The original version
of this article appeared in a special issue of Art
Journal, Rethinking Studio Art Education,
Spring 1999, Vol. 58, No. 1.
The notion of teaching color as a series
of formal and physiological experiments in perception is deeply
embedded in the American university and art school curriculum. Current
styles of teaching color first emerged at a time when new technologies
were drastically increasing the availability of synthetic pigments
in pure, high chroma hues and when artists were eschewing such extra-visual
matters as narrative and iconography in favor of abstraction and
formal issues. Most contemporary color curricula are still structured
on the tacit assumption that the ways of discussing and working
with color that emerged out of modern Western culture are universally
applicable and intelligible.
SCIENTIFIC METAPHORS OF VALUE
Virtually all Western color curricula teach that the field of color
is best understood by reference to a fixed set of descriptive qualities
that can be summarized by a chart: a hue circle, a value scale,
a chroma scale. In comprehensive color systems, such as Wilhelm
Ostwalds in The Color Primer,
these individual charts are then combined into a multi-dimensional
chart so that the student is presented with a three-dimensional
model, a color solid, which is said to summarize all the possible
variations of colors. The nuances of color created by media, surface,
and material are rarely considered.
Color, decontextualized and stripped of material
and historical associations, becomes the unquestioned subject of
such a study. Natural science, not social science or aesthetics,
is the paradigm for examination and exploration.
In a typical paint-based color class, students are given the task
of creating a 12-hue color wheel (hue circle) and a number of charts
showing value and chroma. The emphasis is on using imperfect pigment
to achieve the theoretically predictable results of such experiments
as use three primaries to generate a complete range of possible
hues or mix two complements to form a mid value gray.
These experiments inevitably lead to murky violets, dull greens,
and indeterminable neutrals. Instead of savoring the multitude of
subtle shades created, the students struggle to get the right
answer, while the instructor is forced to explain again and again,
If the pigments in these paints were perfectly balanced, you
would get the correct results.
Using colored papers, the exercises in a Josef Albers style
color class are more successful in demonstrating predictable and
repeatable results. For example, when students memorize pairs of
complementary colors, this information is reinforced by the visual
phenomenon of the after image or of simultaneous
contrast. Theoretical formulations such as When placed
side by side, complements enhance each others brightness
are tested and affirmed by the students own perceptions.
Grounding the knowledge of color in these scientific terms appears
to validate the knowledge being transmitted and reinforces the idea
that all of the information being conveyed is objectively true.
Ascribing a scientific basis to our understanding
of color becomes problematic as teaching moves from such perceptual
formulations as Cool colors tend to visually recede
to psychological, social observations such as Cool colors
create a mood of sadness.
The Western modern tradition of teaching color, with its scientific
emphasis on verifiable experiments and its aesthetic emphasis on
formalism, can no longer be taught as an unproblematic, universal
approach to understanding color. I am not suggesting that we cease
using the time-tested color exercises of a modernist curriculum.
I am suggesting that we contextualize current color exercises in
the history of modern art and culture and reexamine the values that
are supported or diminished by the curriculums underlying
assumptions and structural metaphors.
In Postmodern Art Education: An
Approach to Curriculum, Efland, Freedman, and Stuhr suggest
that art curricula make use of the concept of double coding.
Double coding in postmodern discourse is the recognition that many
contemporary works are deliberate hybrids of various cultural traditions.
Rather than attempting to smooth out
different systems of representation and interpretation into a harmonious
whole, double coded works create meaning out of the dialectic generated
by juxtaposition and the resulting cognitive tension.
I will discuss several ways in which professors at the University
of Illinois Chicago use multiply coded color curriculum to increase
the students sophistication when using color as they are introduced
to other important themes of contemporary art and culture.
MAPS AND TERRITORIES
The student frustrated by the fact that actual
paint mixing does not necessarily match theoretical predictions
is not duped by incorrect theory, but is struggling with the inevitable
gap between the complexity of the visual world and the limitations
of the systems we use to describe it.
In the color curriculum taught in the UIC Art Education program,
students are initially taught the system presented in Johannes Ittens
The Art of Color. After
studying and painting hue, value, and chroma scales, students study
Ittens color sphere. Upon learning how this model structures
color perceptions, students study another way of arranging the same
information on a three-dimensional chart, the Munsell Systems
color tree. Students discuss which features of visual
reality are best explained by each model.
Students note how in the Itten model the fully saturated pure hues
can be easily located around the equator of the sphere; however,
cross-hue value comparisons are less clear because pure hues come
in a wide range of value levels. In the Munsell model, a basic hue
circle cannot easily be seen because colors are located vertically
at their correct value level, hence a saturated violet will be low
on the value scale; a saturated yellow will be at a high level.
Through these types of comparisons, the students learn to compare
their actual perceptions to the structuring of perceptions through
Students presented with the historical fact that the Munsell Color
Tree has grown over the years are asked, How could
a system of representation grow? This challenges them to think
about how knowledge is constructed and presented. After being shown
a high chroma blue, which was added to the chart in recent years,
students discover how the tree grows--there are colors such as the
electric blue of a butterfly wing which people have long been able
to see, but which could not be represented in the model because
there was no equivalent pigment. The synthesizing of new pigments
made possible the representation and charting of a visual phenomena.
Students are introduced to an important postmodern
principle--knowledge is constructed within systems of representation
and no system is adequate to represent the complexity of reality.
Students (and significantly, future teachers) learn the importance
of using language and systems that do not claim to totally explain
complex phenomena. They learn to continue to seek to see the
thing itself and not its depiction within a single representational
CULTURAL CONTINGENCY AND THE MYTH OF PURE
In the West, most students have had childhood experiences of painting
with brightly colored tempera paints. Red, blue, and yellow are
seen as the natural choices of young children. This
supports modernist narratives about fundamental forms and joyous
What is hidden in these modernist narratives are the complex, industrial
processes necessary to produce the synthetic pigments that make
possible the wide dissemination of cheap, brightly colored paints.
Students are introduced to color pigments,
not as the stuff of earth and alchemy, but as abstracted substances,
disconnected from physical reality and historical contingency.
Through books such as the Gamblin
Color Book, students understand the interconnectedness of
technical, economic, and cultural information. Subtle shifts of
meaning occur when students see an earth tone as Terra di
Siena or recognize the devotional or status implications of
the use of brilliant blues before the 1824 discovery of the bright,
inexpensive Ultramarine Blue.
Marta Huzars UIC Color Theory course begins as a traditional
Albers style colored paper-based class. Later the class studies
and manipulates color on the computer using Photoshop. Some of the
work at this point involves using various programs to manipulate
found colors from photographic imagery. Color is thus
re-embodied in specific images and associations. The class moves
from insights gained in a domain of flattened, static affect to
ones enlivened by the particularity of references. The computer
provides hitherto fore unimagined ease in transforming color and
presents unforeseen difficulty in conceiving the translations between
color as light on the computer screen and color as pigment created
by various output devices such a laser or inkjet printers.
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