Pursuit of Color

Helen Frankenthaler, Mountains and Sea, 1952

Note: this was posted sometime ago and I am changing the title from pursuit of pleasure to pursuit of color.  I think too many people were coming to this site for the wrong reasons!

Here goes another posting on teaching color. Why do I love it so much? I think that it is one art element that everyone needs to understand and that everyone can utilize. I forged a unit using the standard art education components- art history, aesthetics, studio practice, critical response - into several units on color for the painting and printmaking class at the private high school where I taught for four years.

It was important to me that the students experience the visceral thrill of working with color, not just memorizing the basic organization principles of this complex art element. We went on a field trip to the National Gallery of Art where we were able to see the Helen Frankenthaler painting that started it all, as well as other types of abstract and color field paintings.

student water color diptych

Washington, DC has only hit the top of the charts, art history-wise, once. The apocryphal story of the birth of the Washington Color School goes something like this: DC painters, Morris Lewis and Kenneth Noland, using an introduction from the critic, Clement Greenberg, visit the young Helen Frankenthaler in her studio in NYC in 1953. They are stunned to see the stain painting techniques that she has developed by bypassing primed canvas in favor of raw canvas. They were so in awe of her painting, "Mountains and Sea", that they scurried back to Washington and began unfurling canvas literally everywhere and inventing new ways to spread color.

When we returned from the museum we were able to work with watercolor on paper, pouring colors, using sponges as well as brushes, and also salt crystals to achieve different textural results. Later we worked on small unprimed canvases off the stretcher, again working directly with the paint. When the canvases dried, they learned to stretch them onto stretcher bars. I am sorry that I do not have photographs of these works.

We then studied the hard edge painting of the Californians know for their post-painterly abstractions. At this stage of the game the students really understood that painting could be about color relationships. While our art materials were not on the scale of the works of that era, they managed to make some powerful images with very poor brushes and student grade paints.

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Along the way we reviewed aspects of color: saturation, hue, temperature, color wheel relationships, etc., etc. Students also had to write about their work and the work of other artists.

Using pre-stretched and primed canvas panels and various drawing tools such as French curves allowed students to develop compositions quickly.

They also were mindful of how color could be utilized with formal art principles to achieve a unified vision. The final project was silk screening. I am sorry that I do not have any photographs of those images. They were really into achieving "flat" surfaces and enjoying the concept of minimalism by that time.


  1. Hi Patricia! What a great way to imprint something that will stay with a student for life -- your approach of stimulating that "visceral thrill of working with color" is powerful and will be the engine to spur passion for further dealvings. These are the types of experiences that have had impact on me in my creative development. Your students will have flashbulb memories coming out of these lessons, ones that will create ripples throughout their lives.
    PS -- I love the "student water color diptych"... that's a flashbulb memory for me now!

  2. David,
    Thanks for your lovely comment. I really want students to participate in art, not just "study" it. If we can't help them understand through their senses, then they loose out completely.


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