Personal colour…

Ten years ago Prissy German Tourist and I audited an experimental painting course at a nearby college. We loaded up his van three times a week with piles of gear and materials and drove the 30 or so kilometers for our afternoon studio sessions. I had the dubious honour of being the oldest person in the studio and the students gave me wide berth.

We always arrived about an hour early in order to be able to carve out our own working spaces, array our supplies and ready work surfaces. PGT always prepared his colours at home. He decanted colours from off-tints  he bought at paint stores and put them in squeeze bottles.  In a previous incarnation he had been a commercial illustrator/designer and had defined his personal colour palette from his close knowledge of the Pantone colour system. He favoured clear pastel colours, both warms and cools and juxtaposed them with greyed colours which I associated with persistent depression. All of his work demonstrated a frayed, slightly morbid colouration, but could he ever strike a strongly individual temperature and mood in his use of colours. At the end of studio sessions, while we all walked about looking at each other’s productions, his work would be striking for its amazing colour pallette.

My own work tended toward the highly saturated, with jarring contrasts. I rarely used blue, red or yellow, and my colour preference leaned toward the secondary and tertiary colour combinations. I like modifying colours with their complementaries. The grey scale held its particular attractions for me, as well.

The rest of the students in the studio also demonstrated truly individual colour preferences.  Some liked tinkering with colour mixing; others just squeezed colour directly from tubes or ladled from jars and rarely mixed.

Our instructor’s colour pallette preferences remained a mystery to me until I made a visit to his studio downtown, later in the academic year. He never discussed our use of colour in studio during critiques and individual advice sessions, and this I thought very peculiar, given that we all laboured away, individually trying to come to grips with colour as it related to expression of ideas. So visiting this fellows studio proved completely surprising, especially in his personal use of colour in his paintings.  He favoured what I considered mildly adventurous men’s shirt selection colours – the kind that would be arrayed for a spring sale in a men’s clothing store, whisper colours, not outright declarative ones. “You like candy colours, but washed out ones!” I said to him.  But then his paintings were of classical, nubile female nudes, vaguely erotic in a chaste sort of way, painted laboriously with little hint of gesture in the work. “You use a conflicted Catholic palette!” I tentatively ventured.  This comment led to a discussion about temperament, emotional colourings in expression, and how to discover a personally meaningful way of making art for oneself.

Colours to me have the capacity to evoke taste and sound – this may seem weird, but then I also consider sounds to have texture, colour, sheen and weight. There is a term for this tendency to perceive sensory input in an intertwined and not separate manner – synaesthesia.  PGT experiences like this, and so did our college instructor.  I have had many friends who experience colour in this manner.  Over the years, discussing colour with people with this capacity has yielded some poetic descriptions, unusual ways of describing colour sensations.

In the scheme of things, of living in a complex world of strange phenomena and happenings, paying attention to colour expression and potential may seem frivolous to some.  However, it pays to be attentive to how much information colours can reveal. Scientists and doctors glean important information from colours they perceive. Ordinary people do as well discriminate about the ranges of experience frome pleasant to unpleasant, desirable to undesirable, safe to unsafe, based on their association with a range of colours and tones.

Colour is important to me, in that it influences my moods so much and yields so many moments of amazement and surprise.  Life is rich, and even as my abilty to see acutely and with clarity has been so hampered lately, colours retain their powerful presence in my life.

4 Responses to “Personal colour…”

  1. Trish Scott Says:

    This is a wonderful study of color. I was just wondering today why so many gen X folks love such dark and moody (disturbing to me) colors in their blogs and their art. My daughter in law, a really gifted artist and photographer, uses the palate I am talking about. She was the first I saw (ten or twelve years ago) of that sort of thing but now you see it in a LOT in blogs and elsewhere. It seems to be all the rage. To me it smacks of an epidemic of inner city depression. It brings to mind Steve Martin’s first line in The Jerk, “I was born a poor black child.” I just wonder if it is a whole generation of depression or what. Maybe you can enlighten me?

  2. Kay Says:

    Great evocative discussion! Tasty!

    I met an elderly widowed Chinese man at one of the art workshops I gave up in the Okanagan some 20 years ago who had taken up art as a vocation. He became inordinately fond of me and inveigled his art club friends into arranging some events – picnics, dinners, paint outs in Kalamalka Lake park, et cetera – with me as the fourth, or the sixth, and he fawned on me. He came to class one day with a drawing to show me from his weekly life drawing class. It was a very pink nude, the kind of pink one gets straight out of a Holbein oil pastel basic package, reclining in a provocative way, very pale yellow (straight out of Holbein) hair being lifted off the face by the upper arm, and a face that looked somewhat like a Maxwell Bates disfiguration. He was very proud of his accomplishment and showed it to me, glowing, himself, as he said rather proudly, “I was thinking of you when I did this!”
    I had to laugh. What else was there to do?
    It reminded me that we call the oriental people “yellow” when, actually, they are nowhere near yellow at all in skin colour. Here he was thinking of Caucasians as “pink” skinned people. A good example of how culturally we assign meanings to colours. Of course, olive skinned and black are two misnomers as well. What would you think of green olive coloured people running around. Martians, maybe?
    The “black” designation really covers the most wonderful range of warm browns to a dark almost deep, blue-brown colour and if one is used to drawing or painting Caucasian skin colours, it’s a toughie to get something representational for a Negroid colouration.

    This gentleman, for despite his laviscious leanings he really was a lovely, lively old gentleman, told me one time we had dinner out, that if I would paint all my paintings in vermillion red and accent it with gold leaf, I could sell every one of them and for a bundle. He had Chinese friends who would just gobble them up.
    I, not being of the commercially literate sort, never got around to doing a single painting in red and gold leaf.
    It just goes to show that there is a lot of culturally influenced penchant for one colour over another.

  3. maryt Says:

    Take a look at this photo below, suburbanlife, and tell me what you think about the colors. When I saw them I loved them…I just had my hall painted with a color you might call “Wedgewood green.” Do you know that color? Second entry down July 25th.

    I’m finding colors like these are the ones that turn me on today…no more pastels, beiges, etc.

  4. billsharp Says:

    Funny story and interesting observations about color. I love the comment ‘conflicted Catholic palette’.

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