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I’ve been running into conflicts about color most of my life. When I was eight I begged my mother to paint my pale yellow bedroom blue instead. She insisted that our tiny ranch house couldn’t have both bedrooms be blue. I suggested she repaint hers to something else so I could have blue. After all, it wasn’t as if blue were her favorite color.
My suggestion she go with her beloved red was met with a sneer. At eight I couldn’t possibly have known why my suggestion of a red bedroom might be viewed as offensive. Hers stayed blue. Mine became a yellowish cream with the improbably name of “polar ice,” no doubt the marketing move of a colorblind desk jockey who’d never ventured north of Ottumwa, Iowa.
In college, I encountered art professor after art professor who presented students with “acceptable” palette choices. I dutifully learned to mix a touch of cad orange in my ultramarine blue, to diminish the vividness of both the blue and it’s user, to set cool colored stones in silver and warm colored stones in gold, and other stupid rules. Forget that the so dubbed “paint god” of the painting department won an award in the student show for a deglow orange bullseye, painted on a white canvas. His use of bold color was acceptable because he was “exceptional” for some reason that I couldn’t fathom since his bullseye composition was hardly original.
I keenly remember trying to overlook the palette requirements of my surface design professor since, other than that, I thought she was brilliant. One day in class she handed around a gridded paper of muted and grayed gradients of the color wheel. “These are so called ‘designer’ colors that you’ll be using for your class project.” She went on to explain that every culture has their dominant palette. In the Caribbean it’s bright and tropical colors. In the USA it’s the bright colors of signage: reds, yellows, neon, etc. In Europe black, gray, and white. In her native Japan neutrals with tinges of red were preferred.
I dutifully printed a few of my designs with those muted colors, and any time I come across the swatches in the bottom of my fabric stash, I laugh at how hugely unsuccessful they were. Fortunately, I had the brains to rebel. For my final screen printed project I went full-on, out of the jar, vivid ultramarine blue, pthalo green, and hansa yellow. I spent weeks on the 5 yards with 8 repeats of 4 screens each, and between my commitment, my screen printing skills, and my describing the yardage as being intended for a comforter cover in child’s room, the professor gave it one of her exceptionally rare ‘A’s’.
I could never bring myself to cut up the fabric to sew it, so it has hung in my son’s room as a banner at the ceiling around his bed. I have a feeling when he moves out, that fabric will be among the things he considers are ‘his’ to take wherever life leads him.
Flash forward a few decades, and I’m still rebelling. If you’ve followed my work for any length of time, that’s hardly a surprise. I can mix nearly any color I need, but nothing brings me more joy than opening my watercolor palette, and dipping into vibrant, cobalt turquoise or rose of ultramarine and applying them straight on. They end up blended and sometimes mixed on the page in my dry brush technique, but never super muted.
No one else seems to notice that people’s bias against intense color never extends to jewelry. Neutrals might comprise the basics of a Western wardrobe, and beige, gray, and icy cold colors may reign supreme in interior design, but have you ever heard of anyone insisting drab, muted diamonds are all the rage? Instead they’re zapped to give them more color. You probably won’t hear people say, “I’d like that amethyst better if it were more gray,” or “I’m sorry that sapphire’s blue is just too blue for me.”
My hypothesis is that it’s all part of color’s dysfunctional relationship with money. In Medieval times, the intense, coveted blue that came to Europe all the way from Afghanistan was often reserved for the robes of the Madonna in paintings and illuminations. This ultramarine blue derived from lapis lazuli through a laborious and time consuming extraction method was so named “outremere,” meaning beyond the sea, which could speak to its deep color as much as to its relative geographic origin. No patron or illuminator would ever have suggested it needed to have some orange dumped into mute its intensity. Because of its cost, the color literally became sacred.
Flash forward to the end of the nineteenth century, and pigments had become infinitely cheaper. Ultramarine could be synthetically produced and be almost (but never quite) the same color. If color is cheap and accessible, then notions of preciousness shift from savoring it to muddying it up via high cost designer brands, lauded in magazine spreads that promise peace and tranquility through soft, muted neutrals. However cheap many pigments are now, neutrals, which require less pigments, will always sport a higher profit margin.
Life is messy, however, and no one’s life or studio ever look like the spreads from In Her Studio or Martha Steward magazine for longer than it takes to the photographer to finish the shoot. Like people, life itself is colorful, not carefully contrived in a palette but rather full on and intense (also like people). Too many gray days, and humans literally become depressed. The color of a leaf or a petal is not some surface decoration; color is part of its chemical makeup all the way through.
Don’t just stop and smell those proverbial spring flowers; drink in and relish their color. Look into a polished stone and realize, as much as rich brown dirt or deep blue water, that stone is also the color of the Earth.
When the world feels upside down, it can feel a little nuts and even self-indulgent to think about making art, but if we creators have learned anything in the last two years, it’s that making art during these times is vital. For artists, not being creative is crazy making, and when the world is upside down, what it doesn’t need is more crazy people.