Color classes generally explore the idea that the use of color has an important role in structuring and thus in understanding visual works. Classes inevitably include discussions of the meanings that students attach to various colors. Typically, blue may be described as soothing, sad, or moody, yellow as cheerful and upbeat. Black is associated with somberness, evil, or death, white with transcendence and purity. The language used by students, and often by the teacher, implies that such associations are not based in symbolic conventions, but are natural, unmediated “human” responses.

Such language is, in part, the legacy of modernist criticism, which may include references to the use of color in other traditions, but describes meaning as unique symbolism internally generated for each work out of the consciousness of the individual artist.

Because modern art privileges uniqueness, to say that a work’s symbolism is understood within cultural systems or traditional iconographies, was tantamount to calling it inauthentic. This legacy continues into the contemporary art classroom when instructors’ language praises originality in student artwork and does not adequately represent the idea that interpretation and meaning of color (and many other things) takes place within a field of systems of representation and associations.

When today’s increasingly diverse students create artworks whose meanings are grounded in other traditions of color symbolism, they are often criticized for lack of originality. Teachers who understand such “alternative” traditions only through disinterested study often have difficulty understanding the depth of the connections students have to other color traditions.

If, as postmodern teachers, we recognize the equal validity of many points of reference, it would be wise to shift educational and aesthetic paradigms and to ask, “How can we respectfully include and expand upon the alternate frameworks of meaning that our students bring to the studios? How can we contextualize the cultural specificity of particular color choices and associations?”

UIC professor, Susan Sensemann, encourages students to “get out of the mind set of just looking at pigment” or of accepting color associations at face value. As part of the experiential component of the class, students copy a “classic artwork” and paint a translation of the work in complementary colors. These works are taken to a public place and students poll passersby about preferences and color associations.

Through keeping journals of their color encounters and reading sustained meditations on color associations such as Derek Jarman’s Chroma or Alexander Theroux’s The Primary Colors, students are encouraged to see color meaning as arising from associations embedded in a wide range of art, literature, history, and popular culture, as well as idiosyncratic personal encounters.

Students see that the pervasiveness, complexity, and contradictions of the various associations ensure that no one meaning is correct, normative, or even typical.


Color classes are taught to a wide range of students. Graphic design students may be particularly aware of the pressure to use color efficaciously by manipulating and reinforcing current, common color associations. In such a schema, knowledge of the diversity of color associations for various people merely allows the designer to more effectively attune his or her message to a particular audience of consumers.

Effective contemporary color classes include the study of the artist’s role in creating and maintaining color symbolism and the ethical implications of how such symbolism serves to reinforce particular social, cultural, and economic agendas.

Using the research paradigm of studying color, students collect images and advertisements, sort them by color usage, and then analyze for common themes and associations. An example that always surfaces in such exercises is the systematic privileging of light over dark in Western iconography. Discussing this issue, many students will swear that this symbolism, while unfortunate in its consequences, is natural and inevitable. It’s a fascinating exercise for students to trace the pervasiveness of such symbolism in Western art, literature, and popular movies and to research similar and counter examples in other cultures. Reading selections like Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark, serves to make students aware of the subtle ways in which cultural resistance surfaces within dominant iconographies.

Along with studying and practicing the role of the artist as a decoder of current meanings, students can study and experiment with the role of the artist as the creator of new meanings and new associations. Kerry James Marshall’s subtle portraits of African Americans, nuanced not by skin tones as all the portraits are inkily dark, but by the finely drawn lines which delineate mood and personality, challenge the erasure of individuality by this society’s stereotypical projections onto a blinding blackness.
Another interesting example of challenging conventional readings of black and white can be found in Tom Feelings’s book of historical illustrations, The Middle Passage, in which darkness represents the safe and familiar Africa and light becomes a symbol of terror and cruelty. Many students are interested in exploring the conscious use and revaluing of materials and colors by women artists such as Portia Munson in her 1994 Pink Project Table.

As well as confirming stereotypical uses of color, increasingly savvy popular culture affords many interesting examples of culturemakers revisioning dark and light symbolism. In Steven Spielberg’s Star Wars trilogy lightness is associated with the youth and relative lack of power of the young Luke Skywalker and the anonymous stormtroopers in contrast to the dark wisdom and power of Obi Wan Kenobi, Darth Vader, and the mature Luke.

In a truly contemporary color course, color will not be taught in terms of isolated and chartable formal properties, nor as a symbol system arising out of “natural” human associations.

Instead, color will be the site for the examination of the complexity of visual phenomenon and of created systems of representation. This study of color will yield insights into the role of the visual artist in generating meaning and value in changing times.


Albers, J. (1963) Interaction of Color. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Birren, F. (Ed.) (1969) The Color Primer, A Basic Treatise on the Color System of
Wilhelm Ostwald.
New York, NY: Reinhold Publishing Co.

Efland, A., Freedman, K., and Stuhr, P. (1996) Postmodern Art Education: An Approach to Curriculum. Reston, Virginia: National Art Education Association.

Feelings, T., (1995) The Middle Passage. Dial Press, New York, NY.

Gamblin, R. & Bergman-Gamblin, M. (1996) Gamblin Color Book. Portland, OR:
Gamblin Artists Colors Company.

Itten, J. (1961) The Art of Color. New York, NY: Reinhold Publishing Co.

Jarman, D. (1995) Chroma. The Overlook Press, Woodstock, NY.

Luke, JET. (1996) The Munsell Color System, A Language of Color. Fairchild Publications, NY.

Morrison, T. (1992) Playing in the Dark. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

Theroux, A. (1994) The Primary Colors. Henry Holt and Company, New York, NY.

Pink Project Table by Portia Munson, 1994
(click image to enlarge)
In the Star Wars trilogy, white is associated with lack of power and wisdom; black represents depth of experience and knowledge.
Bang by Kerry James Marshall
(click image to enlarge)