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Personalities of Color

I don’t just want to paint; I want to impact lives through through painting. We want analysis in order to learn how to efficiently mix hues, but we also need to understand where and how to add meaning with color. How do we talk about art systematically without narrowing the scope to understanding optical perception only? We can start with the innate character of colors. If the creative process is a metaphor for our will to exist together, we can foster a good social culture by combining colors. The solitary artist can be influencing the direction of the world by how she works with the energy of color.

The tension inherent the plurality of beings in our world has to be addressed through a unified composition in our paintings. The plurality and variety in the world around us has to be the subject of a reforming artist. Color is the key. Unity and visual harmony is built into the continuity of the color wheel, which closes on itself, implying a cycle of life and expressing the harmony potential.

On the electromagnetic spectrum, visible color is a minor segment in a very large continuum – there is infrared on one side, and ultraviolet light on the other that we cannot see with the naked eye. For humans, the relatively small segment of visible light waves is in fact everything we can see. Moreover, colors visible to humans are not perceived as a linear segment. On the artists’ color wheel, the color progressions loop back around. This should clue us in that thinking purely in scientific terms about the spectrum will cause us to miss a crucial element of meaning in the color wheel (subject to interpretation, of course). The energy of all visible colors coming together into what we see as ‘pure’ white light is a divine gift we can use to build a visual vocabulary of relationships.

For example,

  • The cyclical nature of the color indicates closure and resolution is possible.

  • Like a person’s personality, the more intense the color, the more that intensity precludes intermingling with others.

  • Mixing with the direct opposite results in a boring neutrality and the absence of any energy.

  • While colors have their own ‘voice’ or inherent emotion, they have the best (and worst) appeal when put into context with other colors.

  • Vibrancy and harmony does not mean the absence of strong color personalities.

  • And so on . . .

To create a painting, however, we have to understand color mixing. We can organize our thinking about color systematically, as we shall see below. But let us not lose sight of the fact that the purpose of these exercises has to be supporting meaningful expression, which to me is about catalyzing a connection with others in this world.

The fact that the color wheel is closed means we have a finite conceptual model to work with, i.e. a system for understanding. How do colors get along? You have to know their personalities.

My color progressions below demonstrate, for example, that relatively speaking, some colors like yellow, more quickly lose ‘yellowness’ when moving across the interim stops in the color wheel, than say red loses its ‘redness’ in the same span. Colors, like red and green, and to a lesser extent blue and purple, have a far broader set of stops where they appear to retain their color character, i.e. redness or greenness.

Red and green are the most expansive colors – we perceive them to strongly influence neighboring hues. Redness and greenness cross more stops on the color wheel than other colors. Next are teal and magenta, which have a more intense if not more expansive presence. Yellow is the strongest individual color, but the boundary for yellowness is very tight, barely going beyond its own stop on the color wheel. Yellow very quickly feels either orangey or green.

The strength of character in color is reduced by tinting. Yellowness disappears quickly in the tints, mostly into a greenish tone, which of course contributes to the expansiveness of green. Yellow is an introverted personality strongest on its own. Blend it with others and its energy dissipates. Purple, on the other hand, survives tinting really well. Its tints remain purplish at any value. It is not an expansive character, but it does have constancy in the lights and the darks.

Yellow is the color of singularity. Green, in close proximity, draws it away from truth like gravity pulls a ball from a summit. A singularity is easy to recognize but hard to hold. From the perspective of civilization that has tamed nature, green seems pretty harmless because of its ubiquity. How do those who live in a more menacing relationship with nature see the color?

Magenta has a frivolous existence as a ‘red’ that is not warm. Magenta cannot stand on its own well. It needs a mantle of yellow to bring it warmth, or the lemon green to warm it by contrast. Blue is solid as steel. It does not penetrate far in any direction, but it does have its own energy. Blue needs no one. Teal is a vivid color: it has the survivability of blue with the bright intensity of magenta or yellow without the weak identity of magenta or the isolated vulnerability of yellow.

Red of course is the powerful color. It has influence laterally and stability into the neutrals. Not as solid as blue, it is nevertheless hot, and as such threatening to anything cold, including blue, which it can weaken into a lavender. Blue gets pulled into red, not the other way around. Red, while ignited by yellow, burns hot and steady on its own.

