OF NATURAL SYMBOLISM
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 works
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
When todays 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 Jarmans Chroma
or Alexander Therouxs 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
Students see that the pervasiveness, complexity,
and contradictions of the various associations ensure that no one
meaning is correct, normative, or even typical.
DECONSTRUCTIONIST PRACTICES IN ARTMAKING
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
Effective contemporary color classes include
the study of the artists 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. Its 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
Morrisons 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 Marshalls 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 societys stereotypical
projections onto a blinding blackness.
Another interesting example of challenging conventional readings
of black and white can be found in Tom Feelingss 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
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 Spielbergs
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
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.
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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
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Itten, J. (1961) The Art of Color.
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Jarman, D. (1995) Chroma.
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Morrison, T. (1992) Playing in
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