Learning Color with Matricism
The art you will be introduced to in this website is what the Pointillist dreamed of, they had actually theorized the ideas. It is as close to a scientific painting technique ever achieved. It represents a new complex way to fuse the elements of design into a cohesive visual statement, a way to make color decisions within a composition, and an entirely new language of expression. It started out as a simple way to memorize color mixtures, a plan so that I could commit to memory every color I used on my palette and what happened when I mixed percentages of other color into a primary color. I spent close to a year on a methodically laid out plan making sure I covered every color, then what would happen to it when I added ten percent of another color, then twenty percent, thirty percent and so on. Starting with a palette of twenty four colors that made up my primary set, I created thousands of one inch color squares as sample colors made from just two combinations of color. I then started with triple color mixtures that seemed to take forever to complete. By the time I had finished my study of color mixtures, the idea of a mathematical color structure for painting was becoming clear. It was a possibility fitting for our time. So much of our modern life has been made possible due to the power of numbers. The whole digital revolution that has touched our lives in every way can all be traced to a core of mathematics. Yet in art, mathematics has not been utilized as an avenue of study since the Italian Renaissance when math and geometry was used in the study of drawing.
For the student of painting, the exercise of mixing color for memorization is a painstaking endeavor, taking hundreds of hours of focus and execution. Consider that if you do not commit color mixtures to memory, you will not be able to paint on location. You will not be able to do a portrait from life, nor will you achieve the capacity to be a world class painter. You may be able to develop an art that is pretty and interesting. You may even get a dealer that can sell your creations, earn a living, possibly even building a successful reputation. However that is different than being a great painter. If you are a master of color, you can take command of your own career, not be subject to society’s taste or a dealer’s affection for your work. Students should keep in mind that in today’s world, if you want a normal life, get married and have children, you have to bring home enough money every month, year in and year out from your creations. You will need an art that sells consistently. This is one of the greatest challenges an artist must face. You cannot be an artist if you cannot pay for studio space, keep the lights burning, and maintain a family unless you wish to be alone in life. Two thirds of the artists in history were never married. It is not an easy career through which to support ones self let alone support dependents.
There are two aspects of Matricism of interest to the student of art. The first involves the process of learning. The second pertains to the ideas for use and execution. For learning color, I compare Matricism to the perspective we utilize for a musical education on the piano. We don’t start out playing music as a beginner, we learn the scales. The student will spend hours practicing scales, musical compositions used to memorize the individual sounds of individual notes and how to achieve them by playing the proper piano keys. In music we have the musical score, a written language of musical notes, or specific vibrations of sound and duration. Color has no such written language that a student could read and mix up that precise color. Matricism is the first methodical language of expression having a reference key that can allow a student to create an exact color from a written recipe. A color is designated as, “Cad. Red at the 7th value neutralized to the power of 6.” That is an exact color and if you cannot see it in your mind's eye, your training is lacking. If you have done your color square studies, you would know by that expression exactly what color to mix.
Just as a musician masters his instrument, an artist must master his palette of colors so that he does not have to think about what color he needs or how to mix it when needed. It is this skill of the master that is perceived by the public as ‘magic’ coming out of the right arm. It has also given rise to the perception that only an extremely gifted individual can be a successful artist because of this perceived magical skill. Of course you must have an aptitude for drawing and creativity, but that is aptitude. Being a great painter requires so much more than talent. It takes years beyond what most career fields require. It is a lifetime quest!
Learning color is simple but a very time consuming process that becomes very laborious over time. Composers of musical scale exercises tried to create harmonies and melodies from their compositions yet still maintain the exercise elements of scale work. They would make them more complex adding elements of melody whenever possible. This occurred in my own work when I started perceiving ways to use the individual components of a color in the design of art. Having assigned numerical coordinates to color mixtures, it is easy to imagine how to fuse the geometry of space and form with a numerical color analysis. We now have a way to use math to make the actual color decision as we build a pictorial statement. Many times in my student career I would ask a teacher what color they thought I should use for something. The answer was always to “try this” and then adjust as needed. I never liked that answer. I wanted to know the exact correct color, not what would do to get by. In Matricism, you have an exact answer according to the position and the numbers.
Since artists have been trained for centuries to work in nine values, this gives us the following examples:
1.9 values of light and dark, 1 being near white and 9 being close to pure black.
2.9 degrees of intensity, 1 being pure color and 9 being pure neutral gray.
Value is used to create the illusion of light and form. The intensity of a color is used to create the illusion of depth. In modern painting it is taught that you add the complimentary color to neutralize a primary color. If you have a red, to gray it or to neutralize its intensity, you would add a touch of green, the opposite color on the color wheel. However this is very unreliable as it creates color shifts in the hue. The old masters’ way of neutralizing a color was to add a touch of pure gray of the same value to a primary color. This approach lent itself beautifully to a mathematical analysis avoiding the shifting of the colors hue, and a vastly more precise way to control the illusion color can create. In the above example of the intensity of a blue tone, at one end we have 100% blue and on the other 100% gray. The second dot of color is 90% blue + 10% gray, the next is 80% blue and 20 % gray and so on until pure gray is reached.
A simple example in the use of neutrality for which everyone can understand is in the process of painting a blue sky. When we look up we see the bluest part of the sky. As we look down towards the horizon the intense blue slowly grays as it gets closer to the horizon line. Therefore at the top of the canvas you would paint a strip along the top using the correct value of pure blue. Then you would paint a second band of blue mixed with 10% gray, the next strip would be painted with a mixture of 80% blue and 20 % gray. This would continue until you paint down to the edge of the horizon where it would be almost pure gray with maybe 10% blue in the mixture. Once you have these bands of blue on, you blend them together. You have now created the illusion of a sky receding far off into the distance of your painting.
When discussing the making of color square exercises, I did not include making nine neutralized samples of every color mixture created from the many combinations of colors. This would represent thousands of more color mixtures to commit to memory. In the process of doing this as an exercise, one would discover that a mathematical road map allows us to know the effects of adding gray to colors without mixing every last one of them since neutralizing a color with grays would work the same with most any primary or secondary color. When it comes to knowing what will happen when you mix different pigments together, you must mix them to know them.
The second aspect of Matricism was an exciting realization that was a complete surprise to me. In the eighties I was totally focused on building my portrait career, based out of Dallas, Texas. I viewed portraiture as my day job. On my off time I would explore other techniques, one of which was the art of Pointillism invented by Pissarro and Seurat at the turn of the century. This is a technique that is fun for the beginner, a wonderful technique to learn the theories of color harmonies. For a professional it is an economic impossibility. The painting Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte took Seurat nearly two years to complete. For a contemporary artist, think how much one would have to charge for such a painting in order to support themselves over that two year period? Even if completed, unless the artist is a famous personality who can demand huge prices based on name recognition, they would be lucky to earn minimum wage from the labor involved. This is why few artists have ever taken up this style of painting for a career builder. It is simply economically unfeasible! For someone like myself, not looking for a style to make money from, this meant that it was the perfect style to explore. Only a glutton for punishment would paint in dots and dabs, believe me!