The following is an excerpt from Alumni Fellow O'Neill Cushman's personal blog. Each semester at the Marchutz School, Alan Roberts gives the famous “color talk.” He brings out the color wheel and walks the students, step by step, through simple color theory. Before saying anything, however, he hands out, what he calls “little pieces of nature,” giving every student a leaf from an old olive tree in the garden. There is no intended symbolism in extending a literal olive branch to everyone, it just happens to be the closest tree to the front door.
After handing out some nature, Alan can now begin, and he does so with the basics. There are three primary colors: red, blue, and yellow. This is something most of us learn in early elementary school, and students have very little trouble with this. Somewhere out there in conceptual color land exists the mother of all blues, the mother of all reds, and the mother of all yellows. These colors cannot be made by mixing any other colors. They are the building blocks of color. Then, in addition to primary colors, there exist secondary colors. This is another very basic idea. If you mix two primary colors, you get a secondary color. Blue and yellow mix to create green. Yellow and red make orange. Red and blue make purple. Easy.
But while there are only three primary colors, there are infinite secondary colors. The reason for this is that you can mix equal parts blue and yellow to get green. Then you can take that, and add a little blue and you have a different green. Then you can, should you so choose, repeat that step. And you will find that there is no limit to how many times you can mix blue into green in order to get a different green, closer to that mother of blues, and, whether you want to call it blue or green, it is a secondary color (because it still has some yellow in it). This infinity of colors can be arranged to create what we call the color wheel (click here for a picture). The color wheel in the studio is arranged with blue up top at 12:00, red at 4:00, and yellow at 8:00, although you could make it any way you like. The important thing is the triangle made up of primaries, with the rest of the circle filled in with all the other secondary colors.
Having complicated things slightly, Alan introduces yet another, even more confusing concept: color temperature. There are cool colors, and there are warm colors. We think of sky blue next to fire engine red, and we describe the red as being warm, and the blue as being cool. Now things get crazy. The coolest color is not a primary. The coolest color is slightly to the yellow of blue, in the neighborhood of 11:52 on the color wheel. The hottest color is directly across from it, in the red-oranges. I don’t know why this is, it just is. The result, however, is that we can take any color, and describe it as being cooler or warmer. You can have a cool blue and a warm blue, and the same is true of any other color.
If you start at 11:52, you have a cool blue. You move clockwise around the color wheel and your blue gets warmer as you subtract yellow and reach pure blue. Then you can begin to add red and your blue gets even warmer until at a certain point you begin calling it a cool purple. You can keep adding red until your purple is no longer cool, and, as you make it more and more red, it moves from a warm purple to a cool red, past pure red and towards the hotter reds, which might be described as oranges. Once you pass the hottest color, your oranges become more yellow and they cool off. Your cool orange becomes a warm yellow, which passes pure yellow and begins to be a cool yellow, or maybe a warm green. And as you move back to 11:52, your green is frigid. The point of illustrating this is that you can call a color whatever you like. If I call something red, maybe you think of it as being purple. But a cool red is a warm purple. The words for colors, outside the primaries, are meaningless. Colors exist in relation to one another.
By now the students minds are boggled, but Alan does not relent. He brings up complementary colors. It is no coincidence that the warmest color is directly across the wheel from the coolest color. These colors are complements. And in these two colors, as with any two complements, in Alan’s words, “exists every color of the universe.” After saying this he takes a long pause. Those words, spoken in his Carolina drawl hang in the air. “In a complementary pair exists every color of the universe.” The students don’t know what to make of this. We were talking color theory, and now we’re getting into psychedelics? What’s going on?
It is at this time that Alan directs his attention to the olive leaf. He asks, “What color is this leaf?” Green. “How do I mix green?” Blue and yellow. “Ok,” he says, taking up his palette knife, “I’ll mix some of this yellow and some of this blue and I’ll get green.” So he dips into his citron yellow and his cobalt blue and mixes a cool green. Showing everyone his color next to the leaf, he asks eagerly, “Did I get it?” No. Feigning disappointment he tries again. This time dipping into has Naples yellow and his ultramarine blue, he mixes up another green. “Is this it?” It is not. “I know what I need to do,” he announces, “I need to use both yellows and both greens!” He tries again and fails. Then he asks, “What is the complement of green?” Red. So he dips his palette knife into his brightest red, the furthest color from the green he has mixed, and blends the two together. Before the eyes of the confused students the color comes to life. It is an exact match. By breaking the color with its complement, Alan has exactly captured the color of nature.
The exercise is repeated with various other objects, everything from rocks to colors found in the many reproductions hanging on the walls. In order to create a true color, one must mix it with its complement! What does this mean? In nature, as in good art, there are no unbroken colors. There are no secondary colors. There are only tertiary colors. And those colors become what they are in relation to other colors around them. We spend some time looking at a Gauguin painting of two women in Tahiti. Before I arrived at Marchutz, I would have called their skin brown. But, Alan says, brown does not exist. Compared to the grass, their skin is red. Compared to the yellow sky, their skin is purple. Compared to the red pants, it is green. But the same thing is true with every color. Compared to something green, anything is red. This is because every color is made up of all three primaries. So if you have something that is more green than something else, that something else must be red.
The day ends on a very vague note. Students are assigned to take their yellow, red, and blue paint and to mix a complement of each of those. They test their complements by mixing them together and seeing if it makes perfect grey. But the whole time they are wondering what they’ve just learned. Color is relative in nature and in art. Every color we perceive is a mixture of all three colors. Because of this, a color and its complement contain “every color in the universe.” If you have purple and yellow, you can express any relationship. Any two colors will be more or less purple than each other. Now it certainly helps to use more than simply purple and yellow, but all of nature exists within each pair.
It’s a hard concept to grasp, but I encourage you to spend some time looking at things and their colors. The impressionists paid special attention to the color of shadows. A shadow is the opposite color of the light that creates it. If I am standing bathed in a golden yellow afternoon light, my shadow will be more purple compared to that which surrounds it. And I encourage you to spend some time looking at things you think of as being brown. How else might you describe that color? Does that description change when you look at it relative to different objects? How might you mix that color? I bet it would be a similar way that you would mix any other color. A little red, a little blue, and a little yellow.