Sunday, December 23, 2007

Color Sundays

Every Sunday over the next few months, I’ll be presenting ideas about color. Color is a vital subject, but it’s usually not taught very well in most books or in most schools.

Over the last half century, the teaching of color has been dominated by abstract theory. The attempt to objectify color is part of the legacy of modernism. Most color classes have you endlessly painting color swatches or analyzing paint pigments.

While there’s some usefulness to these dry exercises, they don’t help you much in the real world of painting a landscape, designing a graphic novel, or planning an animated film. It would be like teaching music by only teaching the scales, and never getting to the melody.

Color doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s vitally connected to the physics of light and atmosphere. And it has to be considered in relation to our quirky subjective human color perception. Color affects our mood and emotions in ways that recent science is just beginning to explain.

Let’s begin with a couple of basic questions: What does color add to a picture? What would happen if you took color away? If you drained all the color out of Cotopaxi by Frederic Church, you could still tell that you’re looking at the sun setting behind the ash cloud of a volcano.

Or if you removed the color from this picture of two fighting pirates by NC Wyeth, you could still make out the action and the setting clearly enough.

But when you bring on the color, the Church painting hits you with a tidal wave of feeling, a resounding sense of doom.

And Wyeth’s painting suddenly surges with music, romance, and adventure.

Tone may be the root and branch of an image, but color is its fruit and flower.

Color touches something deep in us. I believe that the teaching of color theory has to take all this feeling into account. As artists, we need to know how we can make the most of color, how we can make it express what we want—drama, melancholy, passion, lyricism. Good color has more impact than just about any other aspect of our work.

Whether you paint landscapes, comics, illustration, landscapes, or animation, check out the upcoming Sunday posts.


Erik Bongers said...

In between the lines of many of your posts on art schools I seem to detect a little frustration : "Why wasn't I taught all these things that I put forward in these post at school?"
Of course, under those circumstances one can later proudly say "I am an autodidact !", but still, the once eager to learn young boy cannot forget and remains hungry.
Many of the replies to the art-tips-and-hints posts are in the trend of "I learned so much more from this blog then from...!"

In this specific post you are a little more specific in your criticism. I agree with the analisys: up to a point modern art has sort of dismissed all predecessors. Especially in art schools this seems to be the very noticable.
But from your records on art school visits, I conclude things are not that bad. They are much worce in Europe !
Two examples :
1. No anatomy class. I remember a professor of the model class asking the students if anyone was interested in anatomy class : if enough interest, he would organize brief sessions during lunch breaks.
Supprizingly many studens were interested but due to the fact that this was not an 'official' class it didn't last very long.
2. During an evaluation of my drawings a professor hesitated at remarking that my drawings were rather...academic.
I'm not sure how it is in the US but at our side of the ocean 'academic' is an insult, hence his hesitation. He looked very surprised when he saw a smile on my face: for me it was a compliment !

Marc Hudgins said...

Thank you so much for this! I am looking forward to following this thread.

By chance do you read John(Ren and Stimpy)Kricfalusci's blog All Kinds of Stuff?

Although he lacks your gentleness of tone, he seems to be on a similar crusade, which is to say, there is a massive body of knowledge about the practice of art be it painting or animation, and it seems to have been lost at some point, and by God, I'm going to do my best to help rediscover this stuff. I think you might get a kick out of his writing.

I recently read an interesting observation that much of the established academic knowledge of painting that stretches back to the renaissance has largely been forgotten and ignored in the west in favor of "modern" thinking. The ironic thing about it though is that much of that knowledge was preserved in the communist countries, where modern art was seen as perverse and contrary to the ideals of the state.

From a site selling tutorial videos:

"For the past two decades, many of the finest artists to enter the American art scene hail from China. The period of modernism held no influence over Chinese art schools, whose mentors were the Russian schools set up in the first half of the 20th Century. Ironically, the beauty and power of late 19th Century, western, realist art was saved by the Communist regime of the Soviet Union when it banned all modern art from its schools and Universities.

Despite great suppression of artistic experimentation, Western representative art was sanctioned and encouraged, and used to spread communist propaganda through the images of happy, working class figurative art to a people who could understand the painted images these paintings represented.

While our Western art culture disintegrated into abstraction and paint thrown on canvases with no content, the Russians and Chinese continued the study and practice of classical painting. With the easing of tensions between China and the West, many of the Chinese, trained in the classical style practiced by the Russians, immigrated to the United States and brought their long-lost expertise to America.

Patrick Dizon said...

This is a great introduction! I remember back in art school during my "color theory" class, we did not do any actual painting. I only remembered doing so many color swatches that bored the heck out of me.And when it was time for me to take a "still life" painting class, I was so lost.

I'll be looking forward for more of this. Thank you very much, sir!

Anonymous said...

hello james,

have you ever or will you ever offer any classes?

and you should post another contest! i need to win some free dinotopia stuff!

Dan Gurney said...

Hi Jim,

I hope that in future posts you'll share what you know about what scientists are discovering about how color affects moods and emotions.

We all have some rudimentary familiarity with this: blues being associated with sadness and coolness; reds with anger and so forth. Our language opens a window into this: "I saw red," we'll say to convey our anger; or, "I'm feeling a little blue today," to convey sadness.

But I am curious about and ignorant of what science has to say about this. About all I know is that visual processing occurs at the back of the brain and emotions are processed in the limbic area. I wonder how it all gets connected and whether we associate emotions with colors consistently, or whether there's a lot of variance among individuals and/or cultures.

I find your blog really compelling and look forward to reading it every day.

And, also, I noticed you've reorganized it. It's just getting better and better.

Thanks for blogging, bro.



K. W. Broad said...

Haha, you described every art class I've ever taken. I can't tell you how many color wheels I've painted, or sheets of swatches, and yet I still knew nothing of color until I started painting on my own time and seeing how it interacted. I definitely look forward to your advice for it these coming Sundays!

Paolo Rivera said...

Color is probably my favorite subject within painting, so I look forward to hearing everything you've got to say on it. I've always admired your approach to it and would appreciate your insights.

I also enjoy learning about it from a scientific perspective and can suggest Richard Dawkins The Ancestor's Tale. The chapter on the Howler Monkey was of special interest to me because it tracks the evolution of color sight through gene duplications. While there's no substitute for painting practice, learning about the physics and biology behind color vision has been a great help.

Anonymous said...


Yes, color provides " spirit " since colors are also ; as perfumes are " wavelenght "... Thus they indicate us the nature of what they come accross to our eyes...
soft material, leaves, hair, feathers....

colors are the laugh of the light for spiritual humans... right ?

Thanks for attention, Best wishes