True colours


Robert Genn

December 1, 2006

There are colourists and there are colourists. There are those
among us whose colours are clunky and crude--and there are
those whose colours are deadly, tasty, and "right on." There
are even some, like Paul Gauguin, who believe colour ought to
be arbitrary--that is, it's a good idea if the sky is green and
the grass is red.

While we're at it, there are those who think tone values are
more important than hue--which is similar to saying colour is
arbitrary. But even newly baptized novices know that if you
manage to get the right colour your painting can look "true."
God may work in light, but we mortals work in pigment. Getting
the colour of the light through haze in front of a distant
range of hills is, for many, the Holy Grail. It's not in the
magic of some new pigment, it's a matter of looking, seeing,
mixing, testing and adjusting.

Looking is opening your mind to your impressions.
Seeing is replacing what you know with what you see.
Mixing is the knowledgeable confluence of pigments.
Testing is comparing your preparations with the truth.
Adjusting is the will to fix your flagrant wrongs.

Guidelines for mixing: I know it's basic, but where you mix
your colours (your palette) won't show how a chosen hue will
react with others on the work itself. You must apply and
consider. Also, many successful mixtures contain a mother
colour, plus white and black. Don't be afraid of black. Having
said that, garishness, when it occurs, is best neutralized with
its opposite on the colour wheel. Get a colour wheel. And when
you come to mixing, testing and adjusting, it's nice to know
that practically everybody must silently and diligently
struggle to get it right. There's no easy way. In the words of
"Chromophobia" author David Batchelor, "Colour reveals the
limits of language and evades our best attempts to impose a
rational order on it. To work with colour is to become aware of
the insufficiency of language and theory--which is both
disturbing and pleasurable."

For those who paint outdoors, colour work can seem devilishly
programmed to perplex and confuse. On the other hand, film
photography, with its errant chemicals, can also get things
wrong. Digital reference material, because of its eternal
tweakyness, has been sent by the Great Goddess to help us look
more virtuous than we are.

PS: "Colourists are epic poets." (Charles Baudelaire) "Colour
is the fruit of life." (Guillaume Apollinaire) "Colour is an
act of reason." (Pierre Bonnard)

Esoterica: After those three Frenchmen, try the
sunny-side/shadow-side exercise. Make up little blocks of
varying colours, set them on coloured grounds, place in bright
sunlight, and try to grab and render those relationships in
paint. For those in the northern hemisphere where it's now
wintertime--you can try it over there under a colour-corrected
bulb. An hour over there will not be wasted.  Generally
speaking the sunny side will be warmer and higher up the colour
wheel, the shadow side will be cooler and lower down. As it
says in the small print--"some exceptions apply." The cast
shadow will be something else again.