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16 Lessons in Color Theory

Lesson #15

Many of you will be pleased to know that we are getting near the end of our discussion on color theory and application. I hope to have this series pretty well wrapped up with this lesson and the next. As with any of the lesson series, if, after you have finished the series, you still have questions, simply e-mail me and we will continue one-on-one.


Whatever is visible to the normal human eye must have color as well as form and size. We say that water and clear glass are colorless, but that's only true in physics or when we use a nice sheet of glass in a window or in a picture frame. Even in these cases, a truly perceptive eye notices differences between objects seen through the glass, and the same objects viewed without the glass.


Above all, both glass and water reflect the colors of their surroundings. In large masses, they also have colors of their own. You may not see from a distance whether a clear glass contains water or not but you do see the glass. You couldn't see it at all if the glass were really colorless.

You see water in rivers, lakes, the sea, and in swimming pools. As a matter of fact, such masses of water are quite colorful, because they change according to the sky, the sun, and the clouds. They also change according to the depth of the water, from light green to deep blue. The physicist takes a drop of water and calls it colorless. You can, however, paint a drop of water spilled on the table. How could you, if that drop of water were colorless?

There's a big difference between the visual appearance of colors and the basic, original, what we call local colors of objects. This is true in the same way that there's a big difference between the visual appearance of form as opposed to the diagrammatic shapes by which we remember the same forms. Thus, a cube painted light blue is a geometric object with six square sides of the identical size, all painted exactly the same light blue. Yet, when you look at such a cube from an angle, you never see more than two sides and the top or bottom; and none of these three visible sides is square, visually. Neither does the light blue color appear the same on those three sides. In a normal light coming from one source shadows are created on two of the three visible sides.

This, of course, is the foundation of traditional Western art: painstaking observation and rendering of visual facts, an understanding of perspective, light and shadow, proportions, so that the result is a completely three dimensional appearance of figures, scenes, and objects depicted. It's not the only kind of art, though. for the last hundred and fifty years, the West has gone through a great many different styles or schools of art, some of which eliminated many of the traditional principles until certain artists painted absolutely unrecognizable, nonexistent forms. Perhaps as a reaction to the seemingly - though not always actually - haphazard types of painting, the 1960's saw the introduction of what is generally called Op art.


Linear and color illusions are all around us. A suit, or dress makes its wearer appear to be less fat or less slender than he or she really is. We see dark spots jumping like mad when we turn to the shady side of the street after having looked at the bright, sunny side. We look at two houses in a project - where each house is exactly like the other in size and shape, but the colors of the doors and roofs are different - and we believe that the light yellow door is bigger than the dark green door, although they are the same in size. These are everyday illusions, playing tricks on our eyes.

Painting itself is s great optical illusion. (art is not life, it is the illusion of life) Many of the large murals created during the Renaissance and the Baroque are so absolutely lifelike that you think they're the real things. It seems as if you could walk up the stairs, behind the tables, between the columns and shake hands with the people depicted in those paintings. While artists have employed optical illusions for centuries as integral parts of their subjects, op art deifies the optical illusion itself, and makes it the supreme goal of art.

The op artist works with color as well as line and pattern. He adds the color illusions to the linear illusions known since the age of ancient Greece. One of the best known of these artists, Josef Albers, painted a series he called Homage to the Square - paintings consisting exclusively of squares: a few squares in one painting; many of them in another, bigger and smaller squares, in various colors, diverse patterns; squares closer to, or farther from each other; squares closer to one side than to the other. He succeeded in creating peculiar illusions. The squares appear to be moving or sliding; some appear to move forward, others go back and forth. You feel you are in a tunnel with doors and windows opening and closing in front of you. There are moments when you're sure one of the squares changes places with another. Albers manipulated these illusions with the help of colors, sizes, and spacing.

This isn't easy to explain. for some baffling reason, cool colors seem to float, for example. The danger of painting blue lies in this optical fact. According to a clever anecdote, Sir Joshua Reynolds, who had very positive opinions on all subjects, preached to his students never to use blue for an important section of a painting, because blue floats. Thomas Gainsborough, who had a running feud with Sir Joshua, heard this and promptly dashed off the full length portrait of Master Buttall. The young man was painted in a blue garment to prove that blue may well be used as the main color in a painting. We now know this painting all over the world as The Blue Boy. (We also happen to know that this work was done ten years before Reynolds ever declared that blue must not be employed, but its a good story, anyway!!) And it's quite true that blue seems to float forward, while many other hues recede. What the anecdote fails to tell you is that Gainsborough used a dark, somewhat subdued blue, not a light and bright shade of blue.


