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Thinking About Color

Photo of a gouache palette
Photo of a watercolor palette

A watercolor tray with a chart that shows how the colors behave on paper.

“I just start painting very excitedly and the last thing I think about is my palette. Most of the time, composition keep me so busy I completely forget about color.”
“I feel like an outsider during visits to the art store. I must be the only person in the universe that does not know what colors to buy!”
“My palette is so garish. Everything looks fine in the beginning but when I finish I see my colors are too bright for my taste.”

Color is one of the dimensions of design that seems the most inscrutable. While almost everyone can appreciate size, texture and contrast, color perception is highly individual. To complicate matters, as humans we have developed a series of terms to discuss color that vary enormously from person to person. Then there’s color theory. Some of us were taught color theory as a means to learn those specialized color concepts such as the law of simultaneous contrast. Others just remember the tedious exercises.

Photo of four flower still lives

Student Diane Platner tried out four different color harmonies for this subject.

Is there a way to make sense of color that is friendlier to the average art learner? I would say there are many, but what they all have in common is that they all involve today’s most precious commodity: time. “Serious” art students have for decades gravitated towards instructors with a mastery over color. Those instructors have in turn passed on their methods for making color decisions very much like passing on a recipe. Those students adopt those methods and use them forever.

Then there is the rare instructor who has developed their own teaching technique for helping students figure out color relationships on their own. Some host wonderful, meaningful studio discussions and others, like Josef Albers, have developed interesting exercises to stimulate this type of individual discovery. These two approaches require the context of a class in order for a student to have time to ponder what color is all about. In short, there is no quick and dirty method to “learn color” overnight.

Photo of a finished exercise with two limited palettes.

I send these exercises home as a way for students to experience a limited palette.

All of this would have no meaning if a students is not allowed to engage in the most important aspect of color learning for an artist, which is to integrate this new knowledge into the work they like to do. In my opinion, the only reason we learn about color is to develop and enhance our voice as visual artists. Questions like the role that color plays in our work, the mood that color variations bring to a painting, the importance that adopting a given palette might have or not have. This is why we would take a class, to engage in this type of thinking. No instructor can answer these questions for us. A good teacher will provide the space to answer them.

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Rebeca Garcia-Gonzalez avatar

Rebeca Garcia-Gonzalez is the author of these posts and the instructor at Rebeca’s Art Classes. She completed her BFA at the University of Puerto Rico and moved to SF seeking to complete an MFA. She did her graduate studies in education instead but continued painting. Later she served as program administrator in a couple of non-profits, After a position as Deputy Director of the Richmond Art Center, she is now painting and teaching full-time and loving it!

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