Can you teach color sense?

Two Parsons professors explain why their students paint their own skin tone and how anyone can become a colorist

Published February 1, 2012 1:00AM (EST)

This article originally appeared on Imprint.

Can you teach an instinct for color? Some colorists think not; those who say you can compare the process to something slyer, a delicate sussing-out of an affinity we all draw upon daily. I spoke to Thomas Bosket, coordinator of graphic design and general studios and assistant professor, and Langdon Graves, both instructors in color theory at Parsons, the New School for Design, to get answers (and more tantalizing questions). The resulting outpouring of ideas, opinion and inspiration can’t be contained in a single post -- look for Part 2 of this conversation soon.

From Parsons’ Color and Culture student blog

You teach color theory, a subject some designers and artists believe is impossible to teach (i.e., brilliant colorists are born, not made). How do you deal with students who harbor this belief, but still have to take your classes?

Thomas Bosket: I have taught unteachable courses for 16 years and have never found a student to be unteachable. That is a myth based on teachers who want to feel like exclusive geniuses. "Genius" is not born; it’s in all people but it needs to be tapped. That is done by reaching into the well of creativity, finding our own unexpected reaction or response to a need of society that is yet unmet.

If you take a "creativity" course there should be no rules, only guidelines. If you are following recipes, it is not creative. If you are facing some fears you are learning at a point somewhere near your edge.

Langdon Graves: Thankfully, I don't often encounter students with this attitude. I try to nip it in the bud on the first day of class by discussing the largely subjective nature of color, while also introducing the attempts made by theorists and artists to establish some kind of common protocol to study it more objectively.

Everyone is born a colorist, because everyone has been exposed to and has a unique reaction to color. In teaching it, I think my responsibility is to provide the tools and skills to guide that reaction.

I heard at Print's Color Conference about an unconventional color-theory exercise you use at Parsons, in which you get students to paint the colors in their own skin. Can you tell me more about that?

TB: This started as my exercise. I was trying to teach students to respect the specific matching of color. They could have cared less about my explanation, but I knew they cared about my reason for having them respond so specifically: Color is the most emotional element and to create a refined response we need to tap into our emotions (our psychological makeup) and that is a very dream-like arena, a very personal arena. So, instead of having them match any random color I thought, "Why not have them paint a very personal color!" and that was their skin. (This assignment has led to some amazing discussions about expectations and preconceived notions. Another longer discussion!)

LG: This is Thomas' wonderful exercise, which I also do in my classes because it's so much fun. The students are delighted to be able to paint directly onto their skin (acrylic, non-toxic) and I love to hear them get excited about how much violet or green they're having to add.

Because Parsons is so internationally diverse, this activity always prompts discussion of the differences in everyone's skin color, which is fascinating to be able to break down in terms of pigment. But creating the colors also reveals how similar the formula is for nearly everyone, and how subtle and important the nuances are. I like the symbolism this holds for celebrating cultural differences while appreciating what we have in common.

Can you each cite some examples of brilliant use of color in design, and a terrible use that was nonetheless widely lauded?

TB: Widely lauded? Or widely used? Hollywood movie posters with a basically monochrome color palette (one color with a range of black and white grays) it is EVERYWHERE! More brilliant uses of color would be seen on Mike Perry’s design work, fashion by Balenciaga (particularly their Spring 2010 collection) or the designs of NandoCosta.

Excellence can come from the worst choices that are transformed, but the WORST is what is "factoried" out of most color education when the teacher pushes students to use "balanced designs, good harmonies" or any such crazy formulas you see in book after book after book on color! Teach a student to trust their responses to sensation, and you will see great color in design.

Open Everything exhibit at Maxwell Colette Gallery, 2011

Open Everything exhibit at Maxwell Colette Gallery, 2011

From NandoCosta’s Color Suspensions illustration series

LG: I think Benetton reigns as one of the best brands for color because of how completely they use it. They are colorful in every sense: products, people, advertising, philosophy. They are always bright and bold and they never go out of style.

Ikea put out a cookbook called "Homemade Is Best" that is such a simple, visual treat and uses color to perfectly complement the natural hues of the food ingredients.

IKEA, Bondkakor, from Homemade Is Best series. Designed by Carl Kleiner

I love the wry yet delicious use of color in the work of artists/directors Lernert & Sander, particularly in their short films like Chocolate Bunny (2007).

Although she is a fine artist and not a designer, I think Jessica Stockholder is one of the most amazing contemporary colorists.

"Untitled," Jessica Stockholder, 2006

One of the worst uses of color I can think of, which gets overlooked as a work of design, is the Homeland Security Advisory System, better known as the "terror alert" level. According to the scale, red is the most severe while green indicates low to no risk of a terrorist attack; orange yellow and blue fall between them. I appreciate the benefits of tapping into our instinctual responses to color to help us in times of crisis, but I am skeptical of the helpfulness of the system, as well as the crisis. I also wonder when we might see blue or green make their debut; the alert level has never dipped below "elevated." A little bit of blue would go a long way.

[We continue the color conversation in a future post ...]

Copyright F+W Media Inc. 2011.

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