Color Coding

By Gude, Olivia | Art Journal, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

Color Coding


Gude, Olivia, Art Journal


The notion of teaching color as a series of formal and physiological experiments in perception is deeply embedded in the U.S. 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 extravisual 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 Ostwald's in The Color Primer, these individual charts are then combined into a multidimensional chart so that the student is presented with a threedimensional model, a color solid, which is said to summarize all the possible variations of colors. The nuances of color created by medium, 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 twelve-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 afterimage or of simultaneous contrast. Theoretical formulations such as "When placed side by side, complements enhance each other's 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. However, ascribing a scientific basis to our understanding of color becomes problematic as teaching moves from such perceptual formulations as "cool colors tend to recede visually" 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 supported or diminished by the curriculum's underlying assumptions and structural metaphors.

In Postmodern Art Education: An Approach to Curriculum, Arthur Efland, Kerry Freedman, and Patricia Stuhr suggest that art curricula make use of the concept of double coding. …

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