When I was about nine, I developed a theory. What if everybody actually sees very different colors but calls them by the same names. Like, I look at a tree and see its leaves as a color I call ‘green’. When you look at the tree, you see a color that I would call ‘red’ but you call that color ‘green’. The only way to prove the difference would be if I could climb into your body and see through your eyes and say ‘hold on, you’ve got the colors all backwards.”
It wasn’t a terribly useful theory. Still, I’ve thought about it again quite often since starting my color class. What I’ve become increasingly aware of is how inaccurate my observations of color really are. I’m not colorblind and I have 20/20 vision but I rarely see what’s really in front of me. The root cause seems to be the same thing that blocked me from drawing all those years: converting reality into symbols. I’ve discussed before my discovery that when we reduce our observations to symbolic shorthand (that’s a car, that’s a building, that’s a person) we are forced to draw only symbols instead of accurate representations of the very specific reality that lies before us. If we are fairly well-versed in creating drawn symbols we can communicate the general ideas we perceive but can never capture the specific essence of what is there, in other words, draw accurately.
After a bit of practice and self discipline, we can all overcome this handicap and see and then draw the specific outlines of any scene from the angle we are viewing it. I, more or less, have done so. But now that I am paying a lot more attention to painting, I see how much I do the same old thing with color. “That car is yellow, that building is grey, her hair is brown.” When my paintings are more than cartoons or paint by numbers it’s because my ideas are a little more complex. “Her face is in shadow so let me add black or maybe mix a darker version of her skin tone.” “It feels sort of cooler over there so let me paint that part in blue”. Still, I am dividing the world up into the colors in my paint box and the few combinations I can confidently mix up from them. It’s all made up, a rational construction based on ideas rather than observation.
These days, though it’s still not reflected in my painting, I try to focus on the actual colors in my environment. As I walk through NYU, I try to isolate a patch of a wall and see what color it really is. “The wall seems brown, but that section in the shadow is really quite pink whereas that part on the cornice is silver or more accurately a color I can’t name but sort of a light and glowing grey with a bit of purple in it.”
It’s pretty overwhelming. So many hues and shades and values, hard to discern, difficult to remember, impossible to reproduce. But my goal isn’t really accuracy. It’s sensitivity. To learn to slow my brain and judgment down enough to absorb reality as it appears at this moment, here. Not to see the world in short hand, as a caricature, or a blur but to live life fully, from my particular place and angle. That, it seems to me, is very much the point of living.
If someone else jumped into my brain, perhaps they’d see a wall that’s brown. But I’d love to to see the whole rainbow reflecting back at me.