The “literary colour” of a decent cigar is some sort of brown. On close examination, this Cuban I’ve been looking at for two years, thinking about smoking, and resisting, has a “local colour” of raw umber with traces of sap green and yellow ochre. On the windowsill, with the evening light raking, its “reality colour” is bright cadmium yellow coming to cadmium orange with a deep violet shadow. Now that’s a cigar! Painting it in these conditions, I can practically smell the darned thing, almost enough to take up smoking again.
Thinking about the above paragraph, we see that literary colours and local colours and colours as seen are not the same. Further, my description was in English and uses the names of pigments I’m familiar with. Also, those reality colours, in that light, demand an even more precise language.
Or do they? Some painters, it seems, have an uncanny colour sense. They are able to see colours truthfully and mix them accurately without naming them.
Linguists and anthropologists are now giving new credence to the idea that the human eye is most often a prisoner of language. Further, colours are perceived through the lens of our mother tongue. Just as the Inuit have dozens of words for “snow,” green and blue are distinct colors in English but are considered shades of the same color in some other languages. Further, in English, for example, we narrow down broad terms like “green” to even more specific nuances — emerald, jade, Kelly, lime, mint, myrtle, olive, teal, Hooker’s, viridian, British racing, etc. According to linguistic experts, when we refine our visual sensitivity to color differences in reality, our brains are trained to exaggerate the distance between shades of color if these happen to have different names in our particular language. It follows that art appreciation may depend on unique linguistic forms.
This insight may, in part, account for the frequent public donnybrooks over artistic quality and worthiness.
For those of us who struggle with colour and painting every day, my current conclusion regarding this research is to be of two eyes. Your honest, truthful eye sees the colour, and your knowledgeable eye knows how to mix it. You need to address your pigments on a first-name basis. Not all of us can intuit the transition. My other current conclusion? Try to paint it, don’t talk about it, and certainly don’t try to smoke it.
PS: “When we learn our mother tongue, we acquire certain habits of thought that shape our experience in significant and often surprising ways.” (Guy Deutscher, Linguist, University of Manchester, UK)
Esoterica: Literary constructs such as red barn, green grass and blue sky are generalizations that forever haunt us. Those of us who might seek truth from our world need to reinvent our vision in a pure way. Barring the miracle of talent or some sort of blessed autism, we need to undo certain aspects of language. In studio and field, some of this can be achieved by voluntary mutism. I’ll stop talking now.
Liberated from the tube
by Ron Gang, Kibbutz Urim, Israel
Years ago my palette distilled itself down to three well-mixing primaries plus zinc white. I was free of the dictates of the tube. Every color applied has become a result of the mix and the sensitivity to the colors and their non-verbal response keeps growing and deepening. It’s doubtlessly also connected with the right-brain thing — no labels, no names. In a good painting session consciousness slips out of the verbal, the sense of time changes, perceptions are heightened, and all this will leave its magical mark on the canvas. And you don’t smoke nothing… no cigars, nothing!
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Painting in key
by Jan Hart, San Jose, Costa Rica
Having written a book on color The Watercolor Artist’s Guide to Exceptional Color you can imagine that it is a subject I love. One thing that has helped me to combine the seeing and doing aspects of mixing color is this; I avoid using the words ‘brown’ or ‘gray’ and I ask my students to do the same in workshops. These are mixtures of colors or neutrals. When I look at a ‘brown’ object, I first call it the color I find underneath. What color would I begin with to mix this neutral? Often, if I am looking at something ‘brown’ I will see the underlying color as orange or yellow and will start there. Then my mind goes right ahead and starts adding some complement to neutralize the orange and up comes ‘brown’ in my visual mind. And suddenly I see that I can ‘push’ the orange or the blue to get a flavor of the neutral that I want in the painting. It gives me the direction for mixing and it helps me use fewer paints and stay in color key.
by Dr. L. Anne McClelland, Mountain View, AB, Canada
I find this subject curious because I am a red/green colour blind artist who can’t even begin to imagine how my work appears to other people let alone how the real world looks to people with ‘normal’ colour vision. The world looks normal to me — it’s the only way I’ve ever seen it — and I paint with colours that look appropriate to my interpretation of the scene — not particularly worrying if they are the ‘real’ colours.
I agree that naming is useful, but I don’t use descriptive names as they can be misleading or confusing. I have learned to rely on the pigment number to describe a colour — since using that identification enables you to look past whatever ‘name’ is on the tube and know almost immediately how that pigment will behave in use.
