Last Sunday, I went to the lecture on color by Michael Wilcox. In addition to speaking, he illustrated his points with wet paint in front of us, which was a treat.

He started by saying that in the olden days, artists (painters and tapestry weavers in particular) knew the science of paints and color theories well, but now our/their understanding is muddled by manufactures and marketing. As with your food, he recommended we read the contents of the tubes and never trust the name of the color. With some colors, the more expensive paint is of superior quality, but with others, (including earth colors), student grade and top of the range are similar in constitution.

He next explained about lights, wavelength, surfaces and reflections making our brains interpret colors. This bit always puzzles me, but suffice it to say molecules/surfaces absorb certain wavelength of light, and whatever is reflected/rejected is seen by us as colors. So, my favorite red yarn has the magical power to absorb all other light wavelength but that which is innate in my favorite red, even though the yarn itself is not red.

Now, mixing. He used six primary colors as our bases: orange-red, orange-yellow, green-yellow, green-blue, violet-blue and violet-red.

Violet-red can be described as reflecting a lot of red, a little of violet, and a tiny amount of orange. Orange-red reflects lots of red, a little orange, and a small amount of violet. And so on. So the difference in the proportion of violet and orange distinguish these two reds in our eyes/heads. (He has his own color wheel but I cannot post it for copyright reasons, but if you could draw a crude wheel with these six positioned in order, it may help make sense.)
  • If I need a clear, saturated violet, I mix violet-blue and violet-red, not because I want to mix red and blue, but because this combination generates the greatest amount of purple to be reflected.
  • If I want a nuanced violet, I might mix orange-red and violet-blue, or violet-red and green-blue, but I know these combinations will never create a saturated, "true" violet.
  • If I want a dark, muddy violet, I might consider mixing orange-red with green-blue, but if it turns brown and ugly, no amount of adding orange-red will create a nice violet, because I will not be adding any more violet to be reflected.
  • This is a page from one of his books, which may help.
  • We've not had, apparently, pure blue nor pure red paints, but if we had, theoretically the pure blue will absorb all red, and the pure red, all blue, so the mixture will be black.
The next issue was complementaries and harmony. First he took two complementary colors, and mixed a small amount of one to the other. Mixing complementaries desaturates the hue, resulting in the mixture turning more and more into what he called "gray" (i.e. lack of discernible hue), until enough of the second color is mixed so the mixture starts to gain the hue of the second color.

Michael stated that in painting, "pure" black can be too harsh and look like a hole, and to create harmony, if this is what the artist desires, colors derived from mixing complementaries or neighboring colors, or these colors mixed with black, (or white in place of pure white,) may suit better. Then he discussed shadows in paintings, how we were taught vs. how they look in reality, the two being opposites, and about glazes.

Lastly we experimented with after images; we stared at a number of colored shapes and then turned our eyes on to a white board to see blurred shadows of the complementaries of the colors we had been looking at. We also looked at different colored shapes to see the influence of the first color on them. As with values, I have a hard time seeing after images, but apparently we can train our brains to see these. Still, it was easy to see how important simultaneous contrast is in my work and I need to revisit this area. I asked Michael how texture (shiny/matt) influences hues, but I did not get an answer I understood.

Our best reference, I believe, remains Lambert, Staepelaere and Fry's tome, "Color and Fiber", 1986. I have not dyed enough to know how, practically and immediately, what I learned can help me with dyes including overdyeing, but my mind was abuzz with shot and shadow weave ideas.

At the end of the class, we viewed a dozen paintings, discussing the base colors in each. It was easy to pick them out in some paintings, but as the number of base colors increased, or the range of the base color widened, (e.g. from yellow to blue-green with violet to orange-red), my eyeballs became exhausted and my brain scrambled. But the lesson was, know the craft of your art. Indeed.

It was a fabulous day, everybody coming out with his and her own ideas and topics to research.

Workshop organizer Alison may bulk-order for Michael's books and paints for NZ residents; if that happens, I will let you know.


  1. * Shiny vs. dull.
    * Dyeing vs. overdye.

  2. And cold, and cool, and warm, and muddy, and clear, and saturated, too.


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