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