The experience of color

By Page H. Gifford

Color theory for artists has always been complex and confusing. Using color wheels as guidelines works for teaching children the basics and how to organize color. But for artists and educators like Mary Volin believe that exploring, experimenting, and mixing color and making your palette is a much better approach to understanding color. Volin points out that each medium has its own color palette and is different across the board. A watercolor red varies from an acrylic red and this is why experimentation and mixing are essential.

As a member of the Fluvanna Art Association, she spoke in simple terms about color to her fellow FAA members on Tuesday, June 20, at the monthly meeting. She began with the physics of color, Sir Isaac Newton, prisms, and the color wheel in 1704.

“His theory of a wheel was flawed because some color waves do not meet on the prism.” She added that Goethe, a contemporary critic of Newton’s, believed mixing all colors resulted in white.

In 1933, building on Goethe’s theory that by adding light the result was 100 percent of all primaries were white and by subtracting light the result was the opposite -100 percent of all primaries were black.

“Early man discovered pigments, original compounds extracted from plants, minerals, and animals and eventually they were made into dyes,” she said. It was Michel Cheveul who probably made the most sense with his theory that all color is influenced by other colors and the basis of how artists learn to use color.

She cited many innovations that occurred during the 19th century in what she termed “the explosion of color.” In 1841, pigments were delivered in tubes instead of traditional blocks. By 1856, new colors like mauve, magenta, alizarin, and synthetic indigo were created. The evolution of pigment led to more scientific studies on color.

Albert Munsell tried to find ways to teach artists color theory and came up with his idea that the perception of color is what we try to name. The perception of darks and lights is the value and the saturation (also known as chroma) is the perception of purity and the intensity of color.

Volin discussed the drawbacks of using a color wheel and artists are often told to use the opposite for a deeper version of color or to create shadows when using warm or cool colors such as red and magenta as an option.

“In 1931, trying to develop color for film, an international commission seriously looked at color and mathematically tried to figure out what we see.” Volin gave a synopsis of the scientific and psychological journey humans have taken to understand color. “Joseph Albers, an abstract expressionist, and theorist, who taught at Yale, went along with the theory that colors are influenced by the interaction with other colors. Sometimes, knowing all the science behind color helps artists to rely less on scientific methods and more on their instincts.”

Another key point Volin made was warning artists not to create their paintings by using the colors they see in photographs printed in magazines or newspapers.

“It’s not a good color, translating is awkward and your painting will not look like the photo,” she warned. “We experience color in context and within the confines of a device or environmental references. Our brains connect with what we are seeing and what we know to be true rather than what exists.”

Breaking down color theory into its historical components and scientific theories doesn’t help artists create better paintings but Volin stated “Trust your instincts more than your sources.”

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