40 Years of Color Mixing

1974-Color-MixingForty years ago today, I finished my first color mixing collection.

Home for three weeks between the end of my summer job and the beginning of my sophomore year of college, I decided to mix 300 colors using only three colors of RIT dye. Why dyes? Because my favorite art form at the time was making batiks.

I started with a twin sized white cotton bed sheet donated by my mom that I cut into twelve pieces. (Thanks Mom!) Each piece was dipped into one of the primary dye baths for a specific length of time then dried on a clothesline in the backyard.  I cut each of those 12 pieces into smaller pieces which were dyed and dried a second time.  Those pieces were then cut up and dyed a third time.  By the time I was done, I had three hundred 1″ x 2″ swatches.

The primaries were scarlet red, golden yellow and cobalt blue in four depths of shade (values) based on time in the dye bath.  From those I mixed 96 secondary colors. From those I mixed 192 tertiary colors. I kept track of the dye path for each piece on 3 x 5 index cards and carefully numbered them all before arranging them in one of those old spiral bound photo albums with sticky pages.

Looking back, I realize that my fascination with three primary mixing and mud colors started that fall. I ended up with dozens of little pieces that were the same color even though they were dyed in completely different orders.  It turned out that there were many paths to one color. It was a huge color mixing “ah-ha” moment.

I came across the album while moving my color books into the VIA Artistica teaching studio that I share with three partners here in Portland.  After 40 years the pages are yellowing, the labels falling off, and the colors have faded slightly  – but the lessons learned are as vivid as ever.



Tertiary Colors showing the order of the dye baths. The numbers in parentheses are the secondary colors in the color path.

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The Winner’s Are . . . Ice-Cream Cones!

The winners of this year’s Alan Alda Flame Challenge “What is Color?” are Melanie Golub in the written category and Dianna Cowen, in the visual category. Both mention ice-cream cones when describing the cones of the eyes – a brilliant way to reach the 5th grade audience.  I’m now on the look-out for red, green and blue ice-cream cones.

Its the 4th of July holiday here in the US of A – the perfect weekend to go ice-cream cone hunting. I wonder what flavors will make the best photo op? Strawberry, mint and blueberry? No – too pastel. Might need to go with Italian water ice to get the best colors. Its a good thing I’m visiting the heart of water ice country – Philadelphia, PA.

Petrucci1_3657 Petrucci2_3654 A trip to the Petrucci farm in King of Prussia was good for visiting the goats but came up short in the green cone department. I had to settle for mint chocolate chip ice-cream. Darn. The hunt continues.

In the meantime, you can read Golub’s entry on the winner’s page at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook U and watch this fun winning video by Cowen, aka The Physics Girl.

Past Post: Flame Challenge
Flame Challenge Winner’s: winners’ page

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Chromolocomotion: Train Stations and Tetris


My husband and I had one day to spend in London on our way home to Portland this week. We visited the Viking exhibit at the British Museum, took a selfie across the street from 221B Baker Street (no – we did not go in since there was no 221B in Conan Doyle’s time) and then, since Chuck is both an engineer and a train enthusiast, we went to see the west concourse at King’s Cross Station.  I’ve seen photos with other colors but it was blue for us on Wednesday. Brilliant on a rainy day!


I assumed that, like the courtyard roof at the British Museum, the concourse roof was designed by Norman Foster. But I was wrong –  the architect is John McAslan.  No matter. I loved it.

We headed next door to have tea at the Saint Pancras Station. The first thing we noticed as we walked though the center doors was a large, colorful panel hanging where Olympic rings greeted the athletes two years ago.  “Wow!” said Chuck, “It looks like a huge game of Tetris!” And it did!


I have to admit that at first I didn’t like it. I thought the colors were all wrong, the angular design out-of-place, the construction too flimsy. Then I found the “Look Up” board describing the piece as the second installation in the Terrace Wires public art series. The title? Chromolocomotion. The artist? David Batchelor.