When the eye is fixed on a pattern in which two main forms, designs, and/or colors alternate, the eye tends to see only one of the forms; or the two forms seem to be in a kind of constant motion or vibration. An example of this optical illusion is a stairway, drawn in linear prospective in such a way that the tread and riser of each step are visible. Stare at the drawing for a few seconds, and you'll begin to wonder if the steps are going down or up. You aren't sure, ever.


Some forms or gadgets of optical art have been employed in window displays to attract the attention of passers-by, years before artists did "op art". One of the best known of these attractions was, and still is, the wavelike spiraling design, reaching from floor to ceiling, revolving on a pivot. It gives the sensation of something being drilled into the ceiling, or into the floor. The sensation depends upon which direction happens to attract your eyes first. One side of the spiral is one color, the other side another color. There's something fascinating about such seemingly endless motion, even if it's meaningless from an aesthetic viewpoint. It's not necessarily meaningless, though; it may well serve an artistic purpose. And that's where the painter comes in. The painter ought to be wide awake and see what's going on in this ever-changing world. Neither optical illusion nor the idea of motion is new to painters.


The impressionists tried to paint motion by working in a sketchy manner, without definite outlines. They left their form blurred to indicate people and carriages passing by. The Futurists, early in the twentieth century, emphasized motion. They depicted it by showing persons and animals with many legs and arms, each arm and leg in a slightly different position; wheels of carriages would be shown as overlapping circles or ellipses, if seen from an angle. Their idea was very much like the multi-exposure camera, which takes a large number of pictures over a period of a few seconds on one-and-the-same film.

In advertising and comic strips, artists indicate speed, or running with the so-called speed lines; shorter and longer lines drawn across the person or animal in the opposite direction from the one in which he is dashing. Perhaps you'll discover a way to utilize the revolving effect of the spiraling forms in your painting. You might have a subject in which this spiral would fit. One never knows. As I said before, the artist should accumulate all kinds of knowledge, material, and skill so that, when the time comes, he should be able to act promptly as well. Artists make sketches of odds and ends. They may never use some of these sketches, but it's good to have them. They may give inspiration in some unexpected direction. The Impressionists taught us how to observe colors in real life, instead of learning about them in a studio. The Impressionists proved that colors are innumerable, that they can be made to sparkle, that they can create a feeling of space and air, that we can show in colors what time of day the painting was executed. Op art might teach you how to paint more striking effects. It can show you how a slight change in size, shape, color, and value might make the difference between a fine and interesting painting and a poor and dull one.


There can be hardly any question about the fact that humans want to express themselves. Psychologists, psychiatrists, and psychoanalysts all over the world deal with this problem. We know through the efforts of these professionals that some self-expression is ugly, some is beautiful. Art, of course - every branch of art - is considered a wonderful way of expressing yourself, because it's creative work, based on your personality as well as your knowledge, skill, and temperament.


We find pure line drawings on the walls of prehistoric caves and lines scratched by prehistoric artists into flat pieces of bone. Man used geometric patterns in his artifacts, based on previous construction methods. Clay pots, for instance, were decorated to resemble basket-weave. At the height of Athenian civilization, magnificent vases still had rows of such basket-weave design. In the aboriginal art of New Zealand, lines evolved into admirably graceful spirals that vie in artistry with any decoration created in any of the world's greatest civilizations.

Obviously, man was always able to depict objects in lines, but he also liked colors and added them to his images at an early age. Unquestionably, color was meant to be realistic in recognizable forms and figures, with the sole exception of the Etruscans. Those people loved color for its own sake, and employed it in a cheerful, often witty manner. For example, they painted every part of a horse in a different hue. The colors of the Etruscans might well be considered a true form of self-expression. they expressed their joy of life, their belief that we ought to take advantage of all the beauties and pleasures of this earth while we're alive. The ancient Egyptians, on the other hand, believed that whatever paintings and sculpture they placed in their tombs - depiction's of slaves, fruits, cattle, boats, musicians - would be real in the hereafter. Their aim was to paint as many of these as possible, neatly, but diagrammatically, with all the important features shown.

In all ancient civilizations, including Greek and Roman, statues were painted in realistic colors. In Japan, the custom survived until modern times. In the Western world, statues were colored through the Gothic period, and, very often, during the Renaissance as well. In ancient Rome, good children, who practiced ancestor worship, had to repaint the often unsurpassed portrait busts of their parents every other year, the way good landlords are supposed to repaint apartments at regular intervals.


Neither line, nor color inherently expresses personal emotions or feelings. The idea that art, especially painting, is self-expression, is very recent and quite misleading. It's true that painting is self-expression, but so is everything else we do. The way we sit, stand, walk, or recline; the way we eat, talk, act, and behave, is all self-expressive. Words, oral or written, are the most complete form of self-expression. It's surely easier for an articulate person to express his ideas, opinions, thoughts, and beliefs in words than in painting.

