Color wheels from a demonstration at Hawken’s Mastery School in Cleveland. On the left is the Zorn palette, on the right is a primary or prismatic palette (plus black).

Color has a rather mercurial nature. For centuries, artists have chased after it.  

If color has ever been ‘caught’ for the purposes of representation, it has been by putting it on top of a tonal structure. This is to say that the basis of illusion in representation has to do with color’s relationship to  black and white. This is something different, though related, to a color’s saturation.

Color in oil painting is bound to the physical properties of pigment and every pigment has a particular chemical composition. All of this helps root the experience of color to materials and to a methodical process. 

Color becomes evasive when we consider its’ ever shifting nature.  Color can partially be viewed as an event involving three participants and each participant acts independently from one another. The Perception of color comes from a combination of 1)Light (the visible light spectrum), 2)A Light Sensitive Instrument (ie. The Eye), 3)The Absorption, Reflection or Transmission of Light by an Object.

This event never stops changing, especially as color begins to relate to adjacent color.

The good news is that artists and scientists have codified a use of color to represent our sense perception. These simulations of color events are attempts to substantiate certain sensations. 

We also have a set of words to describe the properties of color events. For a painter, the hue, value and chroma of a color are considered when mixing. Hue refers to the color category or family, as in, red, blue, green, etc. Value is a color’s relationship to black and white. Chroma is a color’s saturation or intensity. Of these, I believe that value is the most important. 

It is worth noting that the color wheel for a painter is not the same as the color wheel for a photographer, for the reason that light behaves differently from pigment. With light, color comes together to compose white (additive). With pigment, all colors mixed together make mud or something like brown (subtractive).

Nor are the primaries the same for light and pigment. The red, yellow and blue on a painter’s palette are not the same as cyan, yellow, magenta and black (CYMK) found in a printer.

We can get lost in the weeds pretty easily when addressing color and the infinite expressive possibility of color can easily overwhelm us. Of help to artists, however, is that color can be a source of awe and as such it is a joy to engage with, to never stop searching and to try to catch, if only for a moment.

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