Chromatic Phenomenon
A Dystopia of Color Education
in a Utopia of Color Experience

By Christopher Willard
Possibilities for color explorations in art are probably more ubiquitous now than any other time since mid-century when a brief, but intense, focus on the aesthetic side of color arose with the 1963 publication of Josef Albers' Interaction of Color. The heyday was short. Technology picked up color study on a serious level and because of that we now have the glowing phosphors of television and computer screens, metallic paints, fractals with their repeating color sequences, holograms, and four color process printing. When intertwined with the cesia, or visual signs, of flicker, sparkle, gloss, lustre, iridescence, luminosity, and filmic haze, such color experiences are greatly broadened. Our contemporary conceptions of color are further augmented by that chronic parasite called advertising that links color to desire for everything from the prismatic sparkle of a diamond to the amber glow of a beer.

Yet, beyond such semantic conditioning, associations based solely upon color are apt to suggest odd contradictions such as an adult bashing of a rounded purple dinosaur but an adult affinity for rounded purple cars.

All of these areas have provided grounds for artistic explorations. Students who have grown up familiar with digital media are quick to use such tools for making art. Likewise, the ease in which materials such as interference colors and flourescents can be obtained certainly influences the range of pigments and effects artists can now use. Further the contradictions embedded in color semantics, problems with warm and cool colors or fruitless attempts at categorizing feelings by colors, or the difficulties in naming colors certainly suggest possibilities for exploring relationships between color and language.

In light of such a deluge of color experience one might think academic interest in color would be at an all time high. Yet, indications suggest an appalling lack of regard for color in contemporary art education. I first became aware of such a shift when I witnessed a major school's revamping of the undergraduate foundation wherein a major color figure taught, basically by eliminating color courses. But this was not a lone incident. A number of past conferences at the College Art Association, the annual major conference of the United States and Canada, showed me the ease with which messiahs of departments facing budget crunches chose to eliminate their color courses. Color information was outright dismissed or lumped into general design overviews as though best learned through osmosis. As an analogy, I cannot imagine art schools jettisoning all drawing classes and praying, I guess, that these skills will be picked up in design courses.

A recent study was undertaken to compare secondary education color courses in Japan with those of the United States. Following two months of scrutiny, the researchers found so few discreet color courses in American colleges of art that the project was abandoned.

The continued reliance by artists upon on non-iconic art, by which a work's syntactic qualities such as color are highlighted, would seem to necessitate color education. But lacking this foundation, students allured by color are apt to find themselves in a wasteland where initial studio experiments and forays into books are no assurance of understanding and clarity. Further difficulties arise for art students as the distinctions between art, physics, psychology, psychophysics, chemistry, and philosophy blur when investigating color. Available texts can appear and sometimes are contradictory, misleading, and infrequently downright incorrect, as with a recent best seller that said Seurat would juxtapose yellow and blue dots that would mix optically to a green brighter than any found in a tube of paint -- something completely impossible.

Colors and color diagrams said to be reproducible from three colors are trickily reproduced with four process colors, or in the case of one popular book, 7 carefully chosen process colors to guarantee saturated hues throughout the entire color wheel. Further muddying up the water are camps polarized over the true primary colors: cyan, yellow, magenta for printing processes and transparent painting media; red, yellow, blue for painting and other media that operate with opaque pigments, red, green, and blue relating to our tri-chromatic retinal processing that forms the basis for inventions like color televisions, and yellow, blue, red, green, describing our post retinal coding of colors, called the opponent process which was discovered in part by paying particular attention to perceptual oddities such as afterimages and contrast effects, all of which must appear confusing to art students who lack a foundation in color theory.

In presenting this dichotomy between color experience and academic bias I offer to you a dystopia of color education in a utopia of color experience, and this condition is what I see as off-putting, off-key, and indeed, off-color. In this realm where virtually every seen experience enters us through color channels and is interpreted by us as color information, it seems particularly pertinent to ask why color has apparently lost its meaning in undergraduate and in particular graduate programs.

A questioning of the reasons for the disdain of color study begins by re-examining that manna titled Interaction of Color upon which students were fed more and less frequently up into the 1980's. With a pack of color aid in hand (a set of around 300 silkscreened papers) students would start on page one and diligently work their way through most of the book's exercises. By the end of the semester, each had, like everyone else, little studies that attempted to replicate the effects illustrated in the book. Artists would later stand in front of their own art wondering what relevance simultaneous contrast could possibly have to their messy painting, or digital art. Of course everyone saw that one color appeared to change a bit when surrounded by another color, but so what.

And worse, the method taught many artists that color was limited, apparently, to hard edge and optical configurations and everyone knew those styles were generally unaccepted.