Now, you have to understand. I am a huge fan of Batchelor’s books. Chromophobia is a must read and I just bought his latest book, The Luminous and the Gray, when I was at the Tate’s Matisse show a few weeks ago. I read it on the way to Malta. Inspiring!

So I was faced with a bit of a dilemma. I consider Batchelor a fellow color geek. My first impression of the St. Pancras panel – not knowing the artist – was dislike. My second impression – knowing the artist – was a bit more forgiving, a combination of “Everyone has different color tastes.” and “I wonder what was he thinking?” and curiosity about the design competition parameters.

While waiting for the sun to come out, we sat down for tea and day dreamed about taking the Eurostar to Paris. Every now and then the clouds parted and bits of color sparkled over the concourse. Lovely!

Over the course of the day, I’d seen centuries old art pieces at the Viking exhibit, visited an engineering masterpiece from a few years ago, and marveled at a new work of public art.

With all the controversy over original work these days, what struck me most was the variety of my responses.  In the Viking exhibit I noted the stylistic similarities between Celtic, Viking, and Moorish motifs. I loved them all and didn’t care who created the first interlace design.

My different response to the design of the King’s Cross concourse  (I like it even though it reminds me of Norman Foster) and to Chromolocomotion (I don’t love it but I do appreciate it as an original work of public art by an artist I admire) made me realize that it doesn’t matter who the artist is or whether or not the design is “original.” I respond on a visceral level. I know what I like.

As I was sitting down to write this post this afternoon, I discovered that today is the 30th anniversary of Tetris.  Batchelor insists that he was not inspired by the game. What a fun coincidence that an artwork that reminds so many people of a retro video game is hanging in a London train station on the anniversary of its creation.


BBC Video: Chromolocomotion
Camden New Journal: Shower of Colour

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Lightboxing in Lanjaron

LanjaronCourtyardTwo weeks ago I was in Lanjaron, Spain with my friend, and fellow color enthusiast, Laura Liska. We stayed in a quiet courtyard and spent some time every day on our respective studies.

We are both exploring how light affects the perception of color – each in our own ways.

Laura is working on her thesis observing how light affects the way we perceive the natural world on three levels – the landscape, the tree, the leaves. I am looking at the integration of light, pigment, and optical mixing and how light changes the perceived color of everything under the sun.

Lanjaron is a small town perched on the southwest edge of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Its known for water. Bottled water from the mountains is sold all over Spain, people come here to be pampered at the famous spa, and throughout the town, water flows in constant streams from 23 public fountains. One day, on a fun expedition to photograph all the fountains, I stumbled upon the Water Museum at the end of town.

LanjaronWaterMuseumSite4webThe architect in me recognized it immediately as a special design. Although it was closed, I was able to peek in the glass doors of the two very white, very modern, buildings. Fascinating. I made a note to come back when they were open in three days. Then I decided to investigate what looked like a huge dark box made out of shipping pallets looming between the bright buildings.

What a find!
Industrially drab on the outside, it was a cathedral of light on the inside.




I brought Laura to see it the next day. The following day we brought pillows, set up shop on the inside, and worked side by side for hours while watching the slowly shifting patterns.

We found out later that the spot where we were sitting was supposed to be a reflective pool flooded in water. Designed by architect Jaun Domingo Santos, the whole site was intended as an ode to water.

LanjaronWaterMuseumFlooded LanjaronWaterMuseumflooded2 LanjaronWaterMuseumflooded3

We never made it into the museum itself – the hours were limited – but we did ask a few people what happened to the water. They all said that it is never flooded. But even though there is no water there is still the poetry of light.

ArchDaily Article / Water Museum / Juan Domingo Santos
Yatzer Article
Architectural Review

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Cutting into Color: Matisse at the Tate


The Snail

One of the highlights of my short stay in London was visiting the Matisse show at Tate Modern on Easter Sunday. Now that I think about it, Easter was the perfect day to see the exhibit. Matisse almost died following colon surgery at the age of 71. He called the period after his near-death experience his “second life” and the cut-outs exuberantly reflect his joy in a new life.

