The biggest weapon an artist has is observation.

As a painter, I am naturally curious about the world around me, so I am always aware of light and how it acts. The beauty of it in transitions and in fluctuations. And the most significant thing I have learned is that the subtleness and beauty of simple objects around me can get pretty complicated really fast.

I teach classes on light. It is one of the most important things to me. How it acts and how it appears. Nothing brings the Law and Rules of Light home more than simple observation.

Last week I was assembling a new black wooden bunk bed for my son. This is a photo of it that I took while sitting in a chair across from the bed. Behind me were a few windows. Above the bed was an indoor light in the middle of the room.

Question: What color is the ladder?

Black you say.

Ok, good label, but what if I crop it like this…

On the bottom of the ladder light was flowing in from the window behind me and hitting the bottom of the ladder.

Hmmmm… taking a closer look…

… isn’t the ladder blue?

And if black is such a dark color, then why does it look just about the same value or “lightness” as the cream-colored carpeting behind it here? It helps to squint…

and look closer…

Looks blue to me.

Meanwhile, on the top of the ladder it looked like this…

Isn’t that orange I see?

Yes I definitely see orange…

It is all about light. The bottom of the ladder was flooded with natural, cool, blue light from outside the window behind me. The top of the ladder was getting light from the warm, orange light fixture up above the bunk bed.

Did you see that when you first looked at the photo and I asked what color the ladder was?

Look carefully and you will see this phenomenon happening all around you. Colors shift and move- and what we think of as a “labelled” local color is much more sophisticated than that. Light can dominate even the most “black” of objects. The color of the light source can take over. It is just physics.

So again, what color is the ladder?

In my workshops I teach artists to see INTO color. Especially if you have been subjected to my “crazy color” stage. And then I always get asked this question: How do you see those colors?

Well, like this. Sitting in a bedroom, noticing the subtle shifts of color across my sons’ new ladder up to his bed. The adjustment needs to be in my head, how I really SEE color and get myself away from labels. A black ladder can be orange and blue and other colors too. (Man, I sound like Dr. Seuss)

Claude Monet said, “Color is my day-long obsession, joy and torment.”

Unlike other professions, being an artist is not only the time we spend at the easel. I have learned so much about color while washing dishes or brushing my teeth and studying my kids’ faces while they did homework. That is working as an artist too. (Thank goodness or I never would have been able to stay an artist) It is not just about applying paint. Lessons in art are all around us. And the best part? We get to choose (when we do get time in front of the easel) to paint something realistically or not… exaggerate that orange or blue light we truly see… or not.

We artists are decision makers above all else. We just need to keep our eyes open.

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