Of all the aspects of colour, design is the one that is generally assumed to be something you have, or you don’t.
Personally, I’ve never accepted that point of view about anything. Any skill can be learned, can be taught and can be practised. Including Colour design.
Perhaps the best known treatise on colour is Itten’s “Art of Colour”. There’s an abridged version, Elements of Colour, that I remember leafing through at college many years ago.
None of it stuck then, apart from the traditional colour wheel showing the primaries and secondaries – something I’ve now found to be a fiction.
What’s all this about primaries?
The whole idea of the blue, red and yellow primary model was popularised by a physicist called Brewster (wonderful sideburns, but he was wrong about colour) in the 1800’s and is based on a mistaken belief that red, blue and yellow are the primaries of light.
They’re not, red green and violet-blue are.
Yellow light can be mixed from red and green and blue light can be mixed from green and violet. If you’re interested, you can read more about this on the excellent Dimensions of Colour website.
If you’re still labouring under the illusion that the primaries of colour are red, yellow and blue – well honestly, you owe it to yourself to update your knowledge because that theory was disproved over 150 years ago.
And in painting too, I’ve found that the “three primary” model has some pretty serious shortcomings when applied on the palette.
Start with a good foundation
So let’s just take it as read that any theory of colour design based on the primaries of red, yellow and blue is built on a false foundation and will likely therefore have some serious flaws.
It’s no secret that I’m a Munsellite. I find it to be a very practical way to organise and think about colour that has helped me understand much better what’s happening when I paint. I first came across Munsell through meeting Graydon Parrish, who paints (like, really paints) and teaches colour. If you want to learn something useful about colour, start with someone who can paint really, really well. That will immediately cut out a large proportion of the nonesense talked about colour. Does that sound harsh? I’m not trying to take anything away from anyone except their mistaken beliefs. Like Gandalf, I’m not trying to rob you, I”m trying to help you. (I can’t make magic fireworks, though…)
How is Munsell useful for colour design?
Well, whilst there’s certainly no shortage of people writing about colour design, there is one very rarely mentioned resource that may very well be exactly what we need to help us develop our facility with colour design for painting.
And it’s based on Munsell. It’s the final chapter of the book Composition by Arthur Wesley Dow.
As anyone who reads here knows, I’m a big fan of Dow’s book already, and have worked through many of the exercises.
I like this book because it’s very practical. There is no theory. And its approach to learning is based on some of the strongest principles of deliberate practice. It presents a series of exercises you can work through designed to develop your ability to compose pictorially.
It begins with composing just with line, moving on to value, and finally colour. I’ve spent probably two years, on and off, and made hundreds of little practice pieces following the exercises in this book. Did it help my sense of design?
Without a doubt.
So I think it’s a fair guess that the colour exercises will be similarly effective. I’ve decided to work through these exercises sequentially, and to share what I’m learning and what skills I develop along the way here. I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments as I work through them.
The exercises are centred around trying different combinations of colours in line designs, varying hue, value and chroma, one at a time.
They are systematic and repetitive. And whilst I can imagine that some may find that anathema to colour, personally I find it’s the best way to make progress and develop skill in pretty much anything – including painting.
Here are a couple of quick snaps from colour plates from the book to show you the kind of thing to expect.
What I’ve done so far
I’m right at the beginning, and have just completed the first exercise. Munsell divides the colour wheel into 5 main divisions: red, yellow, green, blue and purple.
The first exercise is to paint a segment of each of these, at the same value and chroma, in a circle. In the centre goes a small circle of a neutral of the same value.
This may very well have taken many attempts for me to work out, and there may have been some value in that. For my swatches, I chose chroma 8 and value 5. This is because it’s the highest chroma that all those hues can reach at a common value – value 5.
Perhaps taking many attempts to work this out manually, without having a copy of the Munsell big glossy book, would have taught me much about value and chroma at different hues, and they may be part of the point.
If you don’t have one, or the student book, an exercise like this would take some time. But it would certainly stretch you, and teach you a lot about what’s achievable with paint at different hues. Probably a good thing.
The first exercise
And here’s a greyscale image of it – the purple segment is the wrong value, but the others look pretty close 🙂
I’ve now moved this to the next stage and mixed and painted in the intermediary hues at the same chromas and values:
And here it is in greyscale:
I think the point of this apparently simple exercise is to begin to get a feeling for the 10 hues and how they interact by seeing them together at the same hue and value. If you took this circle and spun it fast enough, it should result in a visual grey, just like the greyscale image – assuming the colours are right.
Munsell had some interesting ideas about colour balance that I’ll go into later in this series, so stay tuned. The main reasons using Munsell to guide these investigations will prove useful are that:
- I will know exactly what colours I’ve used and can repeat them, or vary them with complete control. The Munsell system of notation for hue, value chroma allows this. I can look back at which of my experiments I think were the most successful, and which weren’t, and know exactly what colours I used.
- The starting point, the Munsell hue circle, is more balanced than the traditional red, yellow blue colour wheel, which had a preponderance of warm colours. (okay, I know, I said “warm”. I may find that warm and cool are indispensable when talking about colour harmony, whilst I think they’re problematic for mixing. We’ll see.)
- Basing the practice on variations of hue, vale and chroma allows me to proceed with more control, varying only one dimension at a time if I want to. Colour is big. Too big, if approached by feeling and random ideas alone. This way, I gain a degree of control over what I’m doing that means I can work more systematically.
Can abstract design really teach you about how to design realistic paintings?
Well, you can decide after I’ve been working with it for a while. I’ll try, as much as I can, to relate what I’m learning back to realistic studies as I go.
Also, there’s this: Frank Brangwyn, turn of the century British illustrator and painter, has always been a touchstone of fine composition for me. He began his artistic life designing rugs, his father was a rug designer too. I believe you can still see those muted but beautifully balanced colours much in evidence in his paintings. His sense of design and spacing is also, I think, wonderful.
His work is often decorative – in the sense that it consists of flat patches of colour – but he could also paint realism extremely well. For me, it’s the combination of his strength of design and superb drawing that makes his work so compelling.
Here’s a taster, you can find much more on google images:
So what’s next
Now I’ve done the colour wheel, it’s on to line designs and trying colour combinations.
I plan to work an hour a day on this, most days, and will update periodically on my progress here – and also on facebook, if you follow me there.
(In other news, I’m abut to get a phone – no really, I am – so will be instagramming soon too 🙂 )
I’m really excited about this new exploration, and I hope you are too. Stick with me through the inevitable frustrations and hopefully breakthroughs and we’ll see what we can learn.
Best wishes and thanks for reading
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