color of theory

through his clear presentation, dewey only increased my puzzlement about "color theory."

triadic color schemes, warm and cool colors, the "primary" triad, the secondary hues ... i read all this and could not resist simple questions: why? why is that so?

why are there warm and cool colors? because (came the "color theory" answer) orange is like fire, and fire is warm. because blue is like ice, and ice is cool.

why do warm colors advance and cool colors recede? because (came the "color theory" answer) a distant mountain appears blue, so blue seems to recede from us.


the explanations offered in "color theory" only sounded circular and simpleminded. i began to see that art theories have a peculiar color of their own: unquestioned, unsubstantiated, poetical ... absurd.

the color wheel, the various color "chords," the singular facticity of it, without underlying causes, without an anchor in the world. it made me queasy.

as i continued to study, i found art books pass on these ideas in the same way children pass on the croup.

i didn't want a rational or scientific explanation for art. i wanted an explanation that let me grasp and apply a principle.

hey! if blue is like ice, does that mean i can't have blue skies in a desert painting?

i realized i would have to read and experiment on my own. hand in hand with my paints and brush, i began to explore the role of color in art, and slowly, painfully began to evolve my own understanding of "color theory".

i also realized i needed to understand my materials in depth. if i couldn't believe what i read about color theory, how could i believe what i was told about paints?

i threw myself again into making paint test swatches. i ruled off with pencil a 12" x 16" Arches CP block sheet into three rows of 12 swatches, 36 swatches to a sheet.

i went through all my paints and made a sample of each. first the reds, then yellows, greens, blues, earths, violets and blacks — six sheets.

as i bought more paints i added them to the project ... all the rest of daniel smith and maimeriblu paints took up two more sheets. m. graham was a sheet, utrecht was a sheet, miscellaneous paints from schmincke, old holland, blockx were a few more sheets ... eventually i had thirteen sheets filled, almost 500 swatches, then over 200 more swatches used only for lightfastness tests.

i did row after row, sheet after sheet, night after night, to understand how colors fit together. along the way i discovered hilary page's book on paints in a border's bookstore, and realized how many paints and colors there actually were.

to bring order to colors and paints at the same time, i taught myself to do paint wheels and through them learned the mixing interactions of paints. i started to understand and recognize not just a color's hue, but its chroma and lightness (saturation and value) as well.

as i studied, i thought of art theories as the ghosts of superstitious explanations. paints seemed bright and full of life, and nothing like ghosts at all.

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