The context of colour

We’re surrounded by colour. On TV, advertising and clothes. I can whip open an app and conjure countless hues. We have wonderful algorithms that can interpolate from grainy, black and white footage.

But, reading Color by Victoria Finlay, gives you an appreciation of how unusual this is. How colour was rooted in place, politics, science, superstition, tradition, myth, adventure, disaster, exploitation, geology, biology and time.

And that isn’t an exhaustive list. As our use of colour has exploded, we’ve lost so much of this context.

With the exception of a few Russian icons which may have been painted with blue from Siberia, all the real ultramarine in both Western and Eastern art came from the last of these places—from one set of mines in a valley in north-east Afghanistan, collectively called Sar-e-sang, the Place of the Stone. It was where the Buddha’s topknots came from; it was where the monk painters of illuminated manuscripts found their skies; it was where the robe of Michelangelo’s Mother of God would have come from if he had waited long enough. And it was where I was determined to go.

Wars were fought over shades. Masterpieces left incomplete when artists couldn’t afford particular hues. Espionage was rampant as countries competed for monopolies.

This is a fascinating book, part travelogue part history. Finlay physically journeys to find ochre in Northern Australia, cochineal insect farms in South America, and the lapis lazuli mines in Afghanistan.

But I was probably taken most with what’s lost. Many of the works lining our national galleries have changed since they were completed. Natural pigment often isn’t permanent. And nor are the techniques to make them.

I carry around a little box of watercolours nowadays. In case I can get in a quick sketch. But now I realise they’re more than burnt umbers or cerulean blue. It’s a box of stories.

How many stories are we missing?

I recently stumbled across the sketch column of Gabriel Campanario in the Seattle Times. The archive goes back a decade and is full of lovely art. But he's also using the medium to tell stories, and capture emotion and feeling, in ways others can't.

The stillness in this recent column on Microsoft's campus during the pandemic, for instance:

Tucked away between buildings 31 and 32 in the northeast corner of the tech company’s sprawling campus, the lofty wooden huts served as meeting spaces and inspiration zones in precoronavirus times. For now, the treehouses stand empty, waiting for the eventual return of the employees who have been working from home for months.

I've never been to Seattle. I've seen it on tv and in movies, but these sketches and explorations ground it as more than a backdrop. Some of it is the focus on the mundane, like markets, bookstores and small parks.

Sketching and watercolour capture moments in time. But unlike photography they force the creator to be present for an extended period. To measure, estimate and contrast. To notice little details and features most of us walk past every day.

And, consequently, they force the viewer to do these things too.

Campanario has used this to document change, explore class and highlight microhistories throughout Seattle. The buildings, the infrastructure, are themselves the characters. Just as they are in our lives.

Pen and brush can explore lines, space, value and visual juxtaposition. They can exaggerate and simplify. In ways others just don't have to. In ways others can't. That is the strength of this column. But Campanario's work is also an example of what we've lost as media companies have shrunk, as stories have become faster, more national and international.

How many others are there with the license to slowly explore and document our built world? Our local world? How many stories are we missing?

Psyching out

“I can’t draw at all - I cant even draw stick men!” This is something I hear a lot. It’s always adults who say it - never children. Children haven’t yet learned to prejudge their drawing skills and so allow themselves to just give it a try.

This is from Sketching People. But it could easily have been in any of the drawing books I’ve read recently.

Our own minds are such a barrier to learning that every book is compelled to justify their very existence. To insist that drawing skills, like almost anything, aren’t an inherent trait. That they can be mastered with time, practice and study.

Of course some people are gifted. They pick up things quicker and achieve heights the rest of us seem incapable. But just because I may never eclipse Ray Allen’s free throw percentage (89%) doesn’t mean I can’t become insanely good. And even he had to earn the first 80, (85?) percent the same as the rest of us.

When do people learn to make perfection a barrier to even trying? And how do we unlearn that?

My emphasis

Changing perspectives

I was hurrying across the shopping centre this morning when a painting stopped me. It was a print. A generic composition of an urban scene. You’ve seen it. A street disappears into the horizon, lined with lovingly water-coloured buildings.

The scene itself was forgettable. But I was engrossed. I located the vanishing point and traced perspective lines along the rooftops and windows. I was counting gradients, absorbing the contrasts.

I was, I realised, entirely focused on the mechanics. I was trying to figure out how it was constructed. Looking past its impact and into the raw execution. This is a new one for me.

I’ve been reading and watching a lot on sketching and drawing recently. But even as my scribbles have improved somewhat, my whole approach has apparently, drastically, changed. I think about it more. I consider the process.

I’ve been frustrated at my slow progress. Even as I manically draw box figures and practice laying down values. But while my eye, dexterity and muscle memory aren’t there, I have come a long way. My perspective has changed.

It’s really easy to be caught up with the ending and ignore the journey. Resultism, I think it’s called. “Lifelong learning” is steeped in credentialism and “if you learn X you can finally do Y”. But it’s often these little changes in perspective that stick with you.

I studied economics in uni and can barely remember any of the models. But I regularly employ concepts like opportunity cost and marginalism. Learning, processing, radically changed how I think and approach subjects.

Maybe I’ll never be able to properly shade a sketch into appearing three dimensional. But I can see the value in trying to. Lifelong learning could just be about luxuriating in these tiny changes in perspective.