The Art of Color

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A virtual tour of Parklane Gallery in February, 2021

The Art of Color
by Marne Jensen

The late American artist Georgia O’Keeffe referred to the act of creating successful artwork as “filling a space in a beautiful way.” One of the ways that can take place is the unifying of color and design. When an artist begins the process of creating artwork, color is one of the most important elements.

For an artist, color may be the cornerstone of creating fine art, and there are many books written about color theory: how to use color, which color to use, when and where to use it to create specific results. The effective use of color in artwork is both an art and a science. The study of color has a long history and a specific vocabulary. In painting, an artist who masters the art of color mixing is referred to as a “colorist.” An artist who uses mostly differing values of only a few colors is referred to as a “value painter” and can create powerful scenes using a limited palette. While the results of these two painting styles differ, each has its own established place in the art world. Joined together with other elements in the creation of artwork, such as composition and design, color is very often the first thing that catches your attention when you look at art.

As someone who appreciates art, it’s not necessary to acquire the level of a colorist’s education and experience to be able to enjoy what you see hanging on the walls of a gallery, a museum, or in your home of office. But you might be interested in exploring a bit about some of the specifics of color that bring about the enjoyment you experience when you look at paintings, photography, or glasswork.

The science of color theory exists in marketing, in psychology, and even certain healing modalities. Color scientists know that the human brain reacts in specific ways to certain colors. Warm colors, such as reds and oranges, for instance, tend to stimulate us while cool colors, such as greens and blues, tend to make us feel calm or relaxed. When you first look at a painting or photo, in most cases, it will be the colors that initially catch your attention. As you look at artwork, do you tend to gravitate to bright colors that excite and stimulate, such as a colorful bouquet of flowers, or are you more attracted to the softer hues of an ocean scene?

The study of color begins with the understanding of several things, but at the core of this study for an artist is the color wheel. Why did the artist choose specific colors to tell their story? Chances are they weren’t just random choices. While the colorist employs many colors, the value painter chooses to use different “values” (degrees of light or dark) of only a few colors. This is referred to as a “grey scale” but can be any singular color where many levels of light and dark of that particular color are used. Also, different values of the same color are used by the well-educated artist. For instance, when using the color green in artwork, it’s best to use several values of that green – some areas lighter and some darker – not just the same value of green that you see on the color wheel. And this is where knowledge of color mixing becomes important.

The basic description of a color wheel is a round circle containing 12 segments of specific colors that can be used to create any color. In the traditional color wheel, these 12 segments are divided among warm and cool colors (referred to as color temperature). Paintings that are very dark are sometimes referred to as being low value or low key while a painting using mostly lighter tones, such as pastel colors, would be referred to as a high key or high value artwork. Within the 12 segments, specific combinations of these colors are categorized as primary, secondary, tertiary, analogous, and complementary. Colors can be classified as warm (the left side of the wheel) or as cool (the right side of the wheel).

The three major colors on the wheel are called “primary” colors. These are red, blue and yellow, and they can’t be created by mixing any other colors together. They exist as pure hues and lie in a triangle figuration within the wheel at the position of 12 o’clock, 4 o’clock and 8’o’clock. The secondary colors are those that are created by mixing together any two of the primaries: red and blue make violet, yellow and red make orange, blue and yellow make green. The details of a color wheel can fill a book, so within the space of this article I won’t get into more detail. However, do know that since its development in the 1600s, it has been the detailed compass, or perhaps the abacus, used by artists to create the world’s best fine art. It’s a mathematical layout, and on the basic wheel we always see the purest “value” of each color where it hasn’t been darkened with black (a shade) or lightened with white (a tint). We are only able to see color because of the effects of light. The color black is actually the result of no color, although we can create it with paint or pencil, and the color white is the precise combination of all colors on the wheel. If you rapidly spin a color wheel (like a disk), the colors will blend, and you will see them as white.

While this may be somewhat technical to the non-artist, it is nonetheless crucial information for the artist. They learn, for instance, that complementary colors (those colors that are opposite each other on the wheel) painted onto a surface next to each other tend to enhance each other – they appear to be more vibrant – while the same two colors, if mixed together as wet paint, become a brownish tone. In a painting the artist will choose to lay certain colors side by side, and these aren’t just random choices. It’s the science of color that the best fine artists learn and use to produce their high-quality work. Knowing how to effectively use color to create the impression of distance, of light, of shadow, of dimension, is the result of understanding color theory. By understanding color theory, the artist knows which color should be used to tame an area that needs softening. Bright colors will appear to advance while “greyed out” colors seem to recede.

The professional artist has acquired a detailed art education that includes many levels of knowledge and experience, but effective use of color is a key element in a successful work of art. It creates the mood, explores the beauty, and defines the emotion the artist wishes to capture.

The objective here for those of you who enjoy and appreciate looking at art, as well as buying and owning art, is to give you a viewpoint to use when you see artwork on display. Color is to the eye what music is to the ear. Besides knowing that you like a particular piece, maybe you will enjoy defining and describing to yourself (or others) what you like about the piece and analyzing some of the color choices used by the artist that were part and parcel of creating that enjoyment. Look closer for the cool tones in the shadows; notice how the impression of light is created in the art. What shouts at you, what whispers? Most likely color will be at the core of your experience. Colors are the notes in the composition that create a visual symphony.


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