image above, but the paint is absent from snow on the umbrella and some parts of their clothes. Suzuki was very cognitive of the importance of paper quality for Ukiyo-e, and chose the right type to express the soft, light and delicate quality of snow.
White can emerge through layers of paint, massive and impressive, as seen in Rembrandt’s works, or can emerge from absence or nothingness, luminous and delicate, as seen in Suzuki’s work. Both are beautiful and full of potential.
Kenya Hara, the leading graphic designer, involved in the conceptualization and direction of MUJI, wrote a book called “White.” He starts the book with an eye-opening statement:
There is no such thing as White. Rather, ‘white’ solely exits in our sensory perception.
Because there is no color in white, it can unleash our creativity. Absence is abundance.