an artist’s guide to color

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Last week a friend texted to ask if I thought learning about color theory would be worth the time as an amateur designer. Like clockwork, the algorithmic gods instantly served up an Instagram reel claiming that a failure to understand color theory is why some people look drab and other people look fabulous. Unlike most of the targeted content I have to bat away every time I want to check my messages (which are often just friends sending me their own targeted content) this video, or at least the premise of the video I could grasp from the preview image, had some truth to it. It is true that I can put on a certain shirt and know my date will compliment my eyes, not because some stranger off Bumble is instantly and particularly in love with me, but because placing the right color near my eyes can make the color of my eyes themselves appear brighter and more vivid. This practical magic of color theory is something akin to how a skilled home cook can add the right pinch of something to turn a simple recipe into a meal you remember. You could eat the food either way, but isn’t it nicer with that right amount of paprika?

And the magic can be useful, more useful than getting compliments. Last month I sent off a design for print to a local risograph studio, only to hear that they would be out of ink for one of the colors I had selected for some time. In a rush, I selected a substitute for the design without mocking up the image digitally or seeing a proof. It looked great. While I don’t consider myself to be a particularly devoted or introspective designer, I do know that I can put a few colors together on the fly and they will look decent and legible and interesting together, and that’s already half the battle. So is it worth it to learn some color theory? I think so, but it also shouldn’t be a chore.

A few years ago I ran a color theory course that was something of an attempt to abridge a version of the kind of course I had taken in design school and mix in my 10+ years of earning a living in digital design and development. At Pratt we had to take two semesters of “Light and Color Design,” a 3-hour weekly workshop that was mostly hours of practical exercises with physical materials and then hours dissecting those exercises until everyone wanted to scream. The exercises were great for developing the right eye for understanding color and light, but they were also pretty fucking tedious. There was no joy in it until my professor pulled me aside to recommend Hawthorne on Painting in an attempt to get me to care about actually doing the assignments on time. It worked, and was truly life-changing for me, but I think I also could have gotten to that moment of joy a lot sooner. It should feel delightful to get to choose how you will use color in a project to enrich an experience, even for people with limited color vision, not a box you have to tick to get a project off the ground or to pass a curriculum requirement.

In my own workshop course, I struggled with the pressure to make this mean something. Some of this was the timing of running it during COVID lockdowns. Everything felt really essential and horrible and urgent in a way that things just don’t in a world where I can go outside and don’t engage with the internet discourse on anything anymore. My professional work had also ground out a lot of the joy in color for me, but instead of aiming to reclaim that joy I felt the need to try and make the workshop change the world. It didn’t! I also felt a pressure to price that class and others I gave at that time according to a certain scale of online institution that made it pretty inaccessible to most people, particularly outside of the US and Western Europe. This didn’t actually make the workshop a meaningful source of income for me and definitely limited the amount of students in the cohort. But in digging up my slides and my reading list for this friend who had asked for advice on color, I thought maybe there’s something there that could be exciting.

So! As an experiment, I’m going to be running three 1-day online workshops on making a space for the delight of experimenting with color in your creative work. One is timed for a weekday evening in the Americas, one for an evening in Europe, and one weekend slot, all timed to be accessible for working adults. I’m curious to see which times and days will be most popular with you all (and please write and tell me if you’d prefer something else in future).

All will consist of 2.5 hours of working time, with lecture, practical exercises, and discussion. All sessions will be recorded and distributed after the class if you can’t make it to the live session. All groups will get semi-forever access to a digital library/reading list of relevant books, articles, and videos. All groups will also get access to an online discussion space for continuing to share exercises and ideas about color. And all workshops will be priced at $20 USD, or the equivalent in your local currency. If you’re an Artist’s Guide subscriber, you’ll see a discount code below that you can use for $5 off. And if $20 is totally out of your budget, you can reply to this email to ask for a waiver. The workshops will be conducted in English, with the hope of doing sessions in Spanish in the future. 

Session 1: Sunday, November 26, 4:00 PM CET (GMT +1)/10:00 AM EST (GMT -5)
Session 2: Monday, November 27, 7:00 PM EST (GMT -5)
Session 3: Tuesday, November 28, 7:00 PM CET (GMT +1)

I’ve been reluctant to teach again mostly because I often feel like a lot of commercial design shouldn’t exist! But the joy in creating something new and vibrant and collaborative should exist, and chatting with my friend about color reminded me how it feels to share that experience. I hope you’ll consider giving this experiment a try!

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