Tuesday, January 13, 2009

How d’you know what colours to choose?

I’m in the midst of an interesting book on “Colour in Art” by John Gage. It describes the many different ways artists have used to choose the colours in their work. In some cultures of course, Australian aboriginal for example, only certain colours (black (from charcoal), red, white and yellow (from ochre) were available. In medieval times, minerals were ground to make colours and some minerals were very rare and precious, such as lapis lazuli for the gorgeous blues that were so revered. Jacob Lawrence only had access to a few colours of house paint for his series of paintings telling the story of the underground railroad.

At other times the choice of colours was determined by contemporary prevalent colour theory. Painters were fascinated by the idea of the primary colours – which colours actually were primary, and was this in pigment, or in light? Which groupings of colour would add to grey? They painted discs devised by James Clerk Maxwell ( who proved that Saturn’s rings were neither solid, nor liquid but made up of fragments orbiting together) with different colours and spun them rapidly to see if the additive effect was grey.

Interestingly, grey has always been Jasper Johns favorite colour and was the theme of a fabulous show of his paintings at the Met last year – there’s a beautiful catalogue (Gray) available. From the spinning experiments of the 19th century was developed the idea of the complementary colours – one of which is a primary colour, the other a secondary colour made up from the other two primary colours. Then paintings were devised to exploit or reveal these theories.

Jasper Johns painting (False start (1959) demonstrates the effect of words on perception: for most people the written word of the colour overrides the actual perception of colour: eg if I type “red” you see red, not black!

False Start has an interesting history in that it is one of the most expensive paintings by a living artist. It was sold in 1988 for $17 million, and then resold in 2006 to the Chicago hedge-fund manager Kenneth C. Griffin for $80 million.

And, from Aristotle on, artists have realized that the perception of a colour varies tremendously on their context – the surface that bears the colour, the adjacent colours, the ambient light, reflections onto the surface, and the translucence of the surface. As a friend said to me yesterday “your watercolours look so much better on the computer!” – with light shining through them! Quilts often look tremendous hanging on the washing line with the light shining through. I’ve often wondered about making a quilt to be hung in front of the gallery window!

The effect of adjacent colours is fascinating – in my workshops I often suggest people do a few little exercises in simultaneous contrast (putting one colour against several others) so that they can really see how one can affect the other. (Many examples in Josef Albers work). Here's an interesting blog where the writer is exploring some of the ideas from Josef Alber's seminal work: The Interaction of Colour.

Most people know the after-effect phenomenon where if you stare at one colour for a minute or so then look away you will see a image the same shape in the opposite colour. Several artists have deliberately used this in their paintings – of course you have to stand and stare at the painting to wait for the after effect images to appear. It’s fun to do!!

Dan Flavin the artist who works with neon light installations manipulates this effect gorgeously. (if you haven’t been to Dia Beacon, the museum in New York state, that has several of his pieces plus loads of other wonderful work including Warhol’s amazingly beautiful Shadows series, you must go!)

So, choose your colours thoughtfully!, there’s a lot of history, science and philosophy to consider! In a later post I’ll write about how I choose my colour schemes - though in a much less esoteric way I’m afraid!

And, if you have been, thanks for reading!


PS be sure to check out my other blog: Retired elderly quilt looking for a good home!


Michelle said...

Thank you for the comments on color. For me, the most exciting part of making art quilts is when I start to put colors down side by side. I like to start with very dark backgrounds and layer colors on top. The process makes them leap form the surface from the very beginning. I love it when the unexpected happens and then I have to react, maybe with a different color. It's always a mystery and sort of self discovery. I hope my quilts have a little mystery and certainly "light" to allow the veiwer to wonder with delight. Thanks, I always look forward to reading. Michelle

jpsam said...

Another thought-provoking post...and the NYT article about gray and Johns. I have also been reading Albert Paley: Portals & Gates by Jessica Rowe. I picked it up in the new books section of our library, a great resource. I found Paley's sketches and sculptures arresting.

The artist opens herslf to the idea and focuses on exploration...Also, this video http://tinyurl.com/7kfwjb
Thank you, again!

Kay said...

You reminded me that I bought that book a while back while traveling, but haven't read it. I will get it out today. I find Whistler's use of color fascinating: so many neutrals and almost monochromatic color schemes.