Color Me Happy: Let’s Explore Terms & Techniques

In case you couldn’t tell from last week’s technicolor landscape, I love color. Have you seen the bridge scene in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” where Sir Galahad is required to correctly answer three questions? When he waffles between blue and yellow on “what is your favourite colour?” he is thrown into the abyss. That would be me. Generally, I like all colors. I will admit that I’m less enthusiasastic about shades of beige, cream, and tan, though.

Color Explosion by Robert Delaunay

Color Explosion by Robert Delaunay

What is color? The glossary of my mom’s old college textbook, Art Fundamentals describes it as “the character of surface created by the response of vision to the wavelength of light reflection.” Wait, huh? Was I the only one expecting “what you find in a box of crayons” to be a suitable definition of color? Perhaps the limitation of my childhood box of 16 Crayolas explains why I have only a faint grasp of “indigo.”

Color is something you have to see to understand. And it is entirely possible that colors look different to each person, although there are actual scientific definitions of color. Pure white light that we get from the sun is a combination of all the colors at once, and can be broken into its components with a prism. Those components?  Colors. Good ol’ Roy G. Biv. Ahem: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo(!), and violet.  Each of those hues has a specific light wave range associated with it, by which each color is scientifically defined. That’s all well and good, but artists don’t usually make paintings with just sunlight and prisms. They need paint. And those paints get their color from pigments designed to reflect the light from the desired color. Smear some cadmium yellow onto a canvas and the pigment in the paint absorbs all the red, orange, green, blue, indigo, and violet light, and reflects the yellow light, so we perceive it as yellow.

And once you have red, yellow, and blue pigments, you can make all the other variations:

Claude Boutet's 7-color and 12-color color circles

Claude Boutet’s color circles

I think I love color because of its variety and emotional impact.  Part of my difficulty in picking a favorite shade is my own moodiness:  if I feel energetic, I’m attracted to orange.  If I want to be soothed, a cool green-blue is appealing.  If I want to wallow in melancholy thoughts, something muddied by brown feels appropriate.  Color affects my emotions.

Do you have a favorite color? What color “mood” are you in right now? When do colors affect you most?

If you are interested in the science, and strangeness, of how we perceive colors, I’d encourage you to check out RadioLab’s podcast on the subject.  In a truly superb hour of creative storytelling, they give an aural “picture” of the rainbow, discuss the strange fact that the sky was only recently dubbed blue, and delve into research on tetrachromats—people who may be capable of seeing even more colors than you and me due to a genetic quirk.

Ocvirk, Otto, Robert Bone, Robert Stinson, and Philip Wigg.  Art Fundamentals: Theory and Practice. Dubuque, Iowa: WM. C. Brown Co, 1975.  Print.


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