Color Calisthenics

Color Calisthenics no. 1. Acrylic, aquarelle, ink on mixed media paper
Color Calisthenics no. 1. Acrylic, aquarelle, ink on mixed media paper. 40-minute exercise.

An artist friend, Anna, told me – making resolute eye contact – that I need to electrify the apparently drab color palette I have allowed myself to succumb to. We were having an “art day,” which means we get together on her covered patio with Molly, her incredibly cute dog, chat for awhile, have a coffee, spend way too long getting our works space and materials set up, and try our damndest to advance our current projects while sort of cheering each other on. Anna was flinging colors around on a silk canvas in wide bars so vivid you could have mistaken it for a black-light luminescence poster we all know from our teenage years or stoner friends. I, five feet away, was scribbling blue ink into a tiny patch of bare canvas and diluting it with medium-heavy titanium white, carefully planning which color will come next, wincing at the surface like a math problem. I wasn’t having any fun with that, and predictably, I found myself staring at the colors an hour later and wondering how I had come up with such a stereotypical, elementary pairing of orange and blue without much else going on. Anna was right, I think, as she hands me a white wine spritzer (choice Art Day drink – or we are just women-around-thirty). My color capabilities have become flabby. Glug.

Color Calisthenics no. 1
Color Calisthenics no. 1

It’s true. It is difficult to break out of a comfortable palette. I often work with charcoal directly applied to wet paint, and vice-versa, which can end up “graying” the overall tone of the piece, and that dullness has radiated to much of my past and recent work. I am also stingy with the paint I buy, and certain hues are simply not as bright as others, especially in the blue family, I have found. In any case, it’s time to break out of the shell and work out a little color theory of my own, something I have always sort of struggled with.

Color Calisthenics no. 1
Color Calisthenics no. 1

It seems that in the past color has been an afterthought in some of my bigger compositions. I have traditionally been more concerned with the technical process, and color resulted as a product of that formal progress. These days, however, I want to unleash those aspects of color that can deepen the effect of a composition. That kind of skill takes practice for a charcoal-clutcher like yours truly. In France years ago, I picked up a copy of Kandinsky’s “Du spirituel dans l’art,” or “Concerning Spirituality in Art.” His theoretical writing on color claims that color has a physical effect on the eye and thus the brain, and a secondary “resonating” effect with the heart, creating a spiritual experience. I can appreciate how the wavelengths of color physically alter the pigments in the eye’s retina, stimulating optical neurons which in turn alter brain chemistry. I’m interested also not necessarily in the “spirituality” of color – being way way secular or mostly agnostic – but Kandinsky’s “resonance” is a compelling concept. My question: can I make my art resonate more with a more trained, intuitive sense of color, or my own color spectrum lexicon?

Anna, Teller of Hard Art Truthz
Anna, Designated Resolute Voicer of Hard Art Truthz

Calisthenics refers to a practice or study, usually repetitious, of movements or techniques designed to ease/improve function. In kung fu, every practice session begins with calisthenics of the large and small muscles, the joints, etc. This helps the martial artist relax, loosen up, achieve the tone required to practice or perform well. There is a sort of analog to this in art. I believe the only way to improve or change is to be prolific. “Gong fu,” in fact literally means nothing more than “mastery or improvement through hard work.” Search online for color exercises for painters and you will find a litany of banal color wheel and chart lessons. I am more interested in playing for now, though – being as flexible as I can and stretching out my color sensibilities as far as they can comfortably (or uncomfortably) go. My color calisthenic exercises will last no more than an hour apiece, focusing on risk taking with minimal commitment to representation or cohesive, rational compositions.

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