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The Color Debate


by Dianne Mize

Of all the composition elements we work with, color fascinates yet baffles students of art more than any other. And I would go so far as to say that among those teaching painting, there is more dogma about color than about all the other visual elements combined. 

In fact, I suspect the prevailing dogmatic teachings are largely responsible for student artists’ fear of color. My personal opinion is that we all should be wary of dogma. Any school of thought claiming to be the only way should be suspect.

It seems to me that the best way to understand color is to work with it and watch what happens. As a beginning, I offer here two ways master artists have learned to work with color:

1. Experience making color:

Begin with one color and a white and explore four possible changes that white can make to the color, in sequence from dark to light.  Here’s an example of what can happen to alizarin crimson.

If you do this little exercise with all your favorite tube colors you will experience working with color, and through that experience you will obtain a working knowledge. And you can gain additional experience by swapping the initial color with another color, then by making another sequence with white.  Here’s what happens to alizarin crimson when a tad of ultramarine blue is added.

You can take this exercise as far as you like. There are no rules and no limits to what you can discover.

Master artist Richard Schmid has used this method for exploring color for decades. He outlines how he goes about it in his book, Alla Prima. The book is a bit on the expensive side, but for any artist wanting to experience color, I recommend it above any I've seen.     

2. Experience seeing color:

Follow up the mixing experience with a seeing experience.  A good way to really see a color is to compare it with another color. Try this by looking at a single object, such as a red apple (since we began this with alizarin crimson). Place the apple a couple of feet in front of your eyes, then paint a swatch of pure alizarin on the edge of a small piece of paper. Hold your swatch at arms length in front of the apple, close one eye and study the comparison. 

Choose one small area of the apple at a time and hold the swatch slightly in front of it, staring at both for a few seconds. Then let your eyes move back and forth between the swatch of color and the apple. Is that part of the apple lighter than the swatch or darker?  Warmer or cooler?  The same hue or a different hue?

Take this exercise a step further by placing the apple in a shadowed place and making a new set of comparisons.

Putting It All Together

Two things work together to create the color we see: light and the mechanics of our eyes.

But learning to recognize the color our eyes see is a skill, not a guessing game.  Athletes and musicians go through prescribed drills in order to build their performance skills.  Each drill provides an experience that informs the body and mind so that performance has a better chance of being great.  As skills are built, theory and knowledge become meaningful. The same is true for artists.

But I suggest that dogma will close your universe rather than open it.  While there are a lot of valuable insights within each of the schools that claim to have the goods on color, artists will do well not to get swept away by a single school of thought; rather, to continue to explore and experience what works for their own sensibilities.

Dianne Mize is an artist and retired teacher of art, living and creating in rural Northeast Georgia. For more of her writing and a look at her artwork, visit her website

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