Last week I attended the Munsell Centennial Symposium with over 180 people from 27 countries representing color disciplines across science, industry and art. We gathered in Boston under the umbrella of the ISCC (Inter-Society Color Council) and AIC (International Colour Association) organizations with the intent of bridging our passions, knowledge and experiences in the field of color. It was an inspiring week of lectures, workshops and conversations, all the while meeting delightful and dedicated people.
I never knew so many professions existed solely for the purpose of better understanding and using color! I found myself feeling a bit like a kid in a candy store.
The centennial celebration was in recognition of Albert Munsell’s (1858-1918) significant contributions to our world of color. Though he was not alone in the pursuit of creating order out of the chaos of color back in the early 1900’s, he developed a color system that is widely used today. He is responsible for the Munsell Color Tree that visually displays, hue, value and chroma. This is refernced in my recent blog, What are the Three Characteristics of Every Color?
I met color consultants, authors, color scientists and researchers, historians, professors, artists, librarians and a visual neurologist who are committed to spreading the word about color. We were housed in the Massachusetts School of Art & Design. It was fascinating to learn that my suite mate is a color technician working for PPG (Pittsburgh Paints Group), whose sole focus is on the color mixtures in the paints and coatings for anything on wheels. Two of her top customers are Polaris and Harley Davidson. Could I use any of her shiny motorcycle paints in my paintings?
Why did I attend? I wanted to see where my forthcoming book I Just Want to Paint! fit in the larger scheme of things. Did it have a place? What information might I learn to add or delete from it? I was pleasantly surprised to learn that my content does not need to be altered for my readers, and that it will continue to hold its unique niche in the color mixing arena. This validation is comforting and motivating.
Color literacy was a topic that was often discussed. Hmmm, I had never thought of that as being a challenge. However, I soon learned that it is a problem across disciplines and cultures. I was also introduced to new vocabulary, such as: color space, color notations, perceptual aspects of color ordering, and colorimetry. By the way, do you know what a colorimeter is or a spectrophotometer? And that many industries – textiles, automotive, plastics, paints, decorators, forensic scientists, soil scientists, etc. – rely on the ability to measure color to create their products and services? Wow, my world has been expanded!
Some color gems I learned:
- Johannes Itten was the first to promote the three primary system of yellow, blue and red.
- The phrase ‘color theory’ first appeared in 1840. It could have been called ‘color doctrine’ or ‘color teaching.’
- Today, the phrase ‘color theory’ is not well liked across all disciplines because it is difficult to define and it does not attract people to want to learn more about color.
- Joy Turner Luke, a 93-year old artist and teacher, talked about how she was instrumental in persuading paint manufacturers to adhere to safety standards for art materials. This was and is, for the protection of children and adults. In 1988, the ASTM D4236 Federal law was passed and began appearing on art material labels. Her book is “Munsell’s Vision for Teaching Artists,” which explains how she used the Munsell Color System to paint her paintings.
- There are 3-primary, 4-primary and 5-primary color wheels.
- Color memory can bias or influence color perception.
- One professor explained – or rather attempted to explain – the differences between, brightness, lightness, colorfulness, saturation, chroma and brilliance. Supposedly this knowledge can impact one’s painting ability, but I got lost in the weeds of too many words. I would rather paint, lol!
And, there were several lectures that included slides like this one, which were intriguing but I did not fully understand their meaning. Some of color research being conducted today is interesting.
In the two half-day workshops I attended, I was re-introduced to Josef Albers and his teachings of how color – hue, value and chroma – can be manipulated to create illusions. He instructed art students to explore the similarities and differences in color when influenced by a surrounding color. It’s human nature to look for differences. Below is an example I created during the workshop. I had to choose from 200+ paper samples to show how the same color can look quite different on two different backgrounds. I cut out these papers to solve the problem. What are the implications in painting? This phenomenon is called simultaneous contrast.
In the second workshop, two established painters explained and demonstrated their strategy for matching colors using the Munsell Color System. I was thrilled when they stated the uselessness of referring to hues as ‘warm’ and ‘cool’ when mixing color. I have written about this in my forthcoming book “I Just Want to Paint: Mixing the Colors You Want!” in Chapter Three: How to Identify the Color Bias of Primary Colors.
The most compelling talk, “What Art Can Tell Us About the Brain,” was presented by Dr. Margaret Livingstone, a visual neurologist and probably one of the most intelligent people I have ever encountered. Throughout my painting career, I have often heard or read the statement, “Values are more important than color.” Dr. Livingstone proved how we see whites, grays and blacks before we see color. As a result, values are have a greater impact on the viewer than color. I highly recommend watching her YouTube video; this video takes place in a different venue, but the content is the same. She uses paintings, in particular the Mona Lisa, to demonstrate her findings.
The conference ended on a special note for me. At the dorm curb, a fellow attendee spontaneously asked to join me in a taxi to the Boston airport. She is a color research scientist at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). As we rode along, I told her that I was interested in exploring how a collaboration could potentially happen between a scientist and a studio artist. She then preceded to tell me about the research she has done on how humans look at paintings.
RIT have an eye tracking device that maps where novices versus trained professionals look at paintings of 5 different styles. What?!! I am fascinated. She even suggested that they may be able to do this with a few of my paintings. How cool would that be? Then I started to discuss how painters critique each other’s work, yet, I wonder, is that valuable given that novices look at paintings differently?
Needless to say, it was a memorable week. I will continue to process my experiences while looking forward to continuing to foster the relationships that began in Boston. I am very grateful that I was able to attend this special conference, because I see from a different lens.
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Gratefully and colorfully yours,
PS You may be asking: How did I know about the symposium? I knew about it because the Munsell Foundation had discovered my blog a few years ago and had asked me to write two guest blog posts. I remained on their mailing list. Hence, I received the notification. Despite it being a financial stretch, I knew I had to attend. I am very glad that I did.