With Flying Colors
Each individual color is a universe in itself.Johannes Itten
When I look around, I register color first. Before form, before faces, really. Like most artists, I formally studied color theory, read Josef Albers and Johannes Itten and played with paint chips, but the natural world has always been my best teacher, both on the canvas and in how I design my home and gardens.
In the studio, I field a lot of questions about color. People tell me how they fear some colors or worry about breaking the rules. What rules? The first principle to understanding color is that it is a language, and like learning any language you need patience and basic grammar. Once you learn how to navigate color, your world will expand.
But first, a little background
I used to think that geography and childhood environment determined color preferences. Southern studio visitors buy bright colors, those from New England stick to the few neutrals I have. But once I started researching chromophobia (a legitimate phobia and a real word), I stumbled onto something else. Carolyn Purnel’s excellent article sheds some light on the history of color, considering the legacy of colonialism.
In England, contemporaries often called Indian textiles “rags” or “trash” and scorned their bright colors, and in Europe more generally, bright colors were taken as a sign of degeneracy and inferiority. The German writer Goethe famously stated that “Men in a state of nature, uncivilized nations and children, have a great fondness for colors in their utmost brightness,” whereas “people of refinement” avoid vivid colors (or what he called “pathological colors”). In short, a love of bright color marked one as uncivilized, as not possessing taste, as being foreign or other. Color represented the “mythical savage state out of which civilization, the nobility of the human spirit, slowly, heroically, has lifted itself — but back into which it could always slide”.
I know my own chromophilia (yes that’s a word too) stems from living in a Central American country when I was young, absorbing the Latin celebration of color and pattern. My Texan mother loved colors as well but shied away from the saturated reds and pinks that dominate my own interior.
According to Batchelor, prejudice against color “masks a fear: a fear of contamination and corruption by something that is unknown or appears unknowable,” and the highly minimal, white spaces of contemporary architecture mark an attempt to rationalize and strictly limit an interior, to stop its merging with the world outside. The “hollow, whited chamber, scraped clean, cleared of any evidence of the grotesque embarrassments of an actual life. No smells, no noises, no colour; no changing from one state to another and the uncertainty that comes with it.”
I was floored by the discovery that our color choices may stem from archaic associations and even systemic racism. Yet another mystery unlocked, and lodged in our culture.
I painted a series around the primary, secondary and mixed color palettes to demonstrate how many variations in color there are. Red is not just red, but vermillion, cadmium red light, scarlet and burnt red. Yellow ranges from sunshine to the pale yellow of a flower’s stamen. And blue is bouncing everywhere around us. But that is just the beginning. The secondary colors are the offspring of the primaries. Just put equal parts of two primary colors together and you get a secondary: blue and red make purple; red and yellow make orange; yellow and blue make green. When you combine primary and secondary colors, you arrive at a range of tertiary colors. Complimentary colors are the opposite colors on the color wheel. When paired, they intensify each other.
What is a Spectrum, Anyway?
Most of us are familiar with Sir Isaac Newton’s discoveries around color and light. He was the first to record that the allocation of colors through a lit prism determines the color spectrum. He also gave us the color wheel. Newton’s wheel illustrates the visible light spectrum. Simply put, these are the discernable colors to the naked human eye, color blindness aside. If you want to do a deep dive on the science behind color, here is an excellent source.
Hue, Saturation and Value
Gauging color goes well beyond understanding the color wheel. Next, you need to understand the qualities of hue, saturation and value. Hue is easy – it’s the actual color. Saturation refers to color purity –the closer the color resemblance is to the light and quality in the spectrum, the more saturated it is. For example, in watercolor, building up layers with glazes of the same hue deepens the saturation. Value is dictated by the lightness and darkness of a color. The easiest way to understand this concept is to take one of your colorful smartphone photos and switch it to black and white mode. This strips the image of hue and saturation and allows you to determine the value.
So Why Does Learning about Color Matter?
Over the holidays, I overheard two people in a restaurant bemoaning the lack of color in our high alpine winter landscape, and it gave me an idea. I decided to keep a daily color journal to document the landscape palette from season to season. Snow isn’t just a hard white after all – there are blues, grays, a spot of blood from a hawk kill or churned up earth from a burrowing animal. There is so much color – the rocks on my dog walk, the anchor ice on a bluebird day, the lichen on the gambel oak, the deep purple-reddish bark of a chokecherry bush or the brightly colored feathers congregating at my birdfeeder. All of these visuals contribute to this color story and give me a map of the seasons and the different variables of my Rocky Mountain landscape.
I am a seasoned colorist, but this exercise of keeping a daily color journal reminds me how much more I can learn. Understanding color better helps you read the natural world, further appreciate a piece of fine or decorative art, or a well designed interior or eye-popping cinematography. Any invitation to slow down and to take note of what we take for granted is a good thing.
Color: A workshop for artists and Designers by David Hornung
The Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St. Clair
Color: A Natural History of the Palette by Victoria Findlay
Nature’s Palette: A Color Reference System from the Natural World by Patrick Baty