Part of my recent approach is to simplify the number of pigments I use in any particular image. I can see red and I can see green, but I don’t always distinguish well between various reds or various greens — browns are a complete confusion to me as are many subtle grays. By using only two or three pigments plus black and white and all the mixes of those I can better balance the warms and cools and neutrals in my work. I use single pigment tube colours only — that way I am better able to mix my own neutrals and move them towards warm or cool by adjusting the proportions of opposite pigments in the mixes. My favorite combination is some sort of orange-red and a blueish green or greenish blue.
I believe that language does affect how we think and how we interpret the world. Sometimes the perfect word only exists in another language — just as a particularly exquisite brushstroke or colour combination is sometimes culturally linked. There is so much to be gained by studying other languages both spoken and visual and by exploring all the pigments until we find the ones that sing to us.
Mother and Son is painted only with Iron Oxide Red PR101, Prussian blue (Milori blue PB27), Carbon black PBk7 and Titanium dioxide white PW6. The figure Forest Dance is iron oxide red PR101, Quinacridone Gold (PO49) and Cobalt green PG26 in layered thin washes on Golden crackle medium.
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by Cora Jane Glasser, New York City, NY, USA
Recently I discovered that Prussian blue is blacker than black and bluer than blue. Preparing paintings for a show in Berlin, my research revealed that this color used to be called Berlin blue. I remember the Crayola Prussian blue of childhood. Yum. When using it now, I must be mindful that it is really Cyanide blue. I will continue to grab for that black, nameless block of wax, resin & pigment, knowing it will turn glowing blue on my hot palette, and black again — or blue — on my painting.
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No colour stands alone
by Jeanette Vermeyden-Obbink, ON, Canada
A teacher of mine once commented that “A colour is NO colour unless it has another colour next to it.” Red only looks like a vibrant red if the colour next to it can let it shine. It always stuck with me and I still use it as a guideline in my work to this day.
Baffled by names
by B.J. Adams, Washington, DC, USA
Names of colors have always baffled me. The same name in a different brand of paint, whether it is oil, acrylic, or watercolor is almost never the same. Different brands of colored pencils have the same problem. Since my work consists primarily with sewing thread most often over a painted canvas where there never is the color I need, I have to mix several threads. I find that numbers on the thread spool do away with all those names and I wish they did have a reference name. However, here, when the manufacturer repeats the same number with each batch of thread the color has changed. Thinking of all the colors in your cigar, which ought to be a simple medium brown, and is not, I think of an orange, an orange orange. When I was painting one first in colored pencil and then in thread, I don’t believe I used a true clear orange in either.
by Karen Pettengill, Pownal, ME, USA
Your insight on the language barrier translating into art and particularly color interpretation strikes a familiar chord. I’m a self taught artist and have no classical training in color mixing… don’t even ask what colors I use in my paintings. The colors I choose and when I choose to use them comes from the gut and is purely instinctual. I push color intensity and hue in most of my paintings and I’ve been asked to teach but how can I do that when I don’t know where this comes from? Until the last few years I yearned to go to art school and learn to mix colors from a technical stand point but the color palette I use is unique to me and expresses what I can’t seem to say in words. Color mixing is a gift or a learned skill or both. I’m sticking with my colors, they speak volumes for me.
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Different roads, same result
by Terry Rempel-Mroz, Ottawa, ON, Canada
I have always been able to ‘see’ colours, what they are composed of, how to match colours, without knowing the theory behind them. My ‘natural talent’ helped immensely when I was a paper and book conservator as I could match any colour in any medium. My sister, accomplished watercolourist, knows colour theory inside out and thinks in language terms about the mixtures required. Seldom arriving at the same time, we arrive at the same end result from different roads. For me, consciously using colour theory interferes many times, but it also helps when I am at an impasse. I do think one can learn to see colours truthfully, you need to have a good teacher and be prepared to work at it — but it is never beyond reach.
Letting go of labels
by Monika Dery, Hinton, AB, Canada
I teach the odd batik workshop and make sure that I bring a colour wheel and colour info for mixing but I don’t really understand it myself. My way of planning ahead is to buy all the colours that I love and be done with it. I have about 30 or 40 absolutely beautiful tubes of high quality paint, three of which I’ve memorized because I can’t be without them: Prussian blue, Turquoise and Payne’s Gray. Somehow my paintings turn out well and people seem to love them, love the colours, love the vibrancy. This tells me that I must be doing something right. From now on I won’t be obsessing about colour names and whether or not I’ve got the right combinations.
Biased eyes and blessed genes
by Gerry Conley, Seattle, WA, USA
It is my belief that two of the factors at play, color perception and color memory, are at least partially genetic. My wife has better color perception and memory than I do. She can go to a store and buy a scarf that exactly matches the color of a dress at home. Few people can look at a color and match it by mixing that color in a separate pile even if that pile is close to the first. That is why we have to put a spot of the second color on top of the first. I used to think of this as “failing” and that would disappear with experience. Now, I accept it as a fact of life.
