When I was young and it was time to shop for school supplies, I could not wait to get my box of crayons!
My first set was small and simple, just enough to be useful and fun. Later, the expanded sets were available. As I got older, it seemed more appropriate that I could handle the big boy box of a previously un-imaginable number of crayons. It was the exciting sixty-four set with a built-in sharpener in the box! I would arrive at school with my impressive mega-box of crayons and plant it proudly on top of my desk.
When it became time to use them, I would explore the arsenal of choices and linger over my decision of which one to use. There were my old friends. Red, blue, yellow, green, brown, black, even white! My new friends in the sixty-four cray-o-la mega-set were very exotic, like Periwinkle. What’s a Periwinkle?
To the delight of my eight-year old self, there were colors that may be necessary for the future. I might draw a peach and if I do, thankfully, I had a crayon that says Peach on it. I would of course use Peach to color the peach. Oh look, I have Robin’s Egg Blue. I like drawing bird’s nests, so that will be helpful in coloring the egg in the nest. Oh look, it’s Sea Green! That will be perfect for when I make my drawing of the ocean. Why is there also a Pacific Blue? Well, the Sea-Green will be for the Atlantic ocean then.
Excuse me, while I paint the sky.
The coveted sky-blue! Finally, my skies will look like the actual sky!
One day, an adult looked through my giant set of crayons and discovered I also had one called cerulean. He explained that cerulean was generally used by artists and for them, cerulean was what they called their sky blue. Maybe I stopped for a moment and stared at my giant box of crayons? Maybe I got lost in an absence of everything I thought I knew up to that point? I may have even asked the all-important question of, Huh!?
At that moment, I think my curiosity about color went into another dimension. It had just occurred to me that perhaps the name of a color is just that. Perhaps color has more potential than what I originally thought. Was it possible that there is not a specific crayon for everything I see? The thing I learned about color up to that point is that there is a pre-made crayon that matches the color I see. And, it apparently has a name. I just didn’t know the name of it yet.
The Shadow Knows
For example, what is the name of the color for yellow lemons? Lemon-Yellow, of course! What is the name of the color of the lemon’s shadow? Shadow-of-a-Lemon, of course! Except, there is no such pre-made color called Shadow-of-a Lemon. So, now what?
Years later, I enter now into an art store and I’m confronted with a considerable amount of choices. When I turn into the aisle where the paints are sold and I am reminded of my giant box of crayons. The seemingly unlimited spectrum of visible light has somehow been harnessed, replicated, sorted, and labeled, and put into a tube for our convenience! Even so, the vast array of choices makes an artist, even one like myself feel daunted. I certainly do not need ALL of these, do I?
Fortunately, no. The occasion where I learned cerulean and sky blue were essentially the same thing did, in fact, motivate me to learn more about how color worked. After my years at art school, I continue to be fascinated with the theories of color and materials. I feel for those new to it. With paints, it’s not enough that there are so many choices of hues. There are such things as top tones and undertones, viscosity, opacities, tinctorial strengths, durability, chroma and plain old manufacturing quality. Why, oh why, can’t there just be a color called “Shadow-of-a-Lemon”?
Forgetting the Color
Perhaps, the significant thing about why there isn’t one, (or why it shouldn’t be used if there is!), is the need for us to see it be made by the artist who is painting the shadow of the lemon. Our delight in looking at and being moved by a painting relies in the way the shadow was and is perceived by the artist and ourselves. The particulars of the light and how it’s handled tells us not that what we see is the shadow of a lemon, but rather the artist’s description of it back to us.
There in lies either the delicacy or the roughness of the interpretation and the aesthetic. Much in the way a composer can use a violin to describe a sunrise in the quiet mountains, the painter can give us a stirring of our thoughts as we observe the capture of a subtle and ordinary thing on a canvas. We may forget we are looking at a painting and become lost in a private contemplation.
This extra-ordinary thing is made by not every color available to the artist but often by only a few. It is interesting to look at something and just forget about what color it is supposed to be. Rather, better to look and see what the thing is “doing” right at that moment. For example, the color of our lemon’s shadow will be a certain color depending on what the lighting is like or what time of day it is or where it is placed.
Back Inside the Box
Most artists search for the right color. Rarely do they simply use what is right out of the tube. I tend look for that “perfect green” that strikes a chord. Or maybe it’s a particular orangish-red in an evening sky. Using just a handful of basic colors is the way to go. Just in those few colors will there be other options like those others mentioned earlier. Those considerations will be made depending on what you are after. Either a low chroma or high key, a glaze or an undertone, and so on. Mature painting is less about replicating color and more about expressing color anyhow. There’s so much to consider, it’s best not to complicate your choices by needing the “right color” from the tube.
Every now and then, I find myself in the aisle at the art store where the paints are sold. I imagine what I must look like if I were about twenty feet behind myself. There I would be, in front of all of those tubes of paint. I might feel like I’m suddenly inside of my big box of crayons! By the way, after my childhood epiphany with my box of Cray-o-las, I found I could replicate the exotic colors with my “regular” colors. A blue with white and a touch green and a smidge of yellow. Pretty close!
For fun, here’s a link to a page that has the list of all sixty-four colors in the Cray-o-la set.