the power of color

The problem with racism as the new thought-crime is that it’s not really about race,
or skin colour, it’s about power using colour.
When I look at someone, I see character not colour.

Dr. Gavin Ashenden

A page from Moses Harris’s The Natural System of Colors. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

As a high school art teacher, I always taught a color theory unit to my Art I classes
before letting everyone jump right into using color…be it colored pencils, pastels, paints, etc.
Color was much more complicated than just grabbing some paint and a brush…
and my anxious charges needed to understand such.

We would explore the whole physiology of how our eyes and brain see color and perceive color.
We talked about prisms, refraction and the bending of light.

We would talk about what it meant to be color blind…as several of my students were color
blind and how’d we’d work with that.
We even had blind students come to talk to those of us who could see about
how they actually perceived color.

We studied Joseph Albers, the father of color theory.

We talked about warm /hot colors, cool/cold colors, monochromatic colors,
polychromatic colors.
Even beginning with the simple word, chroma.

We studied the effects that color played in our psychological wellbeing and
how colors could actually affect our emotions.

And so yes, color is much more nuanced than simply consisting of primary and secondary colors.

I would place three cups of clear water on a desk.
Next, I would use food coloring and drop in enough drops to have a solid red cup
of water, a solid blue cup of water, and a solid yellow cup of water—our primary colors.
I would then put three empty cups on the table.
I would pour equal proportions of yellow and red into a cup to make orange,
blue and red to make purple, then blue, and yellow to make green–our secondary colors

I’d next pull out a new empty cup and pour a bit of each of the second set of colored water cups
into the last empty cup—coming up with a muddy brown yucky color what is known
as tertiary.
Something that happens when a bunch of colors are blended into one.

I’d explain that sometimes when we’d paint and mess up a color we were going for,
we would unintentionally make things worse when we kept trying to add more and more
different colors thinking we could ‘fix it’…less is more I would implore…

And so when I was reading Dr. Gavin Ashenden’s latest post, Resisting Group Think,
this whole business of color theory came racing back to my thoughts.

Our dear friend from across the pond is just about as baffled as I am
with the new intense obsession, our culture is now having with color.
But rather than paint, our culture is obsessed with skin…
and the color of that skin.
And that obsession with skin color has a dubious name…Racism.

Dr. Ashenden notes that…“racism morphed.
It moved from doing something to thinking something, and then much much worse,
it became someone thinking you thought something.
This summer everyone is guilty, if the new anti-racist posters are true:
“silence is violence.”

But I have three reasons for not believing in racism as people now accuse one another.
It’s not easy to tell what race someone is; there is a sliding scale of skin colour;
and there is a better, healthier way of describing why some people don’t like some other people.

The races are mixed for most of us. Last year I was bought a DNA kit for a birthday present.
It turns out I am roughly 30% Anglo-Saxon’ 30% Celt; and 20% Jewish
(with a bit of Russian thrown in -!) God forbid one racial bit of me should ever fall out
with one of the other bits. Does the Celt in me deserve reparations from my Anglo-Saxon
invader bit?
Don’t even start with the Jewish persecution stuff, the massacre in York in 1190,
the mass expulsion in 1290 by Edward 1st. Luther? Hitler?

And I’m white. But I have never thought of myself as white. This skin tone stuff is
equally confusing and on a sliding scale of pigment.
Megan Markle looks white to me. My more remote Aryan ancestors came from India.
When I look at someone, I see character not colour.

The problem with racism as the new thought-crime is that it’s not really about race,
or skin colour, it’s about power using colour.
It’s the imposing of the American cultural crisis on the rest of the world,
which has different cultural issues. It seems to be about transferring power
from ‘white’ (whatever that is) to black (whatever that is).

The worst thing about the new racism is that it uses a prism through which everything
and everyone are assessed through the lens of power.
This new language of power-relations replaces one moral world with another.
It changes our worth from what we do, and replaces it with what group we belong to.

We face a crossroads in morals and culture, and the new racism is
the tool used to shift the direction.

We are losing a simple and direct morality which invited you to love your neighbour
as yourself, and held you accountable if you failed or refused; we are replacing it
with thought-crime, collective guilt, censorship and the re-writing of history.

