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Color Theory - Lesson #8

    Symbolic meanings of colors have psychological connotations. Nevertheless, colors effect us psychologically regardless of any symbolism. And the psychological effect of one color can be very different from its symbolical significance. Black may signify mourning, but a black gown or suit, such as a tuxedo, is distinguished and elegant as well, depending upon circumstances. An orange or red gown is loud and flashy, out-of-place, when worn by a woman attending a funeral; but it may be proper and attractive when the same woman wears it at a gala reception or dance.
    There is no absolute definition of psychological effects. A few years ago, I was wearing a charcoal-gray suit, a pair of gray gloves, a white shirt, and a subdued necktie. Standing in a subway car, I overheard two women whispering to each other: "He must be an undertaker." They shied away from me. They probably imagined I smelled of death. At the same time, I thought I was smartly dressed. After the experience, however, I always wore my charcoal suit with a bright-hued shirt and a very colorful necktie...and without gray gloves.
    There can be hardly any question but that people prefer bright, sunny days to dark, rainy ones; a bouquet of fresh flowers is more attractive than a shabby trash can full of waste; darkness will always suggest danger and mystery; fire and flames will never cease to be fascinating as well as frightening.
    As we have become more conscious of the pleasant or unpleasant reactions to colors, we employ our knowledge in a practical manner. We now paint the walls of hospitals and schools a pale Nile-green, rather than the previously universal dull gray or buff or glaring white; we find the soft green hue more relaxing to eye and soul. We've discovered that a small room looks bigger if painted in light tones, and even larger if one of its walls is done in a different hue; the lighter color gives a feeling of space, while the different color appears to open on another vista.
    The Louvre in Paris, and other major museums in Europe, have long since painted the walls of various galleries in different hues: dusty-green, blue-gray, light-maroon, and so forth, in order to make them more intimate and diversified. New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art tried the same idea a number of years ago, but people objected to the colors; they were accustomed to the drab uniformity of each gallery. Recently, though, The Metropolitan has redecorated some of its galleries in color and nobody seems to complain, since people have become adjusted to the idea of color. Paintings on colored walls are closer to us, or so it seems. The dry, severe atmosphere of a museum is softened.
    Many an artist faces a client who doesn't dare purchase a certain painting, because the client believes it won't go with the color of the wall. This is a completely erroneous concept. The color of the wall has nothing to do with the painting, unless the wall color is absurd - orange, perhaps, with cobalt blue woodwork! One doesn't encounter such bizarre color combinations in the average household. On a normal wall, any painting you like will remain attractive, provided that it's in a frame which visually separates it from the surroundings.
    As I have stated before, art is not a haphazard activity. Even if you paint spontaneously, such a painting is based on your knowledge and skill, rather than merely your natural talent. Knowledge and skill are what you learn from teachers, from books, from the internet, from experience, from practice. If you understand the psychological effects of colors, you can employ them at your will, deliberately. you have a better chance of figuring out the ultimate effect. You can be sure, for example, that a painting executed mainly in shades of gray, and much of it in black, with hardly any relief from the dark tones, will have a lugubrious, depressing effect on the average onlooker. If that is what you want, go ahead.
    Art is not necessarily a joyful activity; a painting is not great because it is full of happiness; nor is it bad because it happens to convey a feeling of tragedy. This is the same as with theatrical productions: we have tragedies as well as comedies. But if you write a tragedy, you don't want the audience to laugh at it; and if you planned to write a comedy, you are shocked if it makes people cry. You're free to pain a tragic picture, employing all the colors that convey an emotion of sadness or despair.
    Understanding all the features of your art is bound to help you in attaining your positive goal. I've seen outdoor paintings the artist wanted to be cheerful. I saw him do the work. But what happened? He painted the light, sparkling blue sky much too dark. He painted the foliage of trees in the background just as those in the foreground, a grayish-green. The grass was blue-green; the earth, visible here and there, was almost black, with gray highlights. The tree trunks were all of the same rusty-brown color, in the distance, in the foreground, in the middleground. The entire painting looked dreary, dull, without any depth. It resembled an old, shabby, discolored theatrical backdrop. He missed his mark by miles!
    I saw another artist, a very serious one, paint a funeral, showing people standing all around the grave, with their umbrellas open. He thought that funerals must be held on rainy days, the way they are usually shown in grade C films. He painted all the figures, all the umbrellas in black, the sky gray, but the grass was bright green, as if hit by the sun. There was something theatrical about the black silhouette-like figures. The onlooker felt that it was all a fake, a play-acting.
    There are artists who know exactly what colors to employ. For example, the artist who paints cityscapes right after the rain. One can see the clouds disappearing; there are some puddles of rainwater, here and there, but the sun is out, and everything looks freshened-up, cheerful. This kind of painting demands absolute knowledge of colors and their effects.
    There are two major criteria by which you might judge your selection of colors in any field: in dress, home, or painting. Neither of these criteria is easy, and neither of them is foolproof, but both of them are well worth trying, especially because there seems to be no alternative.
    One way you can judge colors is not to look at your work, dress, or home for a few days, until your eyes are fresh enough to be able to see clearly. You can put a dress or suit in your closet. You can turn a painting face against the wall. You can shut your eyes when you are home, or try to look at a small corner only. The best idea is to go away for a while.