Jackson Pollock is credited with the introduction of automatic art, also called abstract expressionism, or the New York School. This is a kind of painting in which paint is dripped, hurled, or squirted on the support, without any advance idea, without any composition or subject matter. Hans Hofmann is generally credited with, or accused of, having introduced the now often-heard motto, addressed to art students: "Don't worry about drawing, perspective, composition, and other old-fashioned nonsense. Just express yourself. Paint the way you feel!!"

The concept that art and self-expression are synonymous has spread far and wide. Many lay people now believe that prehistoric man painted animals in his caves just to express himself, and "to express his decorative sense, his innate desire for beauty." Psychologists and anthropologists, however, studying primitive tribes, have concluded that art has evolved for discernible reasons, such as magic, pacifying or warding off spirits, and had nothing to do with self-expression as we understand the term today.


Certain psychoanalysts assert they can tell your character and your complexes from the colors you employ and the manner in which you apply them. If you use much green and purple, working with a big palette knife, leaving hard edges and ridges all over the painting, you supposedly reveal that you hate your mother. If you work with blues, grays, and yellows, blending them softly into each other, this supposedly divulges your innermost secret, that you wish you were shorter than you actually are. A psychoanalyst would charge you three hundred dollars a session for discovering what deeply-buried, ancestral problems cause you to paint spots, and curlicues, or tall, thin figures, or long bananas, and golden delicious apples. The fact is that inspiration may be spontaneous; that is, you may suddenly get an idea for painting or any other kind of art. But the execution itself is never haphazard. It must be deliberate. a genuine artist does everything for an esthetic purpose. His subject, colors, technique are all deliberate. If he prefers one way of painting to another, that's because it intrigues him or inspires him, not because he has a complex. He has his own personality, to be sure, but he's likely to select his favorite subject matter and technique accordingly. Nobody can be more temperamental than Michelangelo was. He resented the Pope's order to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and accused his enemies of having caused the Pope to force him to do a job he wasn't equipped to do. Yet, enraged though he was, he created a masterpiece. An artist probably won't start a happy subject when he happens to be in a depressed mood. He may very well give vent to his feelings in his work, but it must still always remain under his firm, artistic control.


A good artist, like a good writer, identifies himself with the mood of his subject, without losing himself in it. Years ago, I watched a terrific downpour from my studio in Fort Lauderdale. The rain really came down in buckets. Although it was afternoon, the day turned almost dark as night. The rainwater was cascading down the panes of my casement windows. I was thinking of artists of a past generation, living in leaky garrets. My studio wasn't leaky. I felt safe, but I also felt like a prisoner. The steel frames of my window truly resembled the bars of a jail cell.

The next morning, I painted the scene and it turned out to be a most interesting, though surely not a pleasant picture. Strangely enough, seven years later, someone fell in love with it and purchased it. The buyer took it to Central Europe, and showed it to a friend of mine I hadn't seen in many years. This friend was in psychoanalysis at the time. After one look at the painting, she wrote me a letter, desperately urging me to dash to the nearest psychoanalyst; I need immediate help, she wrote. "This painting reveals the most dreadful mood of depression. You feel like a man in jail. A good psychoanalyst might still help you get out of this terrible feeling of hopelessness and frustration if you act promptly!" Well, I didn't need any psychological care. As a matter of fact, I was proud that several years after I painted the picture, and many miles away, someone could look at it and find in it the exact mood I recreated in it. I had expressed my mood. That isn't despair or sickness of the mind. It's art. I identified myself with my subject, even though I didn't like my subject. If I had been painting nothing but downpours for the past twenty years, that would be a different proposition.


Nobody can deny that people respond to colors or color combinations, but different kinds of people respond differently to the same color effects. An all-day rain is depressing to city-dwellers, for many reasons. They cannot go out, they cannot get a taxi; they don't like to go to a party smelling of rain. It's also depressing, by an association of ideas, to be surrounded by shades of gray, unrelieved by a single bright spot. A radiantly sunny day and fresh, green vegetation make you feel happy and peppy in the city. For a farmer, on the other hand, rain may mean literal salvation and gray may be a relief from the glaring colors he sees much of the time. A flower garden in full bloom is much more pleasant than a cemetery with gray tombstones, neglected graves. But lovely old trees, flowers, bouquets, in a well kept cemetery, a blue sky peeping through the foliage, can change the aspect of the graveyard and lend it a feeling of peace, calm, and security. In other words, colors, like everything else, are more complicated than one might surmise, especially because individual differences in our reactions to colors are quite frequent.


