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A language of color - color in nature
Sierra, Jan-Feb, 1992 by Hannah Hinchman

I'm rattling through frost-stiffened brome grass this morning, mulling over the gulf between the palette and the world. The east-facing wall of the old henhouse is steaming in the sun, so I hunker down against it, sketch-book open. Sitting here, I think of the group of beginning watercolor students I sat with on a hillside in Yellowstone not long ago, and of their palpable dismay as they looked down at the dozen lumps of paint in their boxes, then up at the thousand and one colors in the real world in front of them.

My first colors were the wax crayons and chalky poster paints of grade school. Generally, we were instructed to choose a color, stick with it, and make a neat, even layer that stayed inside the lines of George Washington's hat or the turkey's tail. I struggled to master that skill, and produced drab exercises that fell far short of the promise of the box of crayons itself, with its prismatic array of pure colors.

I had asked my Yellowstone students to make a quick pencil drawing, believing that they needed an underlying form before taking up the brush. So: a wide, flat valley, the winding Lamar River, a timbered slope over-lapping one more distant--simple shapes for our purposes.

I wanted them to get the feel of mixing paint--how much water with how much pigment; a loaded brush or a dry one; a pale wash or a saturated color. Then we'd work on building up complicated colors with transparent layers. Before I could deflect them, though, they fell into grade-school lockstep and began making puddles of paint. Trees are green. Water is blue. Grass is green. Sky is blue. Paint and brush took this group of intelligent people and "thumped them back into the bassinette," as the poet Louise Bogan put it.

In this case, the meadow ran across a range of colors from olive bronze to sand dun. The river, against shadowed banks, reflected a lemony peach from one quadrant of the sky, and at another turn, against the meadow, showed a patch of steely blue like the highlight on a magpie's tail. The evergreens weren't green at all, but a violet umber, and the color of the distant hill was related to that of the trees, but with an atmospheric blue wash. Squatting down beside Ellen, who was on the verge of disgust and disappointment, I said, "Let's let those dry, and just look."

I came to Wyoming partially for the purity of the light, and what it does to color. For my first several years here, I couldn't get enough of the paintbox colors. There was an ultramarine sky; now I know it by heart. And there was white, unadulterated and uninfluenced, finally. And there, in the aspen leaves, was the true essence of yellow that's always wanted to exist in the world, the yellow that spoke from my original box of crayons.

Now I find I'm drawn to the stranger colors, the mixed, changing, multiple colors. On a single leaf of the brome here in front of me, in a series of fine gradations, I find a mineral green-blue, a light ochre, a purplish flesh color, a rusty orange, a brownish rose, and a purple changed by green. In a way, I'm back to the bewildered state of the beginning student struggling to identify and name these colors; now, though, I experience it as a pleasure and an invocation. In having to think of a base color and then pull in the needed comparisons, I'm developing a private language, each distinction opening the way to further nuance--endlessly, I hope.

To be able to distinguish among many colors is no vital skill except for artists and craftspeople. But there must be in all of us an intrinsic hunger to know color, to be intimate with it, a need as instinctive and unquestionable as the need for music. Colors have long been associated with certain virtues or humors; these days color therapists describe how colors alter our state of mind, how color preferences correspond to emotional processes we may be unaware of. Color seems no longer something external, inert, objective; rather it influences the way I move and speak, and affects my exchanges with the world.

My students, with their new water-color sets, were full of a baffled yearning that I wanted to see satisfied. Some left the hillside at least pleased with the feel of the materials, wanting to try again. Others were embittered and felt they'd been cheated--by the paint, by the brushes, or by me, who had refused to disclose the secret method.

The other day a friend told me he's begun using color in his journal, in swatches. Just the colors themselves, not pressed into images or compositions--just colors set down as the lively, assertive things they are, subtle shades mixed to call up something private and specific. Next time, that's what I'll ask my students to do.

COPYRIGHT 1992 Sierra Magazine
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

Bibliography for "A language of color - color in nature"
Hannah Hinchman "A language of color - color in nature". Sierra. Jan-Feb 1992. FindArticles.com. 23 Sep. 2006.

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