Painting Orange

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In the first oil painting class I took, we used seven different colors of paint: two different colors of blue, two yellows, two reds, and white. That’s it. There were no tubes of orange paint in the class. I have always loved color, but it was not until I started painting that I began to truly understand color and how it is created. At first, I was terrified that I would have to mix every color I needed, but after ruining paint and brushes and using tons of scrap paper, I started to figure out the tricks to mixing colors. You have to start with the basics; the primary colors red and yellow make orange. Kindergarten stuff. But then it gets more complicated, because not all oranges are the same. Mixing the more orange red (the red that is closer to orange on the color wheel) and the more orange yellow make a bright, strong, clear orange, the classic color of the tropical fruit. Adjusting the amount of red versus yellow in this combination can make the orange lighter and darker, or to be precise, more yellow or redder. Orange synthesis is not limited to these colors, however. The game changes again if you mix a red that is closer to purple on the color wheel and a greener yellow. A duller orange, much more like a burnt sienna than a tangerine is the result. And, of course, a darker burnt sienna, created by adding more of the dark red, is brown. Yes, brown is simply dark orange. When I figured that out, it felt like a color epiphany, and even now, I feel powerful, being able to create any color possible out of basic primaries. Now I can quickly calculate what amounts of which primary colors are needed to make a specific shade of warm ginger or light peach.
One of my first art teachers told me that to create art you have to engage your right brain and tell your left brain to shut the heck up. The left brain is intellectual and straightforward. It is what recognizes that the object you are looking at is a white teapot sitting on a wooden tray. The right brain can disassociate the object from its identity and break it into pieces of colors and shapes. If you can forget that you are looking at a white teapot, it becomes clear that the round, stout object in front of you is not white at all. Learning to paint has given me this ability to shut down my logical brain and to truly see without prejudice what is really there – color. I have the power to see the warm glow of orange where the light hits the handle of the teapot and the almost-black brown at the bottom of the pot, the reflection of the wooden tray.
Conversely and comically, oranges are not orange. That might be kind of extreme, but what I mean is that they are never completely orange, but have other colors as well. This is true about everything, but this concept is especially abstract when applied to an orange. I have painted an orange, as part of a still-life arrangement of fruit. It’s hard. The orange citrus fruit and the color orange are so closely intertwined in our minds by language that it is bizarre to accept the fact that the shadow on the left half of that orange is green, not simply dark orange.
Apart from the ability to “turn off” different parts of my brain at will, painting has given me a new perspective. When I look into a glass of orange juice I see a yellowy orange color that I could reproduce by mixing some cadmium red, cadmium yellow, and lemon yellow. When I look at my hands lit by the light of my desk lamp they are deep gold-peach color. When I look into a friend’s face the shadows are tinted orange. Learning about colors and learning to paint has changed my life because it has changed the way I look at and experience my environment. Living a multicolored life makes common things more beautiful. It means that I puzzle over the colorful complexity of commonplace things, trying to figure out what I am really seeing and appreciating the diversity life. Orange will never just be orange again.





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Tuesday said...
Jan. 13, 2011 at 2:09 am
I LOVE this story... it's an interesting view and something that is completely accurate.
 
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