There are odd similarities between our mental and physical responses to diverse causes. If you feel angry, you want to hit, tear, or crumple something; but you may become just as vehement and destructive when you're overjoyed. It's easy to assume that an angry artist will slash paint on his canvas in huge heaps, using only the strongest hues and dynamic strokes, while an artist in a mellow mood applies paint gently, using pastel shades. But why shouldn't an artist in a wonderful frame of mind slash bold colors on his canvas?

How can you tell from strokes and colors whether the artist was in a joyous or a nasty mood at the time he did that particular work? This is like assuming that a good-natured author could never write a story about war or the Wild West; and that a temperamental writer could never produce a sentimental novel. One cannot overestimate the power of creativity in an artist. A true artist establishes his own mood, regardless of circumstances.


For many years, I taught painting courses for education majors at a major university (most states require that all teachers know a little about every subject) I always felt sorry for these eighteen to twenty year old people, because most of them lacked artistic talent. They constantly worried about failing the course. I generally succeeded in proving to them that any intelligent person can learn some basic features of painting. All of them managed to produce pictures representing bowls of fruit, vases of flowers, etc, done in the most naive perspective, but fully recognizable, often genuinely charming. The greatest success, however, was the project of "expressing themselves." I told them to paint hatred and love, for instance; the way they feel under the stress of such emotions. I gave them complete freedom. Working on poor quality paper, with children's poster colors and brushes, the students went all out on this project. The results weren't exactly artistic, but they were interesting, sometimes puzzling or amusing, often quite revealing, and not at all uniform in concept.


Hatred was most often signified by black and/or green, with a streak of yellow lightning, or a yellow arrow. One student painted red spots all over the paper, with a snakelike black stripe in the center. One girl used red spots and a black heart. To both of them, red spots meant drops of blood. Several students painted yellow and red flames for hatred, but black was almost always included in one form or another. love was also often symbolized by flames, but blue replaced black or green. Drops of blood meant love to some, hatred to others. A red heart, pink, and light blue swirls, and yellow discs appeared as expressions of love. Many students painted a sort of explosion - black and green for hate, red and blue for love. They never included green and black in expressing love.


Another project in this class was to express a depressed mood and a happy one. Sadness was mostly depicted in black and gray, in big splotches of wavy shapes. But many students considered blue the true sign of sadness. They explained that blue was inevitable, because one cannot be in love without feeling blue once in a while. I found their logic interesting. A festive mood was expressed in a diversity of manners. Manifestly, there are more ways of feeling happy than of feeling sad. Yellow zigzag lines with green and orange dots, "dancing" lines in red, light blue, green, crosses or check marks in bright hues, painted in a big bunch in the center of the paper, were some of the expressions of being happy. One girl painted big red strokes across the paper. "When I'm in a happy mood, I feel like painting the town red," was her explanation.

It was all great fun but, curiously, and even though I purposely asked no verbal questions, every student was anxious to explain their self-expression in detail. None of them believed that their work spoke for itself, without a verbal explanation.


The question is still in my mind: did my education majors really, honestly express themselves in color? Or did they express standard sentiments, commonplace beliefs, clichés, rather than emotions? Did they express themselves in a personal fashion? Didn't they merely do the expected, rather than the expressive? In many cases, it would have been impossible for me to tell the difference between love and hatred, not because the two extremes may in reality be as close to each other as madness and genius, but because of the inability of the students to express themselves in color, whereas each of them was quite able to express their feelings orally.

My tests with non-professional painters don't prove that self-expression in painting is impossible. But if there are so many different ways of expressing the same basic human feelings can there be a complete and absolute understanding of any kind of self-expression, even if produced by a talented, skilled artist?


Some people believe art is a universal language. I don't think so. Art is a language, a most eloquent one, but you still have to learn it, just as you learn your mother tongue and any other language. Subject matter can be mystifying, regardless of its realistic nature. Biblical scenes are meaningless to persons not familiar with the Bible. Scenes of cruel martyrdom can be repulsive to Buddhists, for example, who abhor cruelty. Scenes from the Ajanta caves of India are meaningless, overcrowded, and even ugly to the uninitiated Westerner.

Colors, themselves, have various meanings, as I stated before. Black is a sign of dignity as well as death. White represents virginity in the West, mourning in the East. It also means surrender, capitulation. Yellow, the color of cowardice, jealousy, or disease in the Western world, signifies happy springtime in India.

No, art is not a universal language. Rather, it's a group of languages. You have to learn all of them if you wish to understand art and artists, and if you want to express yourself in painting in colors.