On the other hand it seems simplistic to pin the blame on Albers because his work was ground-breaking, for its breadth as well as its focus. It is true his work did provide the foundation which sparked some artists to further study. But the translation of his ideas into classroom assignments often carried the dangerous scent of the pre-solved answer that turned off many more who couldn't make the connection to their own works. These artists often went on to set departmental policies that reflected their particular biases.

I recognize that I to a certain degree I am recalling the arguments that contrast color and design as debated by the Rubenists, who said color cannot be relegated to simple principles, such as design as argued by the Poussinists, because of the infinitely changeable quality of nature, and by Delacroix who argued for the transforming aspects of color rather than the importance of local colors as championed by Ingres. Such a polarizing of color in art has continued almost unremittently. Examples may be found in the transpositions of deconstruction and semiotics to visual art from text based art. The result was that artists were seduced into believing that all aspects of art must be accountable to text based criteria. So color, a quale so ephemeral and changeable as to be mostly impossible to cram into such an expedient, was quickly dismissed as irrelevant.

Still, I believe the root of the problem is greater than I've so far outlined. In the same way a writer has to find one's voice with words, the artist must find his or her palette with color. An educator, no matter how good, cannot choose the particular array of colors that will prove meaningful to the artist.

The obvious question prods at the necessity of formal color education at all. Grammar doesn't guarantee a Melville nor color mixing a Signac. And for artists, color, like any element of the creative process, can be learned in a variety of ways whether from experience, practice, exercises, texts, or copying.

The artist who never studies color can become a sort of facile and respected artist. Yet it is difficult to articulate the difference between an artist who uses color to create a cohesive color statement and the artist who uses color in a superficial and conventional manner. Succinctly said, the artist lacking in color knowledge lacks possibilities. Color education can demonstrate the remarkable heights some artists have attained using color and can challenge students to aspire to those peaks. Only by the closest of study will young artists begin to understand the wondrous chromatic contrasts of Cezanne, the intensification of edge conditions by Vermeer, the literal depictions of simultaneous contrast by Signac, or the vibratory, floating haze of the Seurat.

If educators can break free of the strangle-hold of the contemporary bias against color, the Alber's post-Bauhausian revival, often viewed as only a brief bright comet, might instead be seen it as a preliminary foundation upon which we can construct methods more appropriate to contemporary experience.

A pedagogical goal then is to create course assignments, combined with a method of teaching, that spark imaginations toward broad and meaningful investigations of color, presented in a way that does not diminish its multifarious and mysterious character.

Note, I am not talking about standards and rules for color usage. I am suggesting a median position incorporating basics and the fact that requirements which color education for art students must meet today have changed. I also stress that any theoretical approach in an artistic program must be grounded in practical exercises, for indeed color is a perceptual event wherein more questions are raised or answers pursued by doing and looking than by reading.

Students who come to my color classes often take for granted much of today's color, for example the bleaching effects of the rapid color presentations on music videos, or the neon colors often found in chainstore clothing. By presenting color from the point of their own world view, the jump to genuine interest in color is facilitated. Yet, although the mode of color presentation has changed due technological advances, and there are those who say color seems to be different today than from what it used to be, these advances remain adequately described by existing theory.

I often ask students to undertake projects by locating an effect of color in which they are particularly interested and to create a form that highlights or a theory that describes their concern. From xerox technicians who want to better understand the overlapping pigments to photographers who wish to predict the characteristics of dyes, to lighting designers who know additive mixture but wish to somehow find their own sense of color order, to visual artists who wish to utilize variations of contrast and assimilation, each describes an urgent need for color education.

In finality it is necessary that students come away from a color course retaining the aesthetic and scientific fundamentals of color, utilizing such knowledge when necessary, filtering out aspects pertinent to their own investigations, and knowing where to find more information should their requirements shift. In this way the artist may begin to master this tool for creating visual structures.

In his book Elementary Color of 1895, Milton Bradley celebrated the observation that:

"A few years ago it might well have been thought necessary to preface a treatise on the subject with arguments to prove that color is a legitimate object for school instruction, but today this is not a question with thoughtful educators whether considered from the practical, industrial or aesthetic standpoint."1

Bradley believed technological inventions would continually invigorate color education. He wrote this at a time when a basis for trichromatic theory was a hundred years old; a theory of the opponent process nearly fifty years old; it came only a few years before the major three-dimensional color order models of Munsell and Ostwald that were to further spark the impetus toward more exacting color quantification. Now a hundred years hence we find Bradley's predictions did not in finality describe a utopia where color understanding and color usage in art find unity.

Reference 1. M. Bradley, Elementary Color, Milton Bradley Co., Springfield MA, 1895, p.8.

Christopher Willard ©


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