Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Learning to Use Color

Learning to Use Color

We live in a world where color is taken for granted. Black-and-white pictures or movies are very intentional events in the twenty-first century, while big-screen color is everywhere. The World Wide Web allows people to broadcast images across the globe, cheaply and in color. Inexpensive inkjet printers output color documents in a rainbow of hues. Fiber dyes give us clothing and textiles in shades not seen in the 1900S. We assume color and color choice in products as the status quo, but learning the use and significance of color is often overlooked, or assumed to be an intu­itive talent. Making effective color choices is a skill that demands observation, thought, and practice.

Using color in ceramics is an exercise in restraint. The color that can be achieved in the studio is wonderful, but it is fraught with special rules that rival "I before E except after C, or when sounded like A as in neighbor and weigh." The technical and chemical aspects of colorant-flux interaction make ceramic color more complex than mixing paint. There are few WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) opportunities in ceramic process; changes in firing make composing color dur­ing glazing an exercise requiring experience and pre-visualization, as well as a benevolent nod from the kiln gods. The bonuses are the variety of surfaces, color variations, depth of color, and reflectivity that are difficult to achieve with room-temperature surfaces: the glory of minute trapped bubbles in a frosty Chun glaze, the wonder of a bead glaze, the tactility of a lichen surface.

I subscribe to several fashion and interiors magazines as color resources. They have a changing, seasonal zeitgeist of color and proportion, and often interesting composition in ads. The big value is that they have many, many colors in them, and I'm not at all pre­cious about cutting out swatches and looking at them in combination. The amount and relative position of each color changes every-thing, as Josef Albers showed us in his color studies. Color swatches from the magazines offer me cheap ways to experiment and respond to visual examples with little com­mitment. I may not have glazes exactly like those colors, but it gets me thinking and I find new ideas.

Philip Rawson's classic book, Ceramics, is a must-read for clay artists. He is a "chewy" writer, so I like reading my paperback copy with a highlighter to pick out nuggets of information. Rawson discusses the visual interpretation of color associations, cultural context, surface reflectivity, and so many other helpful things. It's a bonus that he's opinionated, and you can find places to disagree with him. Raising the questions and heightening sensitivity are of value in them-selves.

In addition to classic color books by people like Itten and Albers, there are many contem­porary books, including those for people who want to decorate their interiors. I've found several flip books of floor, wall, and ceiling combinations that have reinforced the impor­tance of adjacent colors and values, and con­tributed to my understanding of color mood and intonation. Certainly books for painters are helpful. Consideration in figurative refer­ence of emotional vs. literal color is often brought up.

Finally, a sketchbook and some kind of color medium (crayons, pencils, watercolor, markers), used to sketch from the real world in color, helps the artist to see better. It's not about making a lovely drawing as a product, but about the very important exercise of really seeing the myriad things that we pass by every day.

by Linda Arbuckle