    A few days later, turn your painting face out; take your apparel out of the closet; turn all lights on in your house, and look, just look. A great deal of self-criticism is possible in this fashion. In paintings, you can also turn the work upside down. You'll find this simple trick is a help. For reasons we have discussed before in these lessons, you'll notice mistakes more quickly in an upside-down picture than in a rightside-up painting.
    The other way of judging results is by watching the reaction of other people to your colors. Those people may be friends or strangers, but, preferably, they are people whose judgment you consider satisfactory. Don't tell them anything, just watch them.
    Even though tastes are different, most people in your own circle are likely to agree on what is attractive and what isn't. If such general agreement didn't exist, the world would be absolutely unbearable.
    Watch peoples reaction to your taste and allow them to make suggestions. Listen to them carefully and consider their criticism and advice. But, for heaven's sake, don't permit every Tom, Dick, and Harry to destroy your ego by making devastating, unwarranted comments on your taste and artistry.
    By a natural association of ideas, we think of spring as full of vivid color. Summer, in our memory, lives as a season of heat, without any delicacy of color. Everything is ripe, fully grown. Autumn, in a large part of the world, is a symphony of colors, ranging from still green leaves, through yellow, orange, violet, purple tones, to the dying brown foliage under a clear blue sky. Winter is either depressing with its barren earth, skeletonized trees, and shrubs; or invigorating with its bright blue sky and violet shadows thrown on the pure snow. Winter sports are characterized by multi-colored apparel.
    Dusk, dawn, rain, thunderstorm, snowfall, the sun coming out from behind clouds after a shower, the last orange rays of the setting sun illuminating the sky - all carry certain moods with them. These moods are reflected in the coloring.
    Artists have been intrigued by seasons, and weather for centuries. The seasons have often been depicted in combination with the ages of man: childhood and spring; youth and summer; maturity and autumn; old age and winter. There is a challenge in painting the seasons. You must go outdoors and paint from direct observation during the greater part of the year. Few artists paint in the open in the cold season, but one can observe snowy scenery from a house or a shack. One noted New England artist that I happen to know, has been painting nothing but snowscapes, and always from life. He drives around in a glass-enclosed studio, complete with heater, and all equipment built on the good, old chassis of a car. He stops wherever he finds inspiration. He doesn't seem to be interested in any other subject. When there is no snow, he takes a vacation.
    One serious warning: don't paint outdoor scenes without a thorough observation of reality. Here again, the name of a color is very different from its actual appearance. You cannot paint a meadow  glowing with red poppies merely by painting the lower half of your canvas green, and interspersing it with many bright-red spots. The result will look like a red-polka-dotted green textile. There are the usual differences of shades, values, and even colors, because a meadow is hardly ever the same vegetation all over.
    We speak of a beautiful sky, but just how blue is it? Which blue is to mixed with how much white in order to give us the blue we so admire? And the blue sky itself is not the same blue from top to bottom. What is the color of a dirt road? What is the color of an interesting rock formation? There is no dirt road color, there is no rock color. Everything has many hues, and many shades of each hue. In general, painting from memory alone is near impossible, and should not be practiced without vast knowledge.
    One need not tell me of the advancements in color photography in recent years. A colossal invention. In the art magazine that I publish, this month's issue includes a group of color photographers whose work is the most talked about of the month. The pictures are clear and remarkably beautiful. But beware of the color in such photographs! They are either too blue, or too red, too brown, or too green. Shadows in photographs are usually much too strong and lack the variety of shades found in nature. such pictures may be helpful in reminding you of certain basic colors of houses, hills, trees, flowers, but don't ever copy the colors as they are in the photograph.
    I prefer black-and-white photographs. And I know that it is even hard to find film, but they are clearer. Details in them are not obscured by wild colors. I make pencil sketches and take notes referring to colors. If I have enough time, I also prepare a color sketch in watercolor or casein. Color photographs remind you of such hues, even though in a highly exaggerated manner.
    The finest color reproductions of masterpieces give only a vague idea of the original coloring. Place such reproductions next to the originals and you'll have a shock. The most distressing and damaging difference is between paintings and color slides made from them.
    I have a few friends who are now jurying shows for publication on the internet by looking at paintings from e-mail! I don't suspect that I need tell you of the problems inherent in this context. As wonderful as this medium is, and with the great potential, it is not nearly good enough a medium from which to judge a painting.
    A painting must be a complete entity, so composed in color and design that it should stand by itself. A "colorful" painting is not a picture executed in all imaginable colors, but one which looks vivid, cheerful, without disturbing our eyes. It isn't necessary to have a painting match your drapery and furnishings in its colors. Whether you are an artist producing a picture, or a layman purchasing one, consider only one question: is the painting you're doing, or the painting you're buying, proper in subject matter for the particular place where it is to hang?
    The frame separates - excludes - the surroundings from the picture. The color scheme of the painting, and the color scheme of the room can thus live side-by-side, in peace and harmony. It's nothing less than barbarous to insist that an artist change certain colors in their painting in order to "match" the colors of the room. I've heard of such cases. Don't let it happen to you, if you're an artist. And don't do it to an artist,  if you're a layman.

    Expect things to come at a fairly quick pace in the next few lessons. There is a great deal to talk about when the subject is color.
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