Origins of Matricism
Matricism as a painting technique involves a process of evaluations for each individual component within a color, based on mathematics and geometry. Developed in the late 80’s as a technique to teach students both the physics of color and the chemistry of pigment, over time it expanded into what I think of as a language of color. Prior to Matricism, learning how to use color was a privilege handed down from master to student. It was very subjective, and most often, such teaching processes turned out inferior clones of the master painter. Students had only one way to learn color, and that was to physically watch the master mix the pigments on the palette. If asked what colors were used and how much pigment, colors could be named and amounts estimated. It could not be written down in a clear and precise way. You can pick up a cookbook and by following the recipe you could recreate the dish just as the author made it. If I write a piece of music, if you can read the score, you can recreate the music precisely like the author. However there has never been a language of color!
Modern technique books include wonderful color reproductions, yet a student cannot use them to study color, they are made from ink. The only way to learn color is to mix it for yourself. The most an instructor can give a student is a foundation from which to build your knowledge through your own experience. I was fortunate enough to have a father who understood this. After I finished a degree in art education, he sent me to New York to study under private instructors. It was one such artist that gave me an early clue as to how I could express a color in a written or verbal language. Up to that point in my education, every instructor with whom I studied would talk about color with ‘dabs of this, a touch of that, adjust to use.’ Start by mixing three or four colors together and those dabs are critical if you are going to repeat them. Once you do something hundreds and thousand of times, you know your dabs through and through. But for a student trying to take the information back home and use it themselves, they too are faced with years of trial and error just as their instructor was in their early years.
In the early seventies, New York portrait artist, John Howard Sanden, president of the Portrait Institute of New York wrote the first written recipe for a precise color in the history of art books. This was a completely unnoticed historic moment. Never before had I seen or heard of such a thing possible. Not a single text in all history has had a precise mixture for a precisely defined color! It was mathematics, geometry, and the mass production of high quality consistent pigments that everyone has access to.
Not until the 1900s were there large manufacturers of pigments. Today a student in Kansas can go to the local art store and buy the same pigment that an instructor uses in New York or Paris. The secret to matching the master’s recipes is in the tubes that hold the pigment, the size of the opening, the diameter of the nozzle giving us a calibration instrument. If you squeeze out one inch, that is a defined precise volume. Another concern is difference in pigments from one manufacturer is not the same as another manufacturer’s pigment in a color of the same name. Therefore the instructor must define his primary colors name and manufacturer so that the blue the student is using is the same quality and hue as the one used by the instructor. The color in question for the Sanden recipe was a mixture for a warm flesh tone he used in a portrait. The color called for five different primary pigments to be mixed in precise proportions. His method called for a sheet of glass placed over a drawing of ten lines, each ten inches long. You then used brand A, white and squeezed out 87 inches of white on the glass. Then you would use brand B’s ultramarine blue and place one inch of that on the glass. Next you would have four inches of brand B’s cadmium red, six inches of the same brand of yellow ochre, and finally two inches of oxide green from manufacturer C. Mix and adjust to use, as always. The exciting thing was that the student knew he was very close to the exact color of the instructor. It is no different than a recipe for a cake that uses exact measurements in volume and weight for which the cook uses the measuring tools. We have seldom thought of oil paint in volume, mass and defined pigment yet these are the important factors for a repeatable recipe. Sanden identified the measuring devices, the glass mixing palette with measuring lines and the tube nozzles for dispensing the pigment. He used this to pass on a written text of how to mix a precise color.
By applying mathematics and geometry to the control of color, the theories of Matricism give the student a road map from which they can build their knowledge of color on their own through study and use. There are no short cuts to learning the science of color. You must learn to mix every color possible by mixing it, taking long hours of concerted effort. I spent a year mixing up every color on my palette with every other color in 10% volume increments. My studio looked like the Sherwin Williams paint store sample displays, thousands of one inch color squares plastered all over the walls. When you have a subject before you, you don’t have the time to figure out how to mix a color you need. You must have your experience define exactly what you need. If you have a foundation in the physics of color based on numerical designation, you don’t have to guess how to create a desired color for you know exactly what to do. Matricism gives an artist a mathematical expression applied to geometric foundation, a tool, an instrument so to speak, from which to create the perfect note of color.
Every young student should understand that what a painter does most in his life is commit color mixtures to memory. The foundation of Matricism is a schematic that can be used for education in the physics of color and the chemistry of pigment. As a style of painting, it can become a powerful language of expression which challenges both student and master.