• Michael Skalka

The Cutting Room Floor...

Updated: Feb 25


When preparing a lecture, it seems that a large quantity of unused material is generated that never makes it into the actual talk given. Sometimes this information is useful but just does not fit the direction of the lecture. Other times, it becomes fuel for further research. It this case, it is just material filed away for potential use at a later time.


In many instances we read the headings on chapters of books and do not stop to think about the words on the page. At times, we may think an author has made a serious mistake but believe that some authority has reviewed it and corrected any errors of logic or style.


One chapter heading I read used the term ‘color theory.” It just struck me as funny. I think of a theory as a hypothetical set of ideas that attempts to explain how something works. We know that a variety of phenomena exist and theorists construct ways of explaining why they happen. We don’t know for sure but it’s far better than the cocked-head response my dog provides when I direct a command to him.


When I saw the term “color theory, “I thought that in the artist’s realm, this is more of an organized pattern of tested and accepted and tested concepts rather than a theory. It is much like flying airplanes. Engineers are fairly confident that they have this one nailed down. I would dare say that most people don’t board airplanes thinking, “Does this “theory” of aerodynamics really work?” We pretty much have all the principles understood and worked out in precise mathematical detail. I thought the same holds true for “color theory.” The mystery has been unmasked. We know what will happen. I don’t anticipate that in the 19th century if Alexander Graham Bell has been both an inventory and artist, one while standing at his easel, mixing Prussian Blue and Chrome Yellow the mixture would turn deep red. In panic and dismay, Alexander would run to his newly invented telephone and shout, “Dr, Watson, come here I need you.”


While the mystery of color mixing has been explained and practiced countless times, the excitement of combining pigments has certainly not diminished. I am certain that the thrill still remains when preparing a palette, even for the seasoned artist. The sun is just right. The trees and distant mountains are cast in a dramatic light. One hurries to put palette knife to use and mix luscious colors. It’s both a visual and physical experience.


It is spring here in the Washington, DC area (May 12, 2005). Earlier this week we had two days of heavenly weather. It was a combination of perfect temperature, low humidity, lots of sunlight and lush spring foliage. The landscape begged to be painted. It was the one time in the year when the young leaves on trees are the color of permanent green light, straight out of the tube. One has no need to modify this color with a mixture. Only a few natural objects match colors straight out of the tube. Landscape painters in this part of the country can never have too many methods for making green. Many paintings may have 90 percent of the surface covered with various mixtures of green. At this time of the year the trees have not suffered the ravages of munching insects, drought or storms. The chroma of everything is a bit higher than later in the summer when humidity casts a blue haze on everything.


Now, back to my research. It becomes difficult to make color mixing a neat and tidy package. Pigments have a habit of appearing benign, while underneath the possess tendencies called undertones that distort certain mixing combinations. In most cases, the final product of the mixing is a muted version of what was expected. This shift or “bias” is the primary concern of many artists when trying to select a palette with a minimum number of colors. For some artists, this has become a Holy Grail quest. While this may be a noble undertaking, it can be a handicap to color mixing as one discovers that serious voids exist if certain colors are not selected. While your painting luggage may be lighter, your frustration level can become heavier as you struggle to create colors that just cannot be made with the paints you have chosen.


I read yesterday that it took over 19 hours to train a group of squirrels to shell nuts and drop them in a cup. This was done for the filming of the remake of “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” from the imaginative Roald Dahl story. Could these highly trained rodents upstage Johnny Depp? This has inspired me. I am going to spend the next few weeks teaching my dog to paint.


The Syntax of Color

Original Grammar of Color Essay

Vol: 1 No.11 (Published 05-12-05)

(Edited 2021)

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