I use colour in a lot of my work. This was not always the case. When I applied to art college, much of the work in my portfolio lacked colour. Colour mixing, and arranging colours together was for me, not very intuitive. When I was in my foundation year, I enrolled in a colour theory class - it was a mandatory class, and my instructor's name was Renata Realini. She studied at the Bauhaus and brought her knowledge and expression of colour into the classroom. I have to confess that as a student, I felt as though the exercises were not very interesting, but in retrospect, I realized that this particular skill set could only be truly understood through practice. The assignments ranged from ones inspired by Johannes Itten's book "The Elements of Color," and also exercises from Josef Albers; mixing and painting coloured squares and placing them next to each other to see how colours changed depending on whatever they were adjacent to, and also, how its temperature would change depending on its position amongst other colours. We used colour to flatten three dimensional space, and made our own Vasarely grids to create optical effects. It was exercises on top of exercises, and although I was not able to see what was happening per se, my senses were slowly becoming attuned to this artistic element.
I've been asked by many students how I use colour, and how they might possibly become better at using it. When I hear this question, I rephrase it in my mind into something similar to this:
"I'm afraid of using colours. There are so many colours out there, so how do I decide which ones to use? And how do I know which ones work best together?"
I think for someone who is beginning to explore colours, but is a bit nervous to do so, taking small steps by giving oneself restrictions can be a good thing; meaning that working with a limited colour palette, for example only 2 colours that are similar (or monochromatic) and then perhaps using third colour, as a highlight is a non-intimidating way to begin. How to choose these two colours is up you. Honestly, I'm one who enjoys keeping things playful in my studio, and although I do have colour touchstones (in other words, my go-to colours) frequently, I choose a colour based on the mood that I'm trying to create within a scene. For example, if it's a sad scene, then I might use cool colours, such as blues and turquoises. Or, if it's a scene that is bold and perhaps even aggressive, I may use reds, and solid blacks. As an illustrator my intention isn't only to render subject matter, but to also create moods and atmospheres. It's important for me to engage as many of the viewers' senses as possible, not only the obvious one, sight, but smell, sound, taste, and touch; colour for me is a good way to appease those senses. Once I decide on the mood of the piece, it will lead me towards selecting a base colour, or starting point. In the piece, "Death on Facebook," for The Atlantic, I chose to use blues as my foundation colour because of the topic of the article. A woman learns via Facebook, that an acquaintance of hers has died. Although there could have been other ways to approach colouring this piece, I chose to use blues and cool tones because I felt that these colours would best represent silence and the feeling of sadness. For my drawing "Scars," also for The Atlantic, the story was a fictional piece about a woman who has a mastectomy, and decides to tattoo this area of her chest with flowers. When I read this story, I gravitated towards the hopefulness, beauty and strength of the character. I asked myself, how can I make this piece both strong and beautiful using subject matter (flowers) which are typically aligned with a kind of fragile and ephemeral beauty? My answer to this, was to make the flowers bold while keeping the delicateness of them intact. The repetition through the clustered arrangements of the flower create a kind of soft armor that the woman sits in.
|"Death on Facebook," The Atlantic|
|"Scars," The Atlantic|
I feel that it's okay to look at other artists' colour palettes (in various artistic disciplines) and apply those colours to one's own work. Again, when you're at the beginning stages of your career, you are still learning, and so by referring to other artists' colour palettes it will help you to understand the relationships between these colours. Eventually you will arrive to a point where you will have the confidence to adjust your colour palette, by adding or taking away particular colours so that the process will start to become more intuitive. I oftentimes refer to old prints, posters, and book covers for colour inspiration. My very good friend, Yuko Shimizu, describes the reasoning behind doing this as being a sound way to edit one's colour selection. When these posters and prints were created they were done using old printing methods, and so their limitations forced them to use only a few colours within an image. Oftentimes, I find that students are overwhelmed with colours, they see so much of it, and find it difficult to make a decision. Editing is the key, and referring to these modes of inspiration is only one way of establishing a starting point when deciding how to approach using colour in one's work.
Another thing that I enjoy doing is drawing in colours, instead of using only black, or grey. Although this may be a psychological trick that I play on myself, it has become one of the best methods for myself, that has improved my colour sensitivity. Again, I would only limit myself to a maximum of two to three colours, and then use those colours to draw. Usually I would choose a warm and cool colour, for example a magenta and turquoise, where the turquoise acts as the cool value typically used for shadows. Choosing to remove black from my toolbox when sketching, forced me to work with the colours that I would have on hand, thereby making me less fearful (of using colour.)
What I've written has really been informed through my own experience, through trial and error, and was inspired by a recent question that I received from a student who asked about my colour use, and suggestions on how he could better his own. My approach reads as kind of formulaic and linear, but really I believe that colour is best understood when used with a kind of abandon. Learning by doing and experimenting is by far, in my opinion, one of the most effective ways to understand the properties of colour.