I always thought that Matisse went to cut-outs because he could no longer paint – but the audio guide make it clear that’s a common misconception.  Once he discovered he could draw directly into color with scissors he chose to give up painting to explore color in three-dimensions.

Henri Matisse_ The Cut-Outs review – _the lesson of a lifetime_ | Art and design | The Observer

One of my favorite parts of the exhibit was a case in the corner of Room 6 –  missed by many people – with the leftover bits of paper lined up to show all the colors used by Matisse.

Easter2014 Matisse Colors

Photo Credit: Mark Carswell

Gorgeous and vibrant colors even after sixty years, the colors are supersaturated with velvety, opaque gouache.

Nothing prepared me for the emotion of seeing room after room of the cut-outs in person. I’ve seen many of the 120 images in books over the years. There is no comparison. The originals are bursting with color.


The Horse the Rider and the Clown

To see the edges so clearly – some slightly peeling away – gave each image a depth that is missing in the printed versions shown in cases below the originals. In one of his first works – Two Dancers – you can even see the tacks he sometimes used to layer the cut pieces.

Matisse Two-Dansers-detailAnother surprise was the size of some of the later pieces. Huge!

Henri Matisse - big2

Large Decoration With Masks
Photograph: Guy Bell/REX The Guardian

Henri Matisse big

The Parakeet and the Mermaid
AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth

And then there were the glass  scraps from the stained glass windows.


The second to the last piece in the exhibit is the full size cut-out cartoon for the last piece in the exhibit –  a stained glass window commissioned for the Time-Life building in NYC. You can’t help but compare the colors of the cut-out paper with the colors of the glass. If the original full-size cut-outs are 100% more vibrant than the printed versions – then the stained glass is 500%. Color with light! Gorgeous!

If you can’t get to London, the exhibit will travel to MOMA in the fall. Its an absolute must see!

Matisse stained glass

Matisse at Tate Modern
Guardian Article: The Cut-outs Review
The Telegraph: Video

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CMY in 3D Printing

Connex-3-Color-Pallettestratasys color chart

There are a number of companies claiming to have the first full-color printer using cyan, magenta, and yellow to mix all the colors of the rainbow in three dimensions. The color charts above are from the Stratosys Object 500.

Those triangles look so familiar! I’ve been making the same thing in polymer for years. I have to say I am a bit jealous. No, not just a bit. A lot jealous!

The excitement is palpable in even the most business like articles and news stories. Design it in the morning and “print” the prototype in the afternoon! Imagine how artists will adopt the technology. The possibilities are endless. Here’s one example – a fashion collection designed by Dr. Michaella Janse van Vuuren.





Will 3D printing take over from hands-on sculpting and designing? Only time will tell.

What is absolutely apparent however is that the digital and printing worlds embrace the RGB |CMY model of color. And the results are stunning!

Stratasys: Inquirer Article
D Systems: San Paolo Announcement

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New Inner Life of Cells

Another digitally animated film showing the inner life of a cell just came out from Xvivo in collaboration with Harvard’s BioVisions program. The first film from 2006 shows an immune cell responding to an infection. It’s a beautful short film. The colors are soft and subdued and the movement slow and graceful.

The latest video in the Inner Life series portrays the frenetic energy inside a cell with more accuracy. Its rendered in much brighter colors. Both are gorgeous!

New York Times: Watch Proteins Do the Jitterbug

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Munsell on My Wall

MunsellonWall1Over one hundred years ago, Albert Munsell, an artist and educator, developed a color ordering system based on visual perception rather than mathemetical formulas.  The Munsell system soon became the industry standard and is still used today to communicate and reproduce colors accurately.

I reference the Munsell system in my workshops whenever we talk about the properties of color.  I do a visualization exercise that I call the “tilted equator” to show students that pure hues have different values and demonstrate how colors flow in relationship to each other.

