Thursday, November 15, 2007

Color--do you see what I see?

"America's Favorite Color (blue)", Oil on Panel, 6x6 inches
Jerry Lebo, 2007


“It is impossible to remember color precisely…color is a psychic effect.”--
Josef Albers

For those of you new to my blog, I am doing a series of paintings I call "America's Favorites", and the above painting is the third in the series. To learn more about the series, read my previous post.

So, I came across a book the other day at Border’s which I have since recommended to several people, it is titled, "Josef Albers: To Open Eyes". It was written by a former student of Albers and the curator of the Albers Foundation in Connecticut. I have read Albers classic book on color "The Interaction of Color"--but frankly never took the time to study it carefully, and I probably understood about 10% of it in any case.

Anyway, the Albers Foundation has a "by invitation only" artist-in-residence program, and my friend Mitchell Johnson was selected this year. He has been going back and forth between San Francisco and the Foundation for the past month or so, which got me interested again in color theory. I thus went to the bookstore to take another look at the “Interaction of Color” book and came across this new book, “To Open Eyes”. This book is an attempt to capture a record of Albers’ teachings when he was at Yale and Black Mountain College—where such notables and Rauschenberg and Twombly studied. If you don’t know about the Yale and Black Mountain programs of the 1950s, you are missing a big piece of American art history. Read this for starters.

Anyway, I highly recommend the “To Open Eyes” book—which contains detailed information and examples of how Albers taught color, painting, and drawing to his students. The only disappointment was that the book made me realize how deficient my training has been in these areas. It is a totally different approach than most art schools—where they basically set you up in front of an easel, get you painting, and then walk around and critique your work. If you lucky, they might give you some conceptual exercises—but don’t expect to be taught how to draw. Albers’ approach was totally different—and I think it shows in the quality of his student’s work.

Albers, to his credit, had a very clear vision for what it took to learn to be an artist—and it is consistent with what I have discovered over the years—and what this blog is about. First, one must learn to see—or as I have said many times—if you want to improve your paintings, “look harder”. Second, that good work habits and consistency are keys to maintaining an artistic process. Albers believed that the act of creating art encouraged self-confidence and independence—and was a powerful antidote to what he saw as a “culture of conformity.” Simply the act of making something has power for the individual if you do it regularly.

So, what does this have to do with this post? Well, there is an exercise that is mentioned in the book that Albers used do at the start of his color curriculum that I thought was worth telling you about. Essentially, he would pass out packs of colored paper to his students and then ask them to pick out the “reddest red” in the pack. Or he would ask, pick out the red that is the “Coca-cola” red. Of course, every time students selected different colors out of the pack as the reddest red or “Coca-cola” red.

Another of the exercises he did relates back the difference between value and chroma—which is one of the biggest weakness I see in most intermediate artists' work. To get his students thinking about this issue, Albers would ask students to use the colored paper and start pairing colors of near or equal values. Invariably, students not only disagreed on whether the paired colors were really equal in value, many times they could not even decide which color was lighter or darker than the other. He would also ask students to pair colors which were of equal intensity—again this led to disagreements among the students.

So here is your “Albers” test for the day. In the above painting, which of the following are higher in value: the green background or blue highlight on the tube of paint? Second question, is the brown of the table top higher in value or lower in value than the blue highlight on the tube? The answers are at the bottom of the post.

So why am I challenging you like this. Well, I have been saying that value is more important than color when it comes to making a good painting—which I think is true. But, that said, I also think that color can be used very effectively to get your messages across in your paintings—but you must understand that colors are relative to one another—and people’s perceptions of color vary. So, you must learn and practice color—don’t just go out there and start laying it on. The misuse of color is by far to quickest way to ruin a painting—I have seen it over and over again. I partly blame the paint manufacturers for making so many colors readily available. There is so much pigment in modern paints, and so many colors are available, it is a wonder that good paintings get made, seriously.

So, yes, blue is America’s favorite color. Pantone did a survey, and here are the results. I was actually surprised to see that red came in 12th in the survey—I suspect this has to do with their methodology. I found another on-going Internet survey where red and blue are neck-in-neck for America’s favorite color. I think this is a more true result. My perception is that red and blue are, in fact, the classic America colors. Why? It has become so ingrained in the culture. We have the red states and blue states, we have the red-white-and blue of the flag, and we have red fighting blue (think Confederates against the Union). So is red or blue America’s favorite color, here is a second version of my America’s Favorite Color painting (work in progress). I am posting both, so the viewer can decide—since color is in the eye of the beholder.