Resisting ‘group-think.’

And so we see that today’s culture indeed uses a prism in which to see…
but rather than bending light waves to see color…this prism bends peoples perceptions
to that of power and control.

I’m beginning to wonder if being color blind might not be the way we need to proceed…
yet we know that we have tied so much baggage to our ideas of societal color that we will
never be able to offload such a burden that we have created.

Unfortunately, I will never look at a color wheel the same, ever again.

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number,
from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages,
standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes,
with palm branches in their hands,

Revelation 7:9

Blind color, color blind

Color which, like music, is a matter of vibrations, reaches what is most general and therefore most indefinable in nature: its inner power…
Paul Gauguin

During the course of my long career in the classroom, I taught several students who were color blind. This always provided an extra challenge during our painting units as regular color theory lessons, with the various exercises on mixing and blending, became quite complicated. Compensating, in order that these students could benefit along with everyone else, made for challenging unit planning.

There was one young man, I recall, in particular, many years ago, who was busy painting a lovely landscape. He was so excited, as he progressed along, that he came running to me with painting in hand asking for my approval. “Look, look, Mrs. Cook–what do you think?” he asked as he proudly showed me his painting.

I noticed how brown the grass was as I could actually see good and well that he was looking at very green grass. I told him that things appeared to be ‘so far so good’ but that he may want to add a touch more green to the grass (we were working on color theory and realistic color combinations). After a bit longer, the same young man came running back, once again with painting in tow, “What about now?” he triumphantly asks.

This time the grass was a heavy sea of brunt umber. “Hummmm” I silently wondered. I then asked him to show me the bottle from which he was getting his “green” paint. He hands me a bottle of burnt umber paint… “see, dark green” he explains.

Ahhh—I immediately asked if he’s ever been told that he may be color blind–of which he replied “no.” I grab a green bottle of paint and red bottle of paint asking what he sees. Shades of yellow browns he tells me. A note goes home letting his mom know of my suspicion and that she may want to have it checked out professionally.

It is not uncommon for males to be color blind with green and red being the prominent colors to “suffer”—it’s a lovely lesson on the rods and cones of the eye as well as chromosomes–all of which I will leave to the experts to explain.

Years later, in one of the advanced painting classes, I had a young woman come to me the first day of class explaining that she was completely color blind–that she only saw shades of gray. Talk about a challenge. Here we were in an upper level painting class and she tells me she can only denote shades of grey. Wow. I worried about how effective I could be and what I could offer her in order to make the subject matter relevant and meaningful.

I will say however, as we were working with the concept of texture, light and color, while studying Van Gogh, this young woman produced one on the nicest oil pastel drawings based on a self portrait of Van Gogh that I had ever seen. She took a box of multi colored oil pastels, colors that she saw as only black white and various shades of grey, and proceeded to produce a most vibrant textual image–her take on Van Gogh’s use of color. It was a piece I know Vincent would have loved.

I recall all of this as we, in the northern hemisphere, enter the time of year that is most often void of color. Our time of winter grey skies, dull brown yards, leafless trees of varying tones of grey and brown sticks. A time of monotone shades of shadows and shapes.

Yet just when all appears the same lifeless dull tone, as we mindlessly muddle about bundled and wrapped up like mummies on autopilot, there will be a startling burst of color which punctuates the endless emptiness of the void known as winter. Be it a male cardinal hopping about on the snow, holly berries glistening under a fresh coat of ice—it is as if we are momentarily blinded as our eyes must adjust. We squint almost as if in pain, blinded temporarily by the intensity of which we no longer are accustomed.

These small treats and teases of color offer not only visual interest in a barren landscape but they more importantly offer hope; a sort of life saver in an endless sea of emptiness.

Now don’t get me wrong— I certainly do believe beauty is found in winter–as indeed winter has a crisp, pristine clean, loveliness. However, there can be a bit of a white and grey overload—one that can lead to a dulling of the visual senses.

So as we all prepare to hunker down against the raw wet days of white and grey which lay ahead, be mindful that just when we think life is lacking the fresh beauty of flowers and the emerald shades of succulent leaves, Mother Nature throws us a small treat, hoping to tide us over a bit longer to those brighter more colorful days ahead.