Colorist Painting

This post on Colorist Painting is Part I of  an entry on color. Part II is on Color Schemer, a computer application for creating pallets of color. Once you read this you may enjoy Color Schemer even more.

Painting of an amaryllis pattern on a white backgroundI’m a colorist. I paint because I want to study and create the experience of color. “Colorist” has been appropriated by those who add color to cartoons and graphic novels (translation: comic books) or to adjust color in films. And infamously, colorize black and white films. In painting, “colorist” refers to using color to achieve an emotional effect or to define form. In color field, color is the subject as in the work of Helen Frankenthaler, Marc Rothko, and Kenneth Noland. Or even the almost monochromatic, neutral paintings of Agnes Martin (one of my favorites).

Or follow this link to find a whole page of colorist paintings in Google Images: Colorist Painting

One of my students painted superrealist paintings, usually in a series and of a specific subject. Portraits, people with their cars, nineteenth century buildings. The subjects of these incredibly detailed images were so varied I asked him what most interested him. “The colors. I just see colors,” he said. After a pause he added, “And light.” His realism wasn’t about minute detail. It was about color and light. He was a colorist.

Many abstract painters are colorists.  J M W Turner, the “Painter of Light,” was a colorist. The Impressionists were all colorists.

When I paint, I care much more about the color of what I’m painting than in the thing I’m painting. When I look at a flower or a piece of wood or a painting, I see color first. Millions of colors. My color perception was tested when I was in high school. (I never why.) My art teacher just sent me downtown to the Department of Education to take a series of tests. He explained the results, but not their significance. That seems odd, as I think about it, but at fourteen I didn’t expect much of anything to have significance.

Farnsworth100 Color Vision Hue TestWhat I do remember was a test similar to the Farnsworth Munsell 100 Hue Test but there were more trays of colors. Each tray consisted of black caps with a circle of color in each one, leaving a rim of black. Each spot of color, from one end of the tray to the other, was infinitesimally different from the one next to it. The buttons were mixed and placed in front of me. I had to sort them—red to red-red orange in the first tray, orange-red-orange to red-orange in the second, etc. The lamp over the trays looked like something from a doctor’s office and the tester sat very quietly, doing nothing. The silence was bit much. I don’t remember that she even breathed.

When I finished each tray, she would turn over all the buttons, look at the numbers on the bottom, and make notes on a form. Later I learned from a psychologist that she should have waited until the end to do this because it might have influenced my behavior. I don’t think it did. I’m hard to influence. (Some say impossible.)

When my art teacher showed me the results, I had made two mistakes. After 50 years, those two mistakes still bother me. How had I been so careless as to make two mistakes? Maybe I had made them in the beginning before I realized how much attention the test took. Or in the blue-blue-greens that were a bit darker than the other colors. I never knew what they were. Realistically, considering everything, I knew I had done pretty well. “Superior” couldn’t be dog food, but I thought I could have been perfect if I’d tried harder.

I take no credit for my color vision; it’s the equipment I was born with. My eyes can see them. It’s in the genes.

You can now take the shorter test yourself. Be prepared. It’s hard: Farnsworth-Munsell 100 Hue Color Vision Test

This post is Part I of  an entry on a computer application for creating pallets of color. Part II: Color Schemer

Practical Knowledge

Q. If I read your comment correctly, it seems to suggest that conventional subjects actually seldom try to assess their transfer of learning to students’ everyday life for longer period of time.

A. At the college level, the professors often consider this mundane. Their job is to raise standards and teach pure knowledge. If they need an example in business, for example, they go to a major corporation or Harvard Business School Case Studies, not to a local corporation where the students would get a lot of attention and more hands on learning.

In another example I learned of last week, an IT person told me she was trying to work with a college where they were using a technology that 90% of the world had stopped using years ago. They insisted on using it because it was pure and based on the original concepts of whatever. Only in a college would this logic be acceptable—that outdated technology was better because it was pure, based on essential principles someone had established a decade before. A decade in iT is a millennium anywhere else.

When I was a child, it never occurred to me that people wrote books. I never thought of where they came from even though I was an avid reader. They were all library books so I guess I thought they had always had existed. Now we have author tours and artists in the schools. My granddaughters think nothing of writing their own books (short and not always complete).

I argued this point repeatedly with a colleague in Manhattan who ran a semester in New York program for artists. The students had a studio (paid for by financial aid) and did internships with artists. He insisted on getting internships with “top” artists, which I would call “currently fashionable.” The problem was that these internships resulted in being the underling to the underling and spotting the artist across the warehouse-sized studio, maybe making contact once or twice a month. In order to afford such a studio an artist had to have a huge market, and then enough staff to produce it all. It was far above the level that a college graduate could hope to achieve—partly because they were in college and not painting.

One of my students who enrolled in the program insisted on doing an internship with a painter whose work she admired. The artist was actively showing and had a gallery on 57th Street but she wasn’t fashionable and didn’t have work in the major museum collections yet. But my student learned first-hand how to manage all the business aspects of being an artist and accompanied the artist to openings, parties, interviews with potential purchasers, and dinner with the artist’s dealer.

The artist was at a professional level much closer to my student’s so the learning could be applied immediately. My student also refused to move into the college’s studio space because she had a small studio at home and preferred to work with no distractions and all night if she felt like it without having to be out on the streets of the city at 3:00 in the morning. She brought her paintings to the college studio for critiques.

My colleague said my student wasn’t meeting the right people. Do you know what it means to have a recommendation from _____? Well, none of his students ever became famous and most didn’t have enough paintings done when they graduated to even think about asking for a recommendation to a dealer. They were too busy meeting people to learn how to find a studio they could afford when they graduated.

My student (not because she was mine but that’s the most convenient way to identify her) was able to use her practical connections to get a shared studio in a neighborhood of artists like herself and become an active self-supporting artist—as much as artists are ever self-supporting. She was still working as a waiter but in the 1980s almost every artist in NY was working as a waiter.

The important thing was that she had a studio in a community of artists, a host of connections at her level of development, and the skills and confidence to use them.