Adventures in colour space

Praha © Samantha Groenestyn

A huge motivation for my recent sojourn to Sydney was the opportunity to take a five day workshop with David Briggs, a teacher at the Julian Ashton Art School. David kindly ran the workshop at his studio by the beach, meaning I ate my lunch gazing into refreshing seascapes each day, and gorged myself on cakes from the Hungarian bakery below his apartment every afternoon.

David’s workshop, Colour, Light and Vision, is so vast and deep that it is difficult to summarise. I took it because colour has always been of extreme significance to me, since I received my prized 64-box of Crayolas as a tiny person (all carefully arranged according to my own system, and all the names voraciously memorised, from periwinkle to brick red). I also took it because it promised that art could be a scientific, measurable task—rigorous and systematic, not confined to vague feelings and crazy aunts. Pigments have chemical reactions, some paints have higher tinting power than others, some are opaque to varying effect. We perceive colours differently under different lights; and in shadow, absolute change in brightness is greater in light colours. Optical illusions interfere with our perception of colours creating ‘simultaneous contrast,’ a failure of colour constancy that causes the same colour to look darker or lighter depending on the shade bordering it.

David’s studio is lined with books on colour. The man is well read, and his course thoroughly researched, and a continuing project. New books were delivered by post while I was there—old American high school art education books, old German pigment sample books. Books on Newton and Goethe, books by Munsell and Rood—these were spread across the table for our perusal, indicating the knowledge that has been tossed aside if not outright denied the modern artist. David’s mission in life seems to be to reclaim that knowledge, sort the true from the false, and to stuff any willing student full of it, in the most affable manner possible.

We began with Munsell and his A Colour Notation, a no-nonsense book from 1905 that set about giving children of all ages a thorough grasp on colour. Replacing the old red, yellow and blue primaries, Munsell began with five main colours: red, yellow, green blue and purple, shunning colours that drew their names from objects like oranges and violets. Arranging them in a type of tree diagram, some colours branched higher than others, some spanned wider, and, importantly, all branched from the solid trunk—dark at the root and light at the top, by the sun—representing tone, or value. While a tree may be drawn flat, it is really three dimensional, and it is this three-dimensionality of colour which Munsell sought to represent.

David thus demonstrates a way to map colour three-dimensionally—not as an organic tree, nor as a perfect globe, but digitally, with different and irregular gamuts for various media. Paint can only ever mix certain colours, and light can mix others. Vertically, in the centre of the colour space, we are looking at the absence of hue, and simply at the tonal scale of black through white. Hues move off in different directions, and their complements are opposite them and draw them through that greyed centre—purple will neutralise yellow, blue will neutralise red, before coming out the other side and becoming blue again. Each hue reaches its maximum chroma in a different place—yellow is at its most ‘yellow’ at a far lighter tone than blue, which fades with very little white added, and red is somewhere in between. Red under extremely bright light will look pink where yellow will still appear yellow, because of where its maximum chroma is mapped in colour space.

Yellow sphere by me

The course wasn’t entirely mind-bending theory (much as I enjoy that sort of thing!), but also a happy amount of paint mixing. We matched paint chips by approaching colour mixing in a systematic way: picking the two nearest colours to the one in question, getting them to the right tone and then mixing them in the right ratios, and neutralising them with the same-toned grey if necessary. We darkened difficult colours like yellow with black, bringing them back to the appropriate chroma by adding in a corrective colour like red. This is done purely by sight, learning to see when a yellow has turned green, but after the exercises we photographed our scales and mapped them in a lovely French colour program to test our judgements. With our colours duly mixed, we painted things: spheres demonstrating the areas of light (diffuse light, highlight, halftones and full light) and shadow. We painted still life thumbnails, correcting for the limitations of our paints: where yellow had to be the brightest, other colours had perhaps to be darkened.

(Did I mention we ate a lot of cakes? And looked at the ocean?)

Yes, a pretty intense week, but an immensely valuable one. I’d recommend David’s course in a heartbeat, and I’d take it again—not having a fixed curriculum, the course adapts to your own knowledge and experience, and if you’ve already painted the sphere, you get to try out the application of the theory on a human model ripe for painting. You can get hold of course dates and information through his website and through Julian Ashton’s. I’m still quietly mulling over the influx of information, and ready to start bringing it to my painting.

Outrageously beautiful cemetery, in which I took long, meditative afternoon walks.


2 thoughts on “Adventures in colour space

    • I think you might be asking too much! A lot of it was very dry, but I have seen some nicer, newer ones that go into some heavy stuff in a picture-reliant way, which I can’t remember the names of! I’d say go have a look at David’s website, , because he’s written extensively on it and made it all available for free, and then you can sift through to what you’re most interested in. He lists all his references, too, so you might be able to track down some good books that way. I personally was quite taken with the Munsell book, A Colour Notation, which was very old and written in quite short, simple chapters. I’ll be buying it if I see it! x

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