A Treatise on Watercolor Paints, by A. Boogerts
"What's your favorite color?"
It's a question adults are fond of asking children. Every child knows the answer and begins to understand their preference as a way of defining their personalities, even if the definitions are childishly simple: People who like red are bold and daring. People who like yellow are sunny. For the record, my favorite has always been green. Most people who know me would say that I was a relaxed and peaceful person, much like green's effect on us. Maybe we grow into our favorite colors, embodying those associated traits as we age.
We're also defined (not always in kind or just ways) by our hair and eye and skin color: all identifiers on our driver's licenses and passports. And speaking of hair color. These seemingly outdated perceptions still rear their follicled heads: Blonde haired women are deemed empty-headed, brunettes intellectual and cool, and redheads firey-hot. And while gray hair used to mean simply: old, many men and women (including yours truly) are wearing gray hair proudly and better than ever these days. Whether there is any truth at all to these tropes doesn't matter. The fact that color is used to classify, separate, categorize, inform and delight is its calling card. What is your race? Are you on the red side or blue?
With one color choice, we identify a great deal about ourselves.
What's in a color? Quite a lot. It is one of the only categories I can think of that has interest on so many levels: each color has its own history of invention or discovery, there is a psychology of color, there is a science of color, there is a language around color, there is a racial and political aspect of color, color is universal as well as personal, in the realm of professionals like artists and designers, yet, just as important to the average person.
As a painter, color is not just something I notice and enjoy, but also something that I experiment with, consider and study. But for most of us, on a daily basis, color is one of the main reasons we make choices. Would I like the blue or the green sweater? The pink or the yellow roses? It's an important part of our traffic and highway systems. Not to mention food. To eat all of our favorite colors is part of what delights us when we are presented with a plate. No one wants to dig into a meal that looks hopelessly brown. And in that vein, don't we all gasp when we see a bird flash its belly with bright red or yellow as it flies past? We feel like we've seen something special. Not just an "ordinary" brown bird.
In her book, Colour: Travels through the Paintbox, Victoria Finlay outline's each color's fascinating history starting with yellow and red ochre, the first paint colors used in cave paintings. We don't usually think of paint color as something that has a story, or even being invented for that matter. Color for some- whether natural or synthetic-is ubiquitous and taken for granted. I am drawn to such a book in part because it illustrates the origins and science of color through stories and anecdotes, a wonderful way to acquire knowledge about esoteric topics. One of my favorite books of all time is Diane Ackerman's A Natural History of the Senses, dissecting all five in a way that is provocative, sensual and factual. Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief is in a similar vein. Orlean made the discovery and gathering (and stealing) of orchids, something I'd never given much thought about, to something I couldn't put down.
But back to color.
Color feels special, doesn't it? We are reminded of how luxurious it is when we see that for certain items and services, color costs more money, as it does in printing. Why all those glossy art books break the bank. The price for certain paint hues like cadmium red still make me gasp when I pick up a tube in an art store. At least we can thank nature for providing all her color for free.
Could red possibly be the most popular color? It sure has power on its side with fire and the planet Mars two of its top beneficiaries. Cochineal, the little bug that could, came out of the Mexican desert much to the delight of the Spanish and eventually artists across Europe in the sixteenth century who fell into a "red craze." The small beetle with it's cache of blood from the prickly pear, or nopal cactus, gives its life so that we may express our anger, passion and vibrancy with the color red. No wonder the Renaissance saw it as highly prized. Its scarcity made it that much more desirable as red became associated with wealth and status and changed the palette of painting. In the modern world, red still retains a reputation for getting our attention every time.
What's most interesting to me about color is that we often have preferred colors for certain things but would never choose that color for others. Yellow flowers happen to be my favorite, but you will never see me wearing a yellow piece of clothing. Similarly, while my closet contains a multitude of black, I would certainly never paint my walls that color. We seem to understand, privately or collectively, that there are "norms" of color etiquette that belong to certain objects. A bright pink refrigerator would not be a big seller. As a painter, it is a particular joy however, to be able to ignore those norms.
Sometimes the norms are simply enforced. There have long been places in the U.S., with neighborhood codes that prevent homeowners from painting their houses anything but "acceptable" colors. Usually something neutral. I can remember my first impression of the island of Hilton Head, S.C., where my sister lived for many years. It was devoid of any real color, sporting the same three neutrals of khaki, brown and cream like an army barracks. Maybe the city planners feared bright color might bring on negative behavior in the ranks. Even Mexico, with its reputation for color with abandon, enforces color codes in the historic centers of its pueblos mágicos. When there are rules about color, it is clearly to remind us that color carries with it a collective symbolic power.
But tradition and culture also contribute to how we treat color. Tropical places or anywhere from Mexico on down tend to be more liberated, color-wise. Theories abound that tropical heat + more dancing = less clothing, and therefore less inhibitions about everything, including public displays of bright color: houses, money and clothing. Colder climates sport lots of brown wool. Poor brown with its dowdy reputation. In brown's defense, I was in a residency some years ago where I chanced upon Van Dyke Brown as a color I decided to work with in a series of paintings. During that retreat, I became a brown devotee.
Our languages are also liberally peppered with color references, mostly cliched "green thumbs" and "black sheep." We even refer to someone who is lifeless as "drained of color." The Spanish language makes the use of color particularly poetic. Two of my favorite idioms are media naranja, your "better half" (literally, half an orange) and novela rosa, "romantic novel" with pink connoting the light read. And for some reason, the French think the color blue carries fear. Avoir une peur bleue, is "to be vey scared." Color often gives clarity to our emotions and moods as well, leaving its mark on pop culture. Singer Nick Drake feels "paler than the weakest blue." In Breakfast at Tiffanys, Holly Golightly complains about not just the blues, but one step down to the mean reds. It seems natural and familiar to associate these abstract ideas with color. The references are solid and resonate across a broad spectrum of the world.
Poet Maggie Nelson wrote a book of poems with the enchanting title Bluets, dedicated to the color blue because she "fell under its spell." She meanders through connected thought in a dreamy provocation of blue in all its shades and connotations.
I love the idea of falling under the spell of a color. This perfectly describes what happens in nature and in the painting process where I sometimes find myself falling into a color in that way. That experience reminds me to allow color to linger and work its magic.
I once stayed in a Tibetan dark retreat meditation for six days many years ago. The "deprivation" in the total darkness allowed me to see with more clarity the intelligent, creative and alive world that I'd been taking for granted. When I came out into the light and color (and magic) of my mountain forest surroundings, my first thought was, wow, is this really what the world looks like?! As if I had just seen it for the first time in all its colorific splendor.
There is a great culminating line in Alice Walker's novel, The Color Purple where her character Shug Avery says she thinks it "pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don't notice it."
Color is most definitely here for us to notice. Don't let your favorites pass you by. As artist Paul Klee declared, “Color is the place where our brain and the universe meet.”
I'd say that's some pretty good alchemy.