Wheels on Ice: A Color Strategy

Note: This paper was presented on the panel “Color In Context” at the FATE (Foundations in Art, Theory, and Educaiton) conference hosted by Kansas City Art Institute in Kansas City, Missouri on April, 7, 2017. The introduction and conclusion have been reworked as a result of that presentation. The author’s opinions are her own.


We live in a time when the world is looking for answers to humanitarian and environmental questions that seem unsolvable. As a trained artist, I navigate this landscape through the lens of color, where pink pussy hats are thinking caps, value scales direct us toward skin tone and the power of illumination is flipped to the dark side. This paper is broken down into four segments: Pink Pussy Hat, The Grimke Sisters, Breaking Bad, and Solar Powered Painting to illustrate how the language and technique used in the painting or design studio classroom relates to how we perceive and engage the world around us.


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Pink Pussy Hat

In terms of technical skill, students learning color mixing strategies from Michael Wilcox’s research can work as if training for an athletic event– how fast and accurately they can mix a color based on the split primary system outlined in his book “Blue and Yellow Don’t Make Green” can get them to become efficient and powerful in color mixing ability.


While they are learning and practicing monochromatic scales, value scales, complementary schemes and levels of intensity they are asked to think about metaphor as well. Artworks like “Pink Project Table” by Portia Munson can be categorized under the color theory term monochromatic. After determining this technical label, the work takes a leap into associations with gender. In this case, a large collection of pick plastic objects mined from thrift stores placed in row upon row on a large table evokes the world of girlhood and adult sex toys to create a sugar coated pink collision of profanity and innocence.



The people who wore pink pussy hats during the 2017 Women’s March understand Munson’s irreconcilable monochromatic environment. Pink pussy hat. I envision this as an item on the material list of a 2D Design syllabus. Like a thinking cap that students have to put on to exercise their brain muscle for art class. A place where materials and language become the building blocks to make humor, horror, romance, science and irony out of the compositions they create.


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The Grimke Sisters


The language and method of split primary color mixing in Wilcox’s book “Blue and Yellow Don’t Make Green” includes the basic properties of color: hue, value, and intensity and a color wheel format. For the primary areas each color is split into two colors that are biased toward one secondary or the other. For example, yellow is split into primary green-yellow and primary orange-yellow. It would be hard to decide which blue is the pure primary until we understand that there is not pure color, every color contains all others. In the case of yellow, one yellow is biased towards green and the other towards orange.


The 1853 Jessup and Moore broadside outlining the price per rags based on color: “Mixed, 4 ¼; Colored, 3 ¼; White, 6 ¼.” and material: “If the Mixed or Colored contain any considerable quantity of Rags made entirely or partially of Wool or Silk, we shall have them thrown out,” is a striking example of unintended overtones of 19th century race classifications of people: “Mixed, 4 ¼; Colored, 3 ¼; White, 6 ¼.” This phrase could be used to describe the Grimke sister’s family tree: Nineteenth century southern “White” women who travel north, cut their ties with the institution of slavery and later discover their mulatto (“Mixed”) nephew (the son of their brother and his slave).


The Grimke sisters, 19th century abolitionists would have understood that the color term monochrome is an oxymoron once students learn there is no such thing as pure color and that every color contains every other color. They were the first Americans to pinpoint racism on color. (Lift Up Thy Voice: The Grimke Family’s Journey From Slaveholders to Civil Rights Leaders by Mark Perry, 2001). They would have understood Michael Wilcox and his book Blue and Yellow Don’t Make Green. And the contemporary physics of color and pigment in a foundations class where color wheels quickly grow into family trees as “parent colors” are placed on the palette, dragged to the center and mix to create new hues: blue and yellow produce green, green and red produce brown, and so on. By rooting their civil rights argument in the pigment of skin, they give the fundamental color wheel a racial voice.


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Breaking Bad


I wanted to dive into color basics in Design I with more rigor and decided to prohibit my students from using all colors except for primary red, blue and yellow. It was a disaster. In a University of New Mexico classroom, I saw that violets occupied a muddy section of the wheel and students were looking for an explanation. The assumption was that these were the wrong primaries, my eyes and training failed me in identifying “pure” colors. Later that week I came across a book by Michael Wilcox at the book store that showed a burning ripped color wheel titled Blue and Yellow Don't Make Green on the cover. Breaking bad is the burning color wheel. How does the story of a simple high school chemistry teacher seated on a lawn chair in the Southwestern landscape in mid-day sunlight harbor such horror? How does a simple color wheel inspire such anger? Mid-day sunlight and the three primaries are both high intensity lies that everyone accepts. No shady dark horror can happen at lunch time under the bright sun. No color catastrophe can happen when you use high intensity primaries.


Both the series and the three primary system are an impossible mix of dark and light. All the horror of a science teacher gone drug lord in the bright mid-day Albuquerque landscape. All the mishap of muddy secondary colors from the bright triad of fictional pureness.


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Solar Powered Painting


All color travels together in a rainbow of primary and secondary color: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet. When a beam of light passes through a prism the individual colors break out into a rainbow. When light hits a surface, depending on the materiality of the surface, color gets absorbed or reflected out as the hues we recognize: red, yellow, brown, green, etc. Split Primaries show us in a tangible way how all colors contain all others because color is a product of light and light travels in beams of invisible rainbows that create pigment possibilities.


I live in the world’s largest light table. It is an additive color landscape – more light than land. More horizon, more sky than earth. My paintbrush is the sun, offered for students to think about in The Solar Powered Painting workshop which entails creating a large collaborative mural. A sheet of fabric is treated with cyanotype, a light sensitive chemical that is blocked by the sun with participant’s bodies for ten minutes and then rinsed in water. The result, an image on fabric that reduces bodies to a silhouette void of gender, race, class, age.


Absence of skin color designation, gender designation and age designation, the mural is anchored in my research on early American feminist writing “Solitude of Self”, Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s 19th century speech which poetically outlines her life’s work arguing for suffrage, abolition and civil rights. In my workshop, sunlight the carrier of color, enlightens the conversation through the act of erasing color.


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Wheels on Ice: A Color Strategy, focuses on the relationship between studio technique and artistic expression (Form & Content). Students learn that technical color mixing is loaded with metaphoric language that can trigger content and vice versa. When students shift the frame for color from technical mastery to civic engagement it expands the context of the technical pigment mixing on a color wheel to the rich and slippery landscape of social awareness.



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