Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Some Thoughts on Color...

Artists attending a major art conference were asked by International Artist magazine about their thoughts on color.  I’ve often heard quiltmakers say how they’re seduced by color, how they design with color and that color is the main driving force in their work, so I was very interested to see how these professional painters responded to questions about developing a strong understanding of how to use color.

One artist noted that what held major historical works of art together was drawing, form, value and temperature rather than color and so her recommendation was that it was important to develop a full understanding of value first,  then temperature and only then should one begin work with hue but even at that point try stick to a fairly limited palette.

This is only one person’s opinion of course, and about painting – a different medium – but could this advice be relevant to quiltmakers?  What d’you think?  There are a few quiltmakers well known for their lavish  and undisciplined use of color  and their work is much loved by many quiltmakers.   Are quilts a medium apart?  Where unrestrained color is perfectly acceptable?  I think few of us would be happy with interior design that used many different fully saturated colors!!  And we wouldn’t wear an outfit consisting ofa lime green skirt and a pink top with orange tights and purple shoes and a red hat…or would we??!!

A second artist also stated that he thought that value was more important than color: “all aspiring artists should develop a great understanding of value”.  He felt that color was more intuitive but also more ephemeral and evanescent.

I usually try to work with value: 
 the photo of the neighbourhood pond..

and below, on the right,  a desaturated photo of the quilt I made about the pond...

  The great artist John Singer Sargent wrote:
 “Color is an inborn gift, but appreciation of values is merely training of the eye, which everyone ought to be able to acquire”.
 Anyone can learn to see values.  You don’t have to be born with an amazing talent for it, instead experience and analysis, training and devoted exercise will gain you the skill. Furthermore, a full appreciation of color harmony, often crucial to the piece, can and should also be developed.

A third painter had similar views: in order of importance he felt the artist should carefully consider:
1. placement
2. value
3. edge
4. temperature
Placement refers to the importance of positioning the big shapes so that they relate interestingly and harmoniously.
 Value is the lightness or darkness of each shape or area.
 Edge refers to whether or not the edges of the shapes are crisp and clear, or whether they’re “lost” by being surrounded by similar values.  Paula Nadelstern is an absolute master of lost edges with her kaleidoscope quilts; Ellen Oppenheimer has also used lost edges frequently in her optical illusion quilts.
 Temperature refers to whether the mood of the artwork has been carefully set by  a dominantly warm or cool combination of colors.

   Very interestingly, this artist’s opinion was that frequently when people thought they had a problem with choosing the wrong color for a certain area, it was not actually the color that was the problem, but rather one of  these four things.  I’m sure this is true for I’ve seen people try color after color after color for a certain area – “I just can’t find the right fabric!”  Maybe they would have been better off checking placement or value?  Something to think about next time you’re stuck!!  If you can’t identify the right question, you can’t find the right answer.

This painter went on to say that there was usually no one correct answer when it came to color questions.  As long as the four important steps (above) were correct, then probably any color could be chosen.  I’ve tried to put this thought across in workshops and most people are really receptive to green skies or pink grass, but some people continue hold out for the “traditional” (but not necessarily artistically correct!) colors.
The actual color you choose should depend more on the mood and the feeling you’re trying to convey rather than the local color of the item being depicted.

Another important point that was made was to “paint the color that you see, not the color that you know”. I remember taking a photograph of holly leaves – holly leaves are dark green, right?  In my photo they were black and white!  Holly leaves are very shiny so they reflect the sky when they’re horizontal (white) and they reflect nothing at all when they’re vertical (black).

I really liked this comment from artist Paul Newton:
“If the aim of [art] is to create a unified visual statement, where all of the components are there to support that single statement, then the thing to avoid is a situation where various passages of the [artwork] fight with each other and destroy that unity.  It is much easier to avoid this pitfall when one uses a limited palette.”

Value value!!  Even da Vinci in painting the Mona Lisa, began by painting it in grey values; only when the composition was fully developed, did he add color.

Something to think about! 
And if you have been, thanks for reading!   Elizabeth
PS I wrote even more about color in my new book Working in a Series, available from me, or from Amazon (they don’t have my signature in the book though!).


elle said...

Value is the one thing I struggle with. I probably just need even more practice but a struggle it is. Maybe I should work in grey for a while! ;)

Unknown said...

I find that if I know what I am 'saying', then I have a lot less problem with the details of color, value, etc. It's when I don't know what I'm saying that I get stuck and nothing works.

Jackie said...

When creating a design, incorporation of values and temperature (warmth or coolness of colors)makes an incredible difference in how the piece comes together. Just follow Elizabeth's method!!!

Sandra Wyman said...

I've always started with value - but then I was married to a painter, who, when I was learning to paint, made me do tone drawings before embarking on a piece and it stuck!
On painting the colour you see I remember doing a piece which included bluebells which looked dead until I actually looked at them and discovered the lightest tones were pink... One trick is to use a viewfinder to isolate part of a photograph - because you don't see something recognisable it enables you to see the colour without the left brain getting in the way!

Kathleen Probst said...

Thought provoking post!

I always think of line first, then color when I am working on a composition. Color is a simply a tool I use to help convey the concept I have in mind.

The list you mention will come in handy when trouble shooting an issue with a piece, thanks. The perspective that something besides color might be the culprit is excellent.

I also want to add that I've learned so much from mixing my own colors for dyeing. I think it has taught me how to really see colors, how to dissect them.

Did you read Robert Genn's last two posts? They were also about about blue and one on yellow. :)

Elizabeth Barton said...

Yes I usually read Robert Genn's Painter's Keys and it's so sad that soon he'll be with us no more.
for me it's usually value that indicates the overall design structure of the piece, whereas the color really helps with the mood.

I like Sandra's idea of focussing in so closely on something that you don't even "name" it so you can just read the color.

Jean S said...

I think because our medium is fabric and cannot easily be adjusted with paint, the tendency is to turn to color as a way to express our thoughts. We must still use value for it is that what gives depth and clarity to our compositions. I have been called a colorist, but without value defining one edge from another, it can quickly become mud.