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 (so to speak) 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 representational art has to do with color’s relationship to  black and white, not color’s saturation.

Color is, of course, linked 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 a methodical process. 

Color becomes evasive when we consider its’ ever shifting nature.  Color can 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. 

The good news is that artists and scientists have codified, with pigment, a use of color to represents our sense perception. These simulations of a color event are attempts to substantiate a certain sensation. 

We also have a set of words to describe the properties of a color event. For a painter, the hue, value and chroma of a color are considered when mixing pigment. 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 black (subtractive).

Nor are the primaries the same. The red, yellow and blue on a painter’s palette are not the 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. It can be cause to never stop searching and trying to catch it, if only for a moment.

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