In the middle of a heat wave at the end of February, I had to take a week off painting and on Monday I returned to a whole new scene. Sometimes everything in the world around us seems still, almost frozen and other times, in a few days, everything changes. On this warming planet in Northern California, “still and frozen” doesn’t last long and spring can explode in the wintertime.
It’s March now and I have only 2 months left in my 12 month project. In mid-February, I almost started to grow weary of the effort but now at the edge of the forest I sense a buzz of excitement where all of the leaves are sprouting. Their haste to stretch themselves out in the sunshine is almost audible.
Where I live, March brings on an avalanche of pastel colors. In the landscape there is an outpouring of prettiness and loveliness. The somber winter mood that haunts my last five paintings is gone, chased away by all the new fluffy leaves and their delicate colors. The twigs of the golden willow tree, still bare, are just about to burst into buds and are turning a strange new color, hard to describe, a kind of pale yellow-coral. The suspense is palpable as I wait for them to also open. The billowy foliage clouds of the live oaks are now crowned with new growth which is a surprising high pitched yellow-crimson. It looks like everything is vibrating with fresh lightness.
It’s all so beautiful…and yet…. I don’t like these colors.
What does it mean to not like a color? What’s up with that? If I paint all of Nature why play favorites? Is it my temperament? Is it experience and socialization? What could be behind this mild sense of revulsion I feel when I mix these pastel colors of early spring? Creamy violet, pale green and yellow: some people love these colors, but I, alas, do not.
Oddly, I notice that my feelings about colors are not apparent until I try to reproduce them. I might be marveling, awestruck, at a sunset and then when I consider painting it, see the colors as loud, harsh and garish. At that moment, I simultaneously feel both the seduction of the real phenomenon and the repulsion of the simulacrum I make in my mind. When I look at a fresh blade of grass there is nothing about the green that I don’t like, but then when I paint it the acidity and brightness offends my sensibilities. Is it because I’m not painting it right? Are there some colors in Nature that are just hard to translate and others that aren’t? I know some poems or texts lend themselves to accurate translation and others elude it. Maybe it’s the same with colors.
There are many forces that shape our attitudes towards certain colors. We all know colors can be symbolic. In virtually every world religion and culture, colors are associated with meanings (which often directly contradict each other!). They represent all kinds of things from different states of consciousness to events in history or specific saints or Buddhas. Kandinsky in his wonderful little book, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, described colors in terms of sound. He assigned every hue to specific notes. He was thought to have synesthesia and actually saw sound. His work as a painter led him to believe that colors/sounds could evoke physical, emotional or spiritual responses.
Our taste for certain colors might be a product of our socialization and acculturation but colors are also wavelengths of UV radiation. They can be given specific numbers and inhabit a specific place on the UV spectrum. Surely there is some purely physical way, subtle as it may be, that a color affects us as whole beings. Many people have their colors “done” by image consultants and are promised to look more clear-skinned, youthful, vibrant and sparkly eyed in the right colors. This implies that there are universal signals given off by colors. We all know that color is related to health. There is also the “value” of colors, how light or dark they are, and the fact that certain parts of our bodies are colored in a certain way, both further complicate this puzzle. It is clear that colors are significant and signify specific things to us. But as I try to sort through all the how’s and why’s, I can say that after all the years I’ve spent studying color theory in schools, I am still left with more questions than answers.
In just one week the colors in my subject went from something ancient and somber-iron reds and cobalt blues and violets-to the bright chaos of a baby ward, fresh and bursting with happy vigorous new growth. From Kandinsky’s point of view, a brass band just showed up by the pond and started playing. It’s almost unbearable.
The colors now have that breathless innocence, they are simple, light, “milky” and low in saturation. I tend to like strong, complex colors. I like the colors that tangle up with each other, the ambiguous ones. Each one of us can find those colors that we love and surround ourselves with them, but if you are painting Nature you will sometimes also have to mix the colors that challenge or even offend your sensibilities. That’s what I’ll be up against these next two months as spring keeps unfolding. So now yet again, I find my practice pushing me out of my comfort zone and making me ask questions about the nature of things.