HONESDALE, PA — On a gray Saturday in September, Susan Cottle is surrounded by color, her work awash with the soft shades of the landscapes she loves. The places range from the American Southwest to the piazzas of northern Italy—a world of pinks, purples, blues and greens.
A professor at Parsons School of Design and a painter with a background in classical figurative painting, Cottle was exhibiting at The Cooperage Project for its “Across the Delaware” exhibit September 14, which offered a good opportunity to follow up with her on thoughts about color.
Why ask an artist for input in a design magazine? Well, who knows color best? Artists are trained to see the many colors within a color, and to use them “to create space or to communicate an idea or thought. It can be applied with subtlety for transition or contrast for emphasis,” Cottle said. “Color can be used to communicate expression, mood, or for visual or conceptual contrast or emphasis.”
We all know the scientific definition: color is the perception of light wavelengths and vary based on the way they’re absorbed by the human eye. But to an artist, color is something at once completely pratical—a tool in their box—as well as something inexplicably magical.
Color has three properties: value, hue and saturation. Value is the degree of light or darkness of a color. Hue refers to the temperature: how warm or cool it is. Saturation refers to how brilliant or how dull a color is.
Artists are interested in mixing color and in its “perceptual manifestation,” said Cottle—investigating how those light wavelengths meet our eyes and brains and what happens afterward.
How a color resonates in our minds and in our vision is “determined by its context—by the colors around it,” she added. Two identical grays will appear to be different hues when placed on different color backgrounds. This is what theorists call the law of simultaneous contrast,” she explained.
Part of the magic is that you really only need a few colors to paint the world. “We may choose to work with many colors on our palette, but we know that almost anything can be mixed using just the primary colors plus white,” Cottle said.
And then there’s what you can do with that palette.
Do you have a small room? The right juxtaposition of color “can create the illusion of deep or shallow space,” she said. “The value, hue and saturation all influence where something seems to sit in space. For example, a bright- red stroke of paint out of the tube will appear closer than a duller or a green one.”
You can paint, as Cottle does, or create torn-paper collages, as she also does. Or your canvas can be your home. Color can be on your walls, your floor, your ceiling. It can lurk in the objects you choose. In a room of soft blues, a bright spark here and there—maybe yellow or orange?—draws the eye.
As a painter on-site, Cottle would “mix color on the palette and apply the mixtures directly to the canvas. In the studio, I tend to build color by glazing—a slower process of layering translucent warm and cool colors.”
Would that layering work in the home, to create something subtle and beautiful in a room? Worth trying out.
To begin thinking like an artist, “realize that no color is perceived independent of other colors.” Light colors are especially reflective, Cottle said. Spend some time looking at light colors next to other colors to get a sense of how they are affected. (See the try this box).
She also suggested, “For those who are intimidated by color, print a color wheel. Read a few color-theory basics and start using triads, groups of three, to assemble colors. Look at examples by the masters that you admire. Try to identify the basic, limited palette they work with. A good approach always is to work with a limited palette and explore variations and mixtures or those parent colors.”
Don’t be afraid to experiment. The best artists find their value when they color outside the lines.
“The best way to learn about color is to start using it,” Cottle said. “Once you have mixed shadows using blue and orange or another complementary pair—opposites on the color wheel— you will never see a shadow as black again.”
Susan Cottle’s work is on display at Missing Pieces Gallery, 959 Main St. in Honesdale, and on her website, www. susancottlestudio.com,where you can message her, see more paintings and learn about upcoming exhibitions.