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Using Color

Photo of the color class in action.

For years I have been trying to figure out how to teach a good class on the use of color. Not about color theory (which is useless without being able to apply the concepts) but about the use of color. You see, I think most of us use color rather mindlessly. I mean that we give little thought to how might we deploy this element to service our artistic goals.

Photo of a watercolor palette

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

And, to be fair, I can’t blame people for focusing on the technical aspect of this huge topic. It is extremely easy to become overwhelmed with all the technical information out there. Some friends of mine have used the verb “drown” when they talk about navigating the ocean of color supplies, advice, paraphernalia, terms, theory, research, and safety warnings about its use.

But it should all boil down to this simple, essential question: “how should I use color to service my artistic goals?” The answer lies somewhere between what excites you as an artist (your color goals) and your skill level in deploying color to your service. Sometimes we get frustrated by our use of color but we do not know what we should do instead. Words fail. Our own work does not seem to elicit an answer. While most people are able to voice what they are not satisfied with, it is much harder to name what we want when we haven’t had sufficient experience painting. That’s when I ask my students to look for images of the work of one artist that excites them. Then I ask questions. A while later, their color goals have been articulated. If I still feel they are not clear enough I will re-phase them until the student hears something that sounds like what they want.

Here are some color goals my students have articulated:

  • to know when to use vivid color and when to avoid it
  • to express moods
  • to avoid “mud”
  • to make my painting more lively through color
  • to be able to choose a palette appropriate to the media I use
  • to learn how to limit my palette
  • to learn how to choose pigments I like

Once we go through this, it is much easier to look at our paintings with those goals in mind.

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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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