Color Theory in Contemporary Practice

Roses are red. Violets are blue.

These short phrases indicate that some romantic declaration is forthcoming. I won’t digress into all of the reasons why these couplets make for an apt beginning to a romantic declaration, but I’d like to pose a question. When we hear the word “rose,” in our mind’s eye, don’t we envision red roses? There may be a few exceptions. Perhaps you have a dear friend named Rose or maybe your mom has an affinity for yellow roses. For most however, when we think of the flower, we imagine it red. The same is true for violets, with the exception of whether you’d call the color blue or something like it. So why, for so many years, have greeting cards and desperate poets been stating the obvious when it comes to color?

It may have something to do with the impact color has on our emotions. Our imaginations run wild and suddenly, we begin to feel all sorts of red — passion, love, warmth, affection — for the author of the obvious.

Perhaps I am being unfair to our romantics. Colors can actually be quite complicated. When we think of roses, we may envision red flowers, but when we imagine red roses, their petals are all the more saturated — they can be a bright and lustrous, velvety red, with golden undertones or a deep, cool red with a bluish complexion. We may agree that a rose is red, but how do we actually describe the color?

Artists, historians, and color theorists have been struggling with the problem of how to create and describe color for centuries. Sir Isaac Newton was one of the first to make a meaningful contribution to the field. Newton discovered the visible light spectrum. He observed that unique colors were determined by the way each ray of light bended as it moved through a prism.In 1704, Newton charted these observations in the form of his color wheel, pictured below.


Today, we are used to seeing, or hearing, this wheel in another form: ROY G. BIV. The acronym is used to identify the colors that comprise the rainbow. Rainbows capture the full span of the spectrum of color visible to humans. Roy G. Biv arranges these colors in order of decreasing wavelengths. Red is 650nm, while violet is 400nm. See? Color is already more complicated than “roses are red, violets are blue” could ever suggest.

Albert Munsell, an artist and art professor at MassArt, decided to try to tackle the color conundrum. He created a rational system and published it in A Color Notation in 1905. After a number of revisions, Munsell’s color system has become the foundation for how we think about color as a network. Below is a simplified version of the color wheel that underscores the relationship of colors to one another. The center portion of the wheel is certainly a nod to the “origin” of color, as discovered by Newton, in the prism.


The wheel shows us that red, blue, and yellow are primary colors, which means that all other colors derive from them. These derivatives are called secondary and tertiary colors. The complexity of color is bred from its natural simplicity.

Artists and colorists often use to color wheel as a way to identify complementary colors, those which colors mix best. In fact, an entire genre of art emerged from the desire to center all abstraction on color. Color field painting embraced color as its own form of expression and as an essential way to convey emotion.

Operating within the rich tradition, contemporary artist, Fabian Freese, has returned to color. Freese presents a new, site-specific installation at the Lazy Susan Gallery titled “Rainbow Inside” from June 6th to June 12th, 2017. In addition to all of the colors that the rainbow evokes, the artist uses it to reflect an open-minded view of the world. The rainbow, as an artistic element, has become an equalizer.

Fabian Freese’s use of the rainbow emerged from his minimal artworks, in which he put the color wheel to the test, starting with monochrome color fields and then blending two colors together. Freese then started to add more hues into these fadings and was suddenly up to 5 colors of the rainbow, using bright neon shades to get the best color effect. The rainbow appeared as a coincidence in the process of his art and now Freese works with it like a single pigment.

“Rainbow Inside” stands as a reflection of Fabian Freese’s feelings and point of view that have developed from his travels around the world. The rainbow installation will also include photographs that will allow visitors to experience Freese’s interpretation of place within the scope of juxtaposing but complementary colors.

Roses are red.

Violets are blue.

Check out this show

& think about what color means to you.

This story originally appeared on The Culture LP’s Medium page on June 6, 2017, written by Danielle Amodeo.

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