It’s about time I fessed up. When I was at Art Center School in Los Angeles I failed Colour 101. This admission is such an embarrassment to me that I’d ask you to please keep it quiet so it doesn’t go beyond this letter.
You see, at first I didn’t like colour — the subject seemed more like mathematics — boring, and a lot of rules. I could never figure out why Albert H. Munsell went to all that trouble to build a three-dimensional colour wheel. Further, the exercise of copying light and shade and reflected light on colour swatches on different colour grounds was evidence to me of student torture.
I had to repeat the course. Mad as a plucked Kiwi, I quit dating girls and worked my buns off. The second time around I got lucky and passed the course.
Nowadays there is no day I’m not thankful for that course, and nowadays there is no day I don’t wish to better understand the subject. And looking at the colour work of others, I often note many are on page 4 of a 400 page book. I wish they had the benefit of the Art Center course. Understanding colour is illusive, and handling it properly has to be learned. There are just too many defaults in the old brain to get colour right on the first go.
That’s why I was pleased to see subscriber and friend Richard Robinson of Ruakaka, New Zealand, has prepared an excellent video called Mastering Colour. With candour and clarity this young painter has summed up in 125 minutes (plus printable lesson notes) the essentials of colour theory and practice: seeing and describing colour, colour mixing and manipulation, colour harmony and light effects. Particularly valuable is the difficult-to-master understanding of how adjacent colours affect one another. As well as answering many oft-asked questions, Richard aptly describes the jumpable chasm between amateur and professional colour.
Actually, video is the ideal vehicle for this sort of knowledge. The medium releases valuable principles in a linear way into the reluctant head. At the same time, there is no substitute for the sort of dreaded exercises I had at Art Center. Richard invites you to try some of them, and he had me doing some again. I needed that.
PS: “Colour is my day-long obsession, my joy and my torment.” (Claude Monet)
Esoterica: In Mastering Colour Richard Robinson clarifies the usefulness of the Munsell Colour System with its emphasis on hue, value and chroma. The Nine Value Scale is well covered as is a clear understanding of oft-neglected middle values. Esoteric subjects every painter should at least know about, like Birren’s Triangle and the Yurmby colour wheel are also explained. He also answers that most valuable of questions, “What makes a memorable painting?” I don’t often recommend products in these letters, but this is a good one.
Subject guides the outcome
by Skip Van Lenten
I didn’t go to school, but if I did, I would probably have trouble with the color class as well. I’m not sure I understand the theory behind it, since it seems to me that when you paint something, it is the subject that guides the outcome, rather than a set of rules and formulas. But then again, my naiveté may be showing in my work, which seems painfully simple compared to the hundreds of great paintings I’ve seen on the Web.
Rules must be broken
by Scott Kahn, NY, USA
I never went to an art school and I never studied color theory. Perhaps it is useful to some, but it is by no means essential. Color, like everything else concerning visual expression usually boils down to a gift, an innate sensibility and sensitivity. Ultimately, I think artists develop their own palette and color sense. Learning rules and formulas can actually inhibit expression, and must be broken if anyone is to find their individual voice.
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Learning the hard way
by Eleanor Blair, Gainesville, FL, USA
My color theory class at Cooper Union was six hours a week for eight months with Hannes Beckman, a master colorist. For the first four months, we only worked with grays. It was an incredibly challenging course, but I use what I learned in every single painting I produce. Color theory and drawing can only be learned the hard way; with a good teacher and lot of work. Then, everything else is easy.
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Over-usage of white
by Peter Brown, Oakland, CA, USA
In practice and teaching, color is by far the most difficult aspect of painting. There is, however, a basic habit or problem that I frequently see in student work and this is easy to identify.
This most obvious issue is an over-usage of white to condition and soften most all of the colors in a painting. The painter ends up with a blur of pastel tints which may be pleasant, but ultimately rather boring. The artist is often sacrificing value (light and dark) to color harmony. This takes the punch out of any painting. We all know that the color white comes in the biggest tubes, but that doesn’t mean that we are supposed to rely on it, relentlessly.
