Rain drums on the studio roof. We wait for spring and I’m fooling with the colours of summer. A slip, perhaps, to a borderline zone: the goofy idea that colours are people. It started with a quote from Marc Chagall: “All colours are the friends of their neighbors and the lovers of their opposites.”
Since giving a workshop with Stephen Quiller I’ve been more consciously looking at complementaries. Experiments with simple designs that follow calculated schemes. What a playing field! Blue and orange, yellow and purple, red and green. For the first time in my life I’ve taken egg cartons and carefully pre-mixed opposites that test out to equal intensity. Some are unabashed high-key pastels and others are sucked down with neutralizing opposites toward magic grays and mysterious darks. When you dip into the carton you know what you’re getting.
Colour simplicity has power and cleanliness.
Equal intensity laybys make fun for the eyes.
Some colour families are more moody than others.
Wooden colours are enlivened by their opposites.
Adjacent colours accept one another’s temperature.
Complementaries are the key to sophisticated grays.
Reflected light is an underused wonder of painting.
Rampant experimentation is the father of invention.
Local colour ought to be friendly to those next door.
Colour mixing is more valuable than colour application.
If all else fails, pick one primary and leave her out.
What’s out there is not as important as what’s in here.
Bright complementaries spice otherwise dull monochromes.
Determining “mother colour” is the mother of colour theory.
Unruly crowds can be tamed by glazing their complementaries.
Sticking to a planned colour scheme is inspiration in itself.
A colour wheel on the wall is worth more than a sack of tubes.
PS: “There are colours which cause each other to shine brilliantly, which form a couple which complete each other like man and woman.” (Vincent van Gogh)
Esoterica: The egg carton is the most universally available tray. Perhaps the chickens, laying by the dozen, are thinking of us. The stronger plastic cartons are best. The lids fit remarkably well. A strip of spongy foam glued to the inside of the lid and filled with water keeps acrylics and gouache wet for weeks. Like a lot of good things in life, they’re free.
This letter was originally published as “Complementary colours” on March 19, 2002.
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“At a certain point the well-versed musician does not need to think of the keys, where they are located, or which scale or sequence of notes will recall a certain mood… think of the palette as an instrument with each of the colors representing a different note on the keyboard.” (Stephen Quiller)
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