Colour theory unscrambled

I just finished leaving a comment over at All the Strange Hours (a blog that’s now disappeared) in response to a great article on Munsell and colour theory in general. Then realised I could actually say as much as I liked on the subject and even go off on a tangent now I have my own blog – old habits and all that. I’ve been fascinated with colour since I took a class in Colour Theory a couple of years ago. Prior to that I’d mostly dealt with colour as it applied to print not really thinking about it much – just using it to get the job done. Of course I knew the basics – like any kid who has ever had a box of watercolour, I knew that red and yellow make orange.

It became more interesting as an adult with the oil paints. No longer happy with just any shade of orange I wanted to mix the one I could see in the landscape before me – OK so I could just buy a tube of Australian Sienna – but really…

The colour class I took merely whetted the appetite. From there I picked up a book called Blue and Yellow Don’t Make Green by Michael Wilcox and read it from end to end. Pretty good. Unfortunately it didn’t help much until about six months later when faced with a college level paint class the desperation forced me to pick it up again and actually do the exercises. Yes, mix all 2500 colours. It was worth every little dollop of paint. I’ve had no colour mixing issues since. Yes, it did add up to a lot of paint. And rags. And lots of little MDF panels that I used for the task. Still it was worth it. I will save far more than paint in my coming years of painting – and a lot of frustration too.

Then I came across Munsell theory which Graydon Parrish has been working with and teaching as a practical painting tool. I sent away for the Munsell Student Set, read it first and then having learned my lesson previously immediately began working through the suggested exercises. That fixed any hue and chroma confusion…

Now, of course, I’m still painting grey cubes but that’s just continuing the experiment. The nature of the beast is well understood. Hey, I can mix the eight shades of grey between black and white on the Munsell Value Scale – pretty darn accurately in about 30 minutes… OK so I’ve had to mix and paint the scale quite a few times. I’m not that fast a learner. Making the cubes and then painting the still lives of them as Graydon suggested is one incredibly useful exercise. Just ask Paul.

Still asking questions, I’ve been reading about Wilhelm Ostwald’s theories and their practical application in book by Faber Birren called Creative Color. Ostwald, a Nobel scientist in chemistry, corresponded with Munsell but at some point took his study in a different direction. He identified what he called the “uniform chroma scale” – or shadow series – which he says is the secret behind the richness and luminosity of chiaroscuro. Instead of mixing black and white to a given colour to change the values – a touch of the original colour is added too so the proportion of hue content is kept constant. So yes, now I’m mixing chroma scales too. More paint. I like theory that has practical application and experiments so I can see for myself.

As I said, I’ve had practice working with cyan, yellow and magenta in the print industry. Then a few more years mixing oil paints on the basis of red, yellow and blue. My husband is an electronics engineer and has explained really well how the red, green blue of my monitor works. Three different systems – all of which work – differently. Grrr…

Always the kid wanting to know “why”, “just because” won’t do – I had to keep reading.

Recently I came across a thread at Wet Canvas written by WF Martin – that really made my head spin and essentially solved the problem for me. It does fit together! Not for any particularly practical purpose – I’m still playing with Munsell greys and Ostwald chroma scales – but it settled the whole issue in my head. So go read this man’s explanation (and do the exercises!) with an open mind. It’s an eye opener.


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