"America's Favorite Color (red)", Oil on Panel (Work in Progress), 6x6 inches
Jerry Lebo, 2007


Oh, I almost forgot. The answers to the above quiz are: (i) the green background is several values lower (darker) than the blue highlight; and (ii) the brown table is around the same value as the blue highlight. Oh, also, just for reference, the red highlight in the above painting—is about the same value as the blue highlight in the top painting--could you tell? My guess is that most people will pick the red as the higher value--since it is appears to "glow" more intensely. But, then again, maybe not to you.

So there are some thoughts on color perception for the day--with two examples. Go back to your studio and paint. But, please put away some of those tubes of color and simplify your life a bit. Think about which color you want to use—don’t just pick up the first blue you see—think about which one you need. I once heard it said, “you need a good reason to pick one color over another”—and I think that is good advice. BTW, I pick blue.

All the best, sixtyminuteartist.

26 comments:

JMahorney said...

I loved this exercise Jerry. Really enjoying your blog. :)

Frank Gardner said...

Jerry, I've just come across your blog last night, so I still have a lot of posts to catch up on. Great content.
I'd have to go with blue.
I took a color theory class at RISD with a student or friend of Albers ( I can't remember which) and we did the coca cola red thing on the first day. Lots of colored papers and comparisons. It was a very hard class and it is true, people would see color and value differently.
I still think back to that class when I have trouble with color and kick myself when I dont think about it enough.
I agree with your comment on "Interaction of Color" it is a hard read. I am going to look for the other book you mentioned and see if it sinks in.
I'll continue to cruise your blog as I have time.
Great ideas here.

Snuggles said...

One should remember that Albers taught a certain ideaology at a particular time in art history. I've tried to read A;bers, some of it pertains, some of it I have no idea what it means, seriously.
Albers used a lot of verbage( kind of like this post Jerry ) to say, as you say " you have to have a reason to pick one color over another". THAT is the real ideaology to be taught. Do we teach a color theory of a partucular value relationships, chroma, hue to do ....what?...paint like the plethora of American Artist Magazine type painters ? To paint like Duane Keiser? Or do we teach the means to make art. Art that is unique and powerful. Remember the wise words of Georgia O'
Keeffe.." Nothing is less real that realism" What in the world would have happen to the great American artists like John Marin, DeKooing, Fairfield Porter if they followed our current ideas about color theory? I'd love to read , Jerry , your ideas about what makes good art?

sixtyminuteartist said...

Snuggles, I think good art is that which does not cause a feeling of indifference in the observer. I'm glad my blog does that for you.

Jerry

Sue said...

I go with the blue.
But WHICH blue is America's favorite? I prefer cerulean.
I really enjoy your blog, and your painting as well.

sylvie d said...

You have some amazing art in here!
would you consider introducing your blog to Fuelmyblog(a friendly blogging community)? I am sure our users would be interested in your blog. We are also working on a book project with Blurb where all our bloggers will get a chance to advertise their blog, raise money for charity and get some extra coverage.
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Marsha Stopa said...

After reading one of your previous posts on color, in which you linked to the 19-page post on color in All the Strange Hours,(both of which I've reread several times) I pulled a book off my shelf I bought years ago with the intent of learning about color, "Color Workbook," by Becky Koenig. It covers color theory and the interrelationship of color with art and design. Looks like lots of info. Are you familiar with it?

Besides painting the classic gray scale with comparative value scales of the primary colors, would you recommend an exercise to train the eye to distinguish value from color and chroma?

My hand has to experience the concepts my brain understands, or I will forever wander among the plethora of American Artist Magazine type painters...red's my pick, but love the blue highlight. Thanks for all the careful thought you give these posts.

Karen Appleton said...

Enjoyed the post and all these comments. Seeing color is one of my favorite things about painting, simplfying is the hardest. thanks for sharing your ideas. Blue is my favorite.
Karen

Amanda said...

I love your blog and especially this post. It makes me want to read that book. Also...the red and blue discussion reminds me of one of my favorite paintings....John Singer Sargent's Bedouins. The blue contrasted with the red and reddish brown strokes are eye catching. I've only seen it picture on the Internet and would love to see the colors up close in real life.

A Reason to Paint said...

I am really enjoying your blog, thank you for being so generous with your information.

Shady Gardener said...

I'm going to "ditto" the above comment by a reason to paint. You are, indeed, very generous and helpful.

American Genius said...

I visited your website. Great work.
I like the movement and brushstrokes, color, style, that you apply, especially to your landscapes

American Genius said...

I myself, particularly love blue, all the different blues. From time to time I paint in only blue.
You're the greatest.

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