Introduction to Color Theory
Before we get into exactly what color theory is, and how it works, we need to first look at a broader concern as it pertains to how people experience works of art. This is the correct place to begin an Introduction to Color Theory as we will have plenty of time to delve into all of the principles and physical properties of color later. So, what exactly happens when we look at a piece of art and experience it with our senses? This experience can be called an Aesthetic Experience. Aesthetics (also spelled æsthetics or esthetics) is a branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of beauty, art, and taste, and with the creation and appreciation of beauty. It is more scientifically defined as the study of sensory or sensori-emotional values, sometimes called judgments of sentiment and taste. More broadly, scholars in the field define aesthetics as “critical reflection on art, culture and nature.”
So what does this mean exactly as it relates to an Aesthetic Experience, and what does this have to do with painting? Well, believe it or not, you most likely encounter and experience many Aesthetic Experiences every day. These could range from looking at a flower and admiring its beauty, to sitting on the couch and watching a commercial. Both of these actions are sensory ones. Since you are a passive observer who is experiencing the world through sensation, and perception. As with any Philosophy there has been much disagreement throughout the years as to what exactly is happening in our brains when we have an Aesthetic Experience.
Kant said that aesthetic experience of beauty is a judgment of a subjective but similar human truth, since all people should agree that “this rose is beautiful” if it in fact is.
Shopenhauer believed that aesthetic contemplation of beauty is the most free that the pure intellect can be from the dictates of will; here we contemplate perfection of form without any kind of worldly agenda, and thus any intrusion of utility or politics would ruin the point of the beauty. It is thus for Schopenhauer one way to fight the suffering.
Oscar Wilde stated that the contemplation of beauty for beauty’s sake was not only the foundation for much of his literary career but was quoted as saying “Aestheticism is a search after the signs of the beautiful. It is the science of the beautiful through which men seek the correlation of the arts. It is, to speak more exactly, the search after the secret of life.”
So before we get into the nuts and bolts of what makes color theory work it is important to first understand that Aesthetics do exist, and the merits and qualities of what makes up an Aesthetic Experience have been debated for quite some time.
A common question regarding Aesthetics is whether or not they are universal, cultural, or personal. For instance someone may have a different reaction to looking at a painting of a rose who has a strong personal memory of the flower. Perhaps seeing roses reminds them of their childhood and cutting them in the garden with their grandmother. In this case it is important to note that Aesthetics aren’t necessarily a rigid set of rules by which one must abide. Rather that our Aesthetic Experiences are also guided by cultural as well as personal experiences. They are more fluid rather than concrete. With this being said it is also important to understand that there are a certain set of rules which have been successful throughout the years in creating a desired response from the viewer. To put it simply, how do we as humans create works of art that elicit certain internal responses in those who view our artwork? And this is where we come to color theory.
As many students on this site have probably already noticed I make a lot of correlations to music as this is an easy comparison I’ve found that many people can grasp. In the case of color theory it is no different. Simply put color theory investigates what elements work in creating a desired effect, much of which is the same as music (listening to music is also an aesthetic experience as it is an experience where someone is experiencing something with their senses that is beyond words).
First take a listen to Mozart’s Requiem while looking at Rubens’ Adoration of the Magi.
Notice how all the notes create harmonies that our ears latch on to? See how the tempo and intensity of the music changes throughout the piece to evoke a certain feeling inside of us? Pay attention to the lack of dissonance, and what type of emotions are stirred up while listening to this piece. Mozart’s Requiem is regarded as a masterpiece not only because of how it makes us feel, but also because of how Mozart interpreted music and utilized his own creative vision to use the tools of music (which had been around hundreds of years before him) to craft something new which struck a nerve with the listener. In painting, one of our tools is color, and how we place our colors on a canvas could be compared to how Mozart arrange his notes on paper.
Now lets listen to another composer who used these same tools of music to create a feeling of dissonance and anxiety. His name was Alfred Schnittke. Take a look at the painting by Jean Michel Basquiat below while listening to Schnittke’s piece and examine what type of emotions begin to well up inside of you.
Now, Schnittke used dissonance, a feeling of chaos, and strange time signatures in his work. Does that makes the work more difficult to listen to? If so, does this make the work bad? Or is there really such a thing as bad music? And the most important question, could Schnittke have created these compositions without a firm understanding of the rules of music and how to take them apart? Sure, Schnitkke’s pieces aren’t for everybody, just as paintings by Jean Michel Basquiat aren’t for everyone. But what we’re really examining here is just how the use of the mechanics of sound and color are used in order to make us feel a certain way. As we look at the piece by Basquiat we may experience a similar feeling, but here we are experiencing things visually.
Hopefully you have gained an insight into just what Aesthetics as well as Color Theory are, and how to identify the different ways different artists can use the conventions of sight and sound to ellicit certain feelings, and sensations in those who view them. As we continue on we will be looking at just what are the mechanics of color, and how to use what painters and scientists have studied for hundreds of years and apply them to our own works. It is important to remember however when embarking on this journey that these rules alone will not make “good” paintings. They are just tools, which when combined with finding your own personal inspiration can be manipulated to be used for your own desires in how you want to depict an object with paint, and more importantly, what Aesthetic Experience you wish to invoke in someone else.