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by Linda Saccoccio, Santa Barbara, CA, USA
I did have a torturous color class that was required at RISD. It was taught by a man who was either a colleague or student of Albers. He was impossible; dry as a bone, and he came off as mean spirited or at least disdainful of our lack. We did endless color studies and gray scales. I was in a trance as I sat on the floor of my room finding colors that changed other colors with a box of Color-aid scattered about. I had a great time, but when it came to Mr. Sillman it was terrifying, and I have to say I rarely understood him. Though he did say something important that was meaningful to me. He said there should be a sign over the entry of all art schools that said, “Safety Last,” meaning that you must take risks. That and all the practice of color studies and gray scales were the rewards.
by Sharon Knettell, Woonsocket, RI, USA
One of the great influences on 19th century art was the Asian work that was showing up in the salons and galleries. This I believe was the major catalyst
in the change from chiaroscuro to a flattening out of form and color.
Manet was one of the first to experiment with this as in the Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe where he faces the figures towards the light. Eventually his paintings became more formless and more brilliant. Aiding this change as well was the accessibility to better and more brilliant paint.
Not for everyone
by Lorna Dockstader, Calgary, AB, Canada
After watching the first chapter of Richard Robinson’s video, I can see where it would really help a multitude of artists, but not everyone. After many hours of colour theory, colour wheels, mixing, and value studies, I began to realize that maybe it was best just to let it all go, and paint. Everyone has unique gifts. Some are blessed with innate colour ability and I’m thinking it could be an inherited trait. Our daughter, granddaughter, and myself, can quickly pick out any discordant notes in a piece and “know” how it needs to be changed.
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Drunk with colour
by Grace Cowling, Grimsby, ON, Canada
The late Ida Hamilton, head of the art department at Westdale Secondary School (Hamilton, Ontario, Canada) in the 1940s was — in the opinion of her students, “drunk with colour.”
She taught the Ostwald Colour System. We used Prang show card colour, believed at that time to be the truest primary pigments. We did sheets of exercises on shades, tints, complementary colours and for our final assignment a fabric design of repeats using a split complementary scheme in five changes.
I think back to working into the night towards deadline and before Ott-Lite was even thought of. Well, I got a passing mark but the concepts learned and passion for colour is still with this 81-year young gal.
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by Mary Moquin, Sandwich, MA, USA
When I was in art school, I thought you were either a black and white artist or a color artist. I believed there was some predisposition and that some of us were doomed to never understand how to use color. Then I had a professor who said, “You know, color can be learned.” I was still reluctant to believe him and spent my undergraduate years avoiding the subject and studied etching which pretty much remained black and white and a little local color. A few years after I graduated I began to realize how much I needed to understand color and how limited I was by my knowledge. So, I read all the books, Itten, Albers and Munsell. I did color exercises and color swatches. I became so excited about the magic of color that it has become an obsession of mine. Even with all this experience, I still bought the package Robert recommended because I love color so much that if there is even one new thing I learn it will be worth the money!
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CMYK colour classes
by Ron Sanders, North Port, FL, USA
In teaching adult education art classes, I found that many students were wasting half the class trying to figure out the colors in front of them and then struggling to reproduce them in paint; often with poor results. I therefore set out to teach a class on the subject and while studying Munsell for four and a half years at the Columbus College of Art & Design, it was 10 years in the printing industry that led me to teach students a CMYK based color model. In actuality, it has much in common with Munsell, shifting the complements from the usual RYB.
My goal was to make it as simple as possible for students to understand color mixing – how to think about color, to analyze and talk about color, and then how to reproduce color accurately. The class was such a success that the students wanted something in book form but I couldn’t find anything to recommend. Most books are 400 pages of archaic history that is irrelevant to the student. Others are recipe books that don’t teach anything about color, they only make students dependent on the crutch. So, at the insistence of my students, I put my class lessons into a book, written very much the way I teach it. It is short and concise at only 50 pages. It is laid out in short bits of info around large illustrations. Going with the KISS Theory, I attempted to make it easy to read, simple to find info.
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oil on canvas
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