In my mind red is a color a being. Many examples exist in art, from Gauguin to Sorolla, where an undertone of a red painting surface is allowed to show through within a shape and left as such to connote a living being. Surrounding shapes support it with depth by contrast (light yellows) or warmth by comparison (accentuated by greens and blues).

Red is essential for rendering life, and artists like Leffel will recommend warm shadows and dark areas. In my own animal paintings a magenta base is invoked to red by a glaze of yellow. The interaction of the two colors creates an under layer of redness that oscillates between warm (more yellow) and cool (more magenta). This field of redness is the base energy of the work that does show through in the bodies of creatures and warms through the dark areas, which are pulled into purple in their darkest parts. Purple or violet – which can also be made via overlays on red – are that steady yet warm deep tone that is suitable for rendering living weight in the shadows, even if the paint is transparent. Not all colors can achieve a sense of heftiness despite being rendered with glazes. Hence warm, transparent shadow areas have become a staple of classical painting.

Because of their expressiveness, it is easy to suggest redness and greenness without using the precise red and green colors themselves. Red and green can be implied by tints of neighboring colors. You can’t do that with yellow, magenta or teal, which require an explicit statement.

Achieving unity with colors of different character actually introduces quite a bit of variety. You can have intense co-habitation of colors, the bright greens that dialog with magentas without touching. The yellows that warms a magenta with an overlay, which provide unity of surface when also overlaying a blue, losing itself for the sake of expansive greenness or redness. That same yellow, when fully saturated and opaque will provide a highlight of energy, a literal color spark, to enliven the entire canvass.

With this cursory review of the colors we get a sense of their personalities. With a finite cast of color characters we can mix the full range of human emotions. It’s really quite remarkable what you can do with this ‘secondary’ material of creation, a product of the fracture of the primary white light, the unity of energy.

Add figurative allusions to the interaction of the community of color, and you increase the power of the art. Colors then become a commentary on the characters. Brighten a solemn ox with the sparkle of teal, lemon green, magenta and yellow and suddenly the oxen have an emotional life, an allusion to both their impotence and forced yoke of servitude.

Roy Zuniga, Costa Rican Oxen (2010)

Add blues to a solemn tiger’s head and impenetrable majesty is given to a creature full of action-potential, as evidenced by its red and orange fur.

Roy Zuniga, Swimming Tiger (2013)

Surround a rhino with teal and you reinforce the dynamic presence of that pre-historic looking creature. Teal is a color of solid motion: but it cannot stay teal for long because it is an unstable color; it must blend. For a serious subject like the rhino, deepening monochromatic purple shadows that allow the underlying reds to shine through is the idea of raw animal power.

Roy Zuniga, Red Rhino (2013)

Add to all this an understanding of tone, and you can give great import to works of unnatural color. When approached with concentration and purposeful interpretation, the color artist is indeed a portraitist of live characters. Gauguin is one who worked with both symbol and color in his art. Understanding the characters of color, Gauguin’s Christ could only be yellow. Yellow exists in itself only, a singularity that does not draw other colors in, but that will quickly bleed out. Gauguin’s yellow Christ has bled out to redeem the entire countryside.

Paul Gauguin, The Yellow Christ (1889)

As an artist, you get to, in the alchemical sense, impart spirit into the paints. It is this combinatory dynamic of an artistic agent taking the variety of colors, adding the dimension of the figurative and the illusory power of form and you can achieve works with seemingly autonomous existence. My goal is to create works that are a mind of their own.

Of course these works don’t have self-consciousness. Their ‘spirit’ is surely a relational one. The colors perceived, after all, exist only in the observer because of the work itself has absorbed all the energy we don’t see. In itself, the art material is an anti-work, the inverse of what we perceive as far as light reflected and absorbed. In the absolute sense the works are a fraud. They are nothing in themselves. In relation to the observer however, they have an existence, which is an enticing understanding because we implicitly know these lively works we mysteriously relate to, that can be our teachers, teasers of taste, and addictive enough to become the single most expensive artifacts on earth – these powerful beings actually cease to have power when we don’t look at them. There’s some kind of relationship there, which adds to the mystery of art. You don’t have to power it on: just look at it, and it is active in your mind.

Art does not die on its own because apart from us they have no meaningful existence. The more attention we give them, the stronger they become, to the point where those of us who can, will spend a fortune to have access to this power of the works – a power, again, which lives only in our minds.

— copyright (c) 2014 Roy Zuniga

[Originally published on]

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