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I Don’t Know My Colors

John W. Pinkerton


I don’t know my colors.  I know that’s a heck of a thing for a fellow who claims to be an artist to admit.  In my defense, I must remind you that I never claimed to be much of an artist.

A moment ago, my wife, bless her heart, asked me if the color of the thread she was working with in an effort to make a scarf for someone’s Christmas present was “teal.”  “Teal…teal…yeah, I think so.”  Heck, I didn’t have a clue.  I know there’s a duck called a teal.

As far as I ever got in grade school  with colors was black, white, gray, yellow, orange, red, pink, green, pea green, blue, sky blue, brown, tan and purple, and I never progressed much beyond these essential colors until I started painting; but even then, my progress was slow…no, a little worse than slow.

The first time I heard the word “mauve” to describe the color of a counter top, I suspected the speaker was putting on airs.

After I started painting and hanging around with artists, I realized that I must have missed a few lessons in school.  Many of my associates throw around the names of colors as though they own a crayon factory.

It gets worse.  Did you know that there are things called complementary colors, analogous colors, split complementary colors, triadic colors, tetradic colors, monochromatic colors?  Me neither.

Some the colors I like to use are black, brilliant blue, burnt sienna, burnt umber, titanium white, unbleached titanium…you get the idea---not a whole bunch and not real complicated.

I try to remember to write down the names of the paint colors I need before going to town to purchase some more paint so I’ll have a clue what I’m looking for.

Without translation the color black is well, heck, black, but, no, there’s Mars black, ivory black, graphite black and a few more; I can’t tell the difference.  There’s gray and there’s Payne gray.  There are a bunch of blues; my favorite is brilliant blue which I tend to think of as bright blue; there’s burnt sienna which to me is tan and burnt umber which I think of as dark, dark brown.  Of course there is not just a white: there’s titanium white, which I think of as bright white and unbleached titanium which I think of as dirty white and a bunch of other versions of white.  Boy, there are a bunch of reds.  Cadmium red suits me fine: it’s bright.  Same thing with yellow.  I keep a tube of purple around just in case I want to bring a color back from the brink of gaudy.

I’ve been criticized for using too much orange in my paintings.  It’s not my fault.  Every time I mix colors, it turns into orange.  Of course blue and yellow should produce green.  If I mix the two, it comes out some shade of orange.  I have to admit that I kinda like orange.

Knowing that I didn’t know much about colors, I purchased a color wheel that shows the complementary colors, whatever the heck that is, and has a lot of instructions printed on it.  Didn’t mean a damned thing to me…a waste of money.  Not understanding the formula for good color choices, I just change colors until they seem not to be battling each other with their last breath.  Some times I run out of patience and just let them fight it out for eternity.

Suspecting that I might have trouble with colors, I started my self-help art lessons by painting only in black and white.  I have no idea if it was Mars or ivory, but it was black.  As for which white, I don’t know.  Anyway, I painted with these colors for a few months, but I finally got a little bored and decided to step off into the world of color.  Now that was confusing.

Every once in a while, when I go to purchase paint, I’ll pick up a tube of paint with a name on it with which I’m not familiar.  The last was some variation of yellow.  It was okay but not much different than the yellow I had been using.

I recall the first art show I did.  I had never seen my paintings under gallery lights and hanging on a wall.  I was a little shocked by how ding-dang bright they were.  I’ve made an effort to bring the colors down a little, but it ain’t real natural for me.

I’ve come to the realization that I’ll undoubtedly die not understanding color.  I’m okay with that.  I’ll just add it to the list of things I don’t understand.