Tuesday, February 07, 2006


Today was a day of Eurekas in my teaching career. The first came during a color exercise in my undergraduate class at American University. I asked students to illustrate an emotion through color, something described in Patti Bellatoni’s book “If It’s Purple Someone’s Gonna Die.” I gave students opposing emotions: Love and hate, Sympathy and Indifference, Joy and Sorrow. Some of the students gave me specific illustrations to convey their emotion, but I was most interested in the colors.

Each student picked his or her color out of a hat and no student knew what the other student had. Then they got to illustrating. When a section was called to the front of the class – for instance joy – all of them had yellows in their illustration. Yellow was mixed with various colors, most of them “warm,” but all of them were tone. So if yellow was mixed with a blue, it was like a sky blue rather than a navy blue. If it was with a yellow it was a sunny yellow rather than an ochre. Love was illustrated with light reds and pinks. Hate was illustrated with dark reds and blacks.

I tend not to illustrate a color with a mood or emotion because colors or so varied in association. A green grass is different that a toxic green for instance, and the natural has a more pleasant association than the synthetic. But, noticing how universal these students were with their assignment of color to emotion makes me wish to rethink some of my thinking. I believed color had an influence, but I never realized it was that strong!

The second eureka occurred in my continuing education class in McLean for the Corcoran. This class is filled with people who want to learn how to leisurely paint. The problem is some of them don’t know how to draw. Drawing is not fundamental for painting, but it sure does help!

The major hurdle between painting and drawing is if a person is drawing with a pencil, he doesn’t think about a color. Drawing = Pencil. Drawing becomes a problem for some when drawing = shading, but at its core drawing = pencil. Give a student charcoal and drawing = mess. Now give a student paint. Paint = Color. Line, shape, form, positive/negative, measurement, and proportion – it all goes out the window. How do I get that color? This is what I was asked several times tonight.

We drew with paint this evening to break them out of thinking Paint = Color. The first drawing they all drew the contours of positive shapes. Each student might draw a vase and get caught up on all the intricate details of the vase. The student would draw in the vase behind that vase, but accidentally draw it smaller than what they were observing, or place it in the foreground. Common mistakes.

The second drawing they were told to draw the negative shapes only. This becomes tricky. Eventually the negative shape between objects will inadvertently identify a positive shape. If a candlestick is behind a flowerpot (sans flowers), part of the negative space of that candlestick will be the flowerpot. There is no avoiding it. Black becomes white. White becomes black. Some students couldn’t tolerate going through the looking glass like that. Question: If the flowerpot it positive how can I draw that line? Answer: Because that line defines the negative space of the candlestick and the positive space of the flowerpot. (It also defines vice versa).

The last drawing they could only focus on large forms of shadows and highlights to identify their composition. This process created new problems because they were trying to draw the shadows as linear marks with big brushes. They were also encouraged to build up shadows, moving from light to dark. Smaller and smaller strokes became necessary, as did smaller and smaller brushes. Some were so exasperated with this process. But, despite their increasing exasperation with each painting, the paintings improved with each new approach. They were learning how to see in new ways each time.

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