I do believe that lack of color vocabulary holds us back as painters. When I started painting, I was thrilled to expand my vocabulary to the range offered by the names on my paint tubes. I have been most impressed with the solution offered and implemented by Richard Schmid as described in his fantastic book, Alla Prima: Everything I Know About Painting, Stove Prairie Press. With his fellow students he spent two weeks creating color charts. The design is a chart for every pallet color pair, using a grid 11 wide by 5 deep. The top of the chart is pure pigment, pure color 1 on the left most corner, and pure color 2 on the right most corner and a 50/50 mix in the middle. Then these colors are tinted down with white in the next 4 squares. He then carried his charts with him for two years or more and learned to be able to perceive colors as to family mixtures and degree of tinting so that he could recognize a color by its place in his charts. Michael Wilcox, author of many color books including Blue and Yellow Don’t Make Green, carries on with this theme. Each square can be coded with its grid position, i.e. 6b for example in the pairing of Alizarin with Ultramarine blue. This process permits one to create a color vocabulary that is highly detailed and also gets at how to make that color.
Although I did learn a lot from making those charts, I haven’t sustained the effort. They could be particularly helpful for color strategy formulation of studio paintings but for me the plein air situation is different. In the tradition of an Arts Student League master painter, I was taught that I should go into the field with 10 tubes of personally prepared formulaic greens. Even with 10 greens I never had the ones I needed to match what I was seeking to paint. Humans can distinguish 30,000 different greens, more than any other color. No wonder I didn’t have the right ones!
The physics of color gets into the fact that we are not good at “true” color recognition because our eye structure biases us to see certain colors in preference over others. For example a candle emits more red light than yellow light, but we see it as yellow because we are biased to see yellow in preference to red. We see blue when there is even more violet in the sky because we are biased to see blue, but in the evening light as the proportion of blue declines we can see the violet.
Further, light is scattered but not randomly, explaining why the sky is blue overhead and lightest at the horizon, and why sunsets are red. But scattering also explains why there tends to be such a mixture of colors at any given time. Also, the physics of the mind explains that we can significantly change what we see by being attentive and really exploring the colors that exist before us. We are basically programmed not to see what we don’t look for.
Words can stifle creativity
by John Rocheleau, Kelowna, BC, Canada
You said, “The human eye is most often a prisoner of language.” I would alter that to say, “We humans are a prisoner of language.” Language is necessary for communication between people where it is intended to be word oriented audible, but language is not necessary for any communication that is rendered visually. If we employ language and words when we are alone with our work and not intending to speak, then those words in our head become a serious limitation.
For just a moment, try to imagine what it might be like to work without thinking in words. If you can eliminate words from your thought processes, you will eliminate the limitation that words produce. Words can only describe a tiny slice of experiential reality. If you think in words to describe your creative thoughts — be it colour mixing or anything else — you will instantly kill them, or at the very least stop them from becoming what they may.
The moment you introduce words into your thought processes you “fix” them; you impose the limitations of the accepted meaning of those words upon your creative thoughts. If on the other hand, you can let go of all the words in your thinking, you will experience your full range of creative thought.
Until 15 years ago, I never thought in words unless I was formulating something that required them. My thought processes were completely perceptual. Without words to define and confine them, my thoughts were allowed to blossom to whatever natural beauty and power they carried. Having experienced this transition to thinking in words now, I feel qualified to comment on the value of words in thought compared to eliminating words from creative thought. In my opinion it is best to let the words go. Be free to perceive, feel, intuit, and act. Meditation practice can help you in letting go of the words.
Can anyone name the original artist of this painting? I painted this piece for my mother 24 years ago from a print she sent me possibly from the “National Gallery” at Trafalgar Square in London. The painting has come back to me and when I view it in my living room I feel my mother’s love. Such is the power of art and colour. The value of words comes into play now.
Enjoy the past comments below for Talking about colour…
Persimmons on Purple
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Brad Greek of Mary Esther, FL, USA, who wrote, “I haven’t been able to name most colors that I’ve mixed nor do I care to try. I know that I’ve given my printer fits trying to color balance my work as prints. You can spend a life time mixing colors and never reach the end.”
And also, Susan Marx of Orange, NJ, USA, who wrote, “To the untrained eye mist and fog are ‘gray.’ However, there are no blacks, whites, or grays in nature.”
And also, John Smith of Durban North, South Africa, who wrote, “Most people do not see ‘things’ let alone colours. When opening an exhibition a friend of mine stated that 90% of all people only have eyes so they do not bang into things.”