If you are not familiar with the system – Munsell just posted a pdf on their blog with photos of an original Atlas. You can zoom in and see the details clearly. I would love to own a copy of the original but the pdf is almost as good as having the real thing on my shelf.

About a year ago I walked into a shop on Alberta Street in Portland and saw pages from a 1915 edition of Munsell’s Atlas of Color framed on the wall. They were from a damaged book that the owners had purchased and carefully taken apart to salvage the pages still in good condition. I left without buying one of the pages and kicked myself for months.  I even went back and asked if they had any more but was told that all the framed pages were sold.

I visited the store two months ago and there were three more pages on the wall! They were able to save a few more pages of the book and had just finished framing them. I chose the Yellow – Blue Violet page, brought it home, and put it in a place of honor in my reading nook.

Some time last year I was invited to do a guest post for the Munsell blog. I ended up writing about a variety of color flow exercises in polymer and on the computer. The first post in the series was published on the Munsell site last month –  just about the time I brought home the Munsell for my wall.


Atlas of the Munsell Color System PDF
Munsell Blog Post Color Flow Exercises

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Color and Light at NAEA Conference

national art education association - Google Search
I spent last weekend in San Diego at my first National Art Educators Association conference. It was huge – a three-day event with over 1000 seminars, 6000 attendees, and an exhibition hall filled with booths that included demonstrations by the major art supply manufacturers, samples from companies featuring teacher resources and talks by representatives from college arts programs around the country.

I attended many informative seminars and some wonderful Special Sessions, but I had the most fun at a workshop titled “Reinventing the (Color) Wheel: Color Mixing with LED’s.

I’ve been looking for easy ways to mix color in light in the classroom and was thrilled by the creative approach of this talented team of educators from New York.

This timely workshop is a collaboration between Doing Art Together, a non-profit arts education organization, City Technology at CUNY City College, and teachers at PS 5 and Christopher Avenue Community School in Brooklyn. Its a STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) project that integrates art and science and addresses one of the hot topics at the conference – how to engage students in hands-on learning experiences that combine art with technology.

NAEAlight3In the first part of the workshop, the attendees learned about the additive system – mixing colors of light.

They connected batteries with red, green and blue LED bulbs using bulldog clips, mixed the secondary colors of cyan, magenta, and yellow, constructed a mini-stage, and played with colored shadows.

The second part of the workshop was where science meets art. Each table was given an index card with a feeling word and invited to create a stage lighting design to communicate that feeling with light.  We were given all sorts of building materials, including a sheet of poster board for the curved stage,  scissors, tape, cardstock, paper cups, pencils.

Our table’s word was “sadness.”   Here’s our design:


Here are some of the other “stages.” Can you guess the feeling?



I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how color study crosses so many disciplines – from physics, optics, chemistry, biology, anthropology, and neurology, to history, poetry, art, design and psychology. I’m sure I missed a few subject areas!

The idea of a more holistic, 21st century approach to teaching color is catching on. This workshop is a wonderful example of cross-disciplinary, observational learning. The group that designed the workshop is presenting again at the National Science Teachers Association conference in Boston this weekend.  I’m curious to hear how the science teachers like the experience of using light as an art medium. I hope they have as much fun as I did.

Members of the Team
Jenn Brehm | Teaching Artist, Doing Art Together
Cheribum Cannon | Teacher, PS 5 in Brooklyn
Anja Hernandez | Project Coordinator, City Technology at CUNY City College
Jody Hilton | Science Teacher, Christopher Avenue Community School in Brooklyn
Heather-Marie Montilla | Executive Director, Doing Art Together
Rute Ventura | Teaching Artist, Doing Art Together

Doing Art Together
City Technology
National Art Educators Association
National Science Teachers Association

Feelings in the photos above: Sadness, Fear, Anger, Love

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All RGB Colors

Here are the amazing results when software architect József Fejes from Hungary responded to a geek challenge to create an image that contains exactly one bit of all the RGB colors.


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