The 21st Century Color Evolution

It was a pleasure to attend the June Munsell Centennial Symposium in Boston, my inaugural Inter-Society Color Council (ISCC) event. Spirited conversation with colleagues from science, industry and the arts confirmed my hunch that we are on the leading edge of a major paradigm shift. The Color Evolution is at hand.

Inter-Society Color Council is the principal professional society in the field of color in the United States, encompassing the arts, sciences, and industry. You can check them out here.

I enter the color space as an artist specializing in color and design foundations. At the symposium, I presented a poster titled The New Color, a 21st Century STEAM Color Learning Model, a project that sums up my research spanning the last decade. This STEAM Model (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Math) taking root at the University of Texas in Austin, provides an innovative solution to the critical lack of relevant color education in the United States. It’s designed to be implemented from the top-down, beginning with a multidisciplinary academic field established at the university level. The New Color course will be open to all majors, offering Color Competencies for Visual Literacy.  Numerous collaborators have been essential to the project, notably Leslie Mutchler, formerly Assistant Chair of UT Art & Art History (AAH) and Director of the Core Foundations program. Currently, Leslie is Chair of Foundations at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.

The path to The New Color was anything but straightforward. I liken my journey to an adventure down a very large Rabbit Hole. It began with a failed color course and a simple question. Fifteen years ago, I accepted the challenge to teach a color class to undergraduate students at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (SMFA),Tufts University’s Visual Arts campus. There had not been a successful color course for years. Acutely aware that I inherited a dysfunctional educational model, I visited Boston’s libraries for resources and inspiration. My search yielded outdated books on color mixing and dry explanations of color vision. So I asked a question that changed my life. What is color?

Color, A New Field Guide was offered at SMFA in 2003. By the second day of registration the course was full. Primary goals promoted an environment of inquiry regarding color’s complex roles in the world and identified color as a powerful communication tool. Guest speakers, hands-on projects, creative research opportunities, and field trips were integral to the learning process. My Field Guide Sourcebook cataloged readings that included Vision and Art by Dr. Margaret Livingstone, Chromophobia by David Batchelor, Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color by Philip Ball, and John Gage’s Colour and Meaning: Art, Science, and Symbolism.  Each semester the roster filled immediately. The long waitlist was a testament to the palpable hunger for a relevant, robust, and creative way to examine the phenomenon of color.

In 2006, I accepted a teaching position in the College of Fine Arts at the University of Texas. Again, I encountered the pattern of benign neglect regarding color training in higher education. The UT model cast color as one of many visual elements wrapped into a fast-paced semester of Freshman design. Unfortunately, this template has been the standard modus operandi in art departments across the country for decades. Determined to shed new light on the relevance of color in our lives, I collaborated with Dr. Nancy Kwallek, Chair of Interior Design in the School of Architecture. We developed Living Color as a Freshman Signature Course, offered yearly through 2014. In 2015, I taught Advanced Color, Strategies and Solutions with upper level and graduate students from Architecture, Interior Design, Art, and Communications. Leslie Mutchler, motivated by the significant lack of color training in the AAH Core program, invited me to give a series of annual lectures implemented as the Color Modules in 2016.

The New Color project, launching in 2019 as homage to the Bauhaus Centennial, celebrates the Bauhaus ideal of gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art). Students from all majors will explore the dense networks of color codes coursing through our lives and discover that color communicates beauty, danger, and everything in between. They will practice critical thinking and creativity while exercising practical tools for strategic real-world color management. Looking ahead, I anticipate that The New Color will serve as a catalyst to transform STEM into the more holistic STEAM Supermodel. Pairing the Arts with Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math maximizes our collective strengths and provides a collaborative infrastructure for innovation to flourish. We live in a world that increasingly relies on the primacy of visual cues. Color Competencies provide essential Visual Literacy training and ensure informed communication across a wide range of disciplines, professions, and cultural practices.

As part of my studio practice, I created The Hero’s Journey, a series of color field paintings featuring a modernist Ant foraging for nutrition across time and landscapes, making her way home to the colony. She reminds us that our 21st century color field journey is just beginning.

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