A tale of a childhood discovery– “I realized that to make an R all I had to do was first write a P and draw a line down from its loop. And I was so surprised that I could turn a yellow letter into an orange letter just by adding a line.” This was told by Patricia Duffy, author of Blue Cats and Chartreuse Kittens: How Synesthetes Color their Worlds,
Duffy’s brain is wired in a way that is scientifically referred to as- Synesthetes Grapheme–color, a sensory cross-wiring of the brain. This is an involuntary condition in which letters, numbers and even sounds appear in color or conjure color images. Research has recently been renewed in this field. And it’s been determined that the condition is not driven by learned associations. Even if it is, it can mean that a re-wiring of the brain has taken place over time.
The painter Joan Mitchell, a diagnosed Synesthetes Grapheme, described the “green, of course”, of the letter ‘A’. Kandinsky’s paintings directly related color and sound, especially music. And Van Gogh talks about the use of color in his painting, The Night Café: I have tried to express the terrible passions of humanity by means of red and green. The room is blood red and dark yellow with a green billiard table in the middle; there are four lemon-yellow lamps with a glow of orange and green. Everywhere there is a clash and contrast of the most alien reds and greens, in the figures of little sleeping hooligans, in the empty dreary room, in violet and blue. The blood-red and the yellow-green of the billiard table, for instance, contrast with the soft tender Louis XV green of the counter, on which there is a rose nosegay. The white clothes of the landlord, watchful in a corner of that furnace, turn lemon-yellow, or pale luminous green.”
We see sunsets because the light rays for the color blue are so short “… that even molecules of oxygen and hydrogen are big enough to scatter the blue rays and leave the rest alone…”, Victoria Finlay Color, A Natural History of the Palette, giving us red and orange and even violet skies when the sun’s wavelengths are the longest.
From associated learning, to the wiring of neurons in the brain, to the way the optic nerves function and the physics of light waves–how color communicates is powerful and complex and can be used consciously to influence what a viewer sees when looking at artwork.
None of this, of course, determines the quality of any painting, but being aware of how color speaks is an effective device. How color mixes ‘simply’ is useful, but how color mixes with the plethora of tubed paints available offers another set of complexities.
We will be doing a variety of color experiments over the several weeks. They will involve understanding temperature and value and will be sprinkled through the classes. Then we’ll progress to color mixing.
Because so many folks are self-directed at this time I’m going to keep the structure of the class the way it’s been for a bit and introduce exercises limited in scope so works in progress can be pursued. If you need direction otherwise, let me know.