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COLORCUBE in the Classroom

Click to Order COLOR/Sensation and Logic: A Teacher's Guide. This text fuses the COLORCUBE model into traditional color theory and art history. The author, Marcus Bowcott, applies a cross-disciplinary approach to color and includes helpful color lessons designed for the college-level student.

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Below is an introductory excerpt from COLOR/Sensation and Logic posted with permission.


"Why teach color? Why study color? Color is an adjunct.
It’s pointless for art students to study it as an independent subject."

This challenge came from a colleague while I was in the midst of preparing my first color course outline for an art college. Given the task at hand, my first thought was "great timing." The last thing I wanted to do was spend valuable time and energy entertaining such a question. I simply wanted to get on with the serious, practical business of developing a sound course outline. Nevertheless I considered the question for more than a few hours while I got on with the course preparation.

One of the reasons I found the question arresting was because it echoed sentiments I had encountered, and knew I would continue to encounter, inside and outside the walls of art colleges. One common sentiment naively considers the artist to be an inspired creator who inhabits the subjective realm. It holds that artists should be concerned with personal inspiration, not the objective study of light and color. Objectivity is better left to more practical sorts like technicians and scientists. This superficial view of the subjective nature of art and the objective nature of science is clearly nonsense, subjectivity and objectivity cannot be so neatly divided.

Another stereotype, this time with an academic bias, places theory above practice on the totem pole of art. Ideas and concepts are considered to be more important than learning to actually make pictures. And the backs of paintings are more important than the fronts. Variations on this theme have been with us, in one form or another, for centuries. The only real problem with this mindset is that it overlooks the fact that ideas usually evolve out of practice. And a sound studio practice demands that concept and method challenge and modify each other throughout the creative process. In this regard it’s helpful to remember that the word ‘Poetics’ literally means "a process of making things".

Had my colleague given one of these stereotypical arguments in her criticism of presenting color as an independent subject, I would not have given her comments much more thought. But there was more to the question than just that. Over the years the question "why study color?" has remained in the back of my mind. Simple, direct questions are sometimes the most difficult ones to answer. So they are often important questions to ask.

Consider the subject historically for a moment. It wasn’t until the 14th Century A.D. that artists developed a comprehensive range of refined pigments. With the developments of color technology during the Renaissance, artists embraced the expressive and sensual aspects of color in their work. Venetian painters such as Giorgione, Titian and Veronese were noted for their mastery of color. But in spite of these developments there has nevertheless remained a long standing expression of mistrust of color. Consider the following statements:

 

"... design is what is essential. Here it is not what gratifies in sensation but merely what pleases by its form, that is the fundamental prerequisite of taste. The colors which give brilliancy to the sketch are part of the charm. They may, no doubt, in their own way, enliven the object for sensation but make it really worth looking at they cannot..."

Immanuel Kant

 

"Color is the handmaiden of drawing"

Dominique Ingres

In his essay on the English painter William Turner, Kenneth Clark states that ..."The references to color in academic textbooks of the late Eighteenth Century are often incredible. The subject was treated as something improper, almost vicious. One can see why: Color appeals to the senses, and not to reason or the sense of duty. Yet the impact of modern painting is almost entirely due to color."

In a curious way my colleague’s comment "color is an adjunct" echoes the statement made by Ingres. The colleague happens to be a landscape painter and has spent years observing color in nature, carefully noting the colors before her eyes. It is in spite of the comment’s affinity to Ingre’s that I understand, and have some sympathy for, her assertion that color is an adjunct. One of a landscape painter’s primary tasks is to use color on a two dimensional surface in order to delineate the appearance of the form and shape of things in space. Color is always describing something else: a tree, or a tree in relation to a mountain, or the atmosphere in front of and around the mountain.

But I knew my colleague was making an even more basic point, for the question would still be pertinent coming from artists interested only in the formal, or abstract aspects of painting. Formalist painters such as Guido Mollinari must also consider the colors as part of a shape, design or composition, albeit abstract.

Our sense of sight, which Aristotle considered our most rational sense, must also be thought of in relation to our other senses: sound, touch, taste and smell and perceptions that relate to our balance and sexuality. With these considerations in mind, the assertion that color is an adjunct is a point that has some merit, for color is always accompanied by another sense - either touch or balance or both touch and balance at once. However, because there is some truth to this assertion, it does not logically follow that studying color as a subject in its own right lacks merit. We study other subjects such as philosophy or drawing as specific subjects, why not color?

My experience as a practitioner as well as a teacher of drawing, painting and design has convinced me that it is important for students to spend time considering color as an independent subject. Why? Two reasons: one, because just about every visually aesthetic decision entails a consideration of color; and two, because color has its own logic. We can use this logic when examining paintings of the Renaissance or when we are working with modern photography and computer graphics. Artists and designers are sadly restricted without an ability to anticipate and mix, a needed color - and - understand underlying color relationships.

Considering color in its own right for a relatively short period of time can be extremely valuable. By studying it in its various dimensions you will learn about the underlying color relationships and will be able to manipulate and combine colors with certainty, precision and informed intuition.

What I’ve written is what I’ve always wanted for my own students: a succinct text that presents essential information necessary for an individual to proceed with his or her own color explorations. I’m also interested in relating color to art history and to the world of art and design practice. It is important to remember that color relates not only to technological developments but also to the history of art and ideas as well.

I hope this small text will whet the readers’ appetite for more knowledge and understanding of the world of color.

 

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