color theory

Thinking About Color

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.

Choosing And Mixing Color Resources

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Students

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Choosing and Mixing Color

Pattern showing many possible combinations of blue, yellow and white.

These are colors that lie next to each other on the color wheel.

My popular eight-week class on the deliberate, mindful use of color in painting begins Sept 19 from 1-4 pm. We’ll focus on the application of color knowledge to the work you already do. Use the media of your preference and spend time in class painting and applying the concepts you’ll be learning. Take home color theory exercises designed to teach you about color through experience, not theory. Learn to keep your color options open as your painting progresses. Achieve clarity on the role color plays in your painting or illustration projects.

Format
Introduction to the concept, and short exercise in the first 1.5 hours. Painting – independent application of the concept in the next 1.5 hours. During this time, students are encouraged to pose color challenges for their own work and with the help of their instructor, arrive at multiple strategies to use. Optional homework will be assigned on some weeks.

Registration
Do not register on this website, because Choosing and Mixing Color is part of the Richmond Art Center’s Studio Program.  Go to the RAC site instead and register after July 31. The RAC asks that you please register before the first class on Sept 19.

Outline
Session 1 – Sept 19
Introductions. Goals for this class. Discussion of personal goals. Review of materials and supplies. The nature and quality of seven basic pigments. Warm and cold colors.

Sept 26 – No Class

Session 2 – Oct 3
Making secondaries, chromatic blacks and greys with synthetic and natural hues.

Session 3 – Oct 10
Mixing browns and flesh tones. Purple, violet, pink and lavender.

Session 4 – Oct 17
The important role of muted colors. How to mute saturated colors. Tints and shades for creating space and aerial perspective.

Session 5 – Oct 24
Limited palettes for simplicity, unity and easy color matching.

Session 6 – Oct 31
Conveying various moods through color harmonies.

Session 7 – Nov 7
Achieving colors with glazes in watercolor, oil and acrylic.

Session 8 – Nov 14
Light and shadow through the skillful use of color.

Nov 21 – Please reserve this day for a potential make-up session in case I get sick and cannot teach a class.