Do You Dream (or Design ) in Colour?

How does the way I use colour equate with the different creative processes required for art and design?

Collating my work to hand over to the wonderful Dr. Webness, Tristan McDonald, for my new site, I saw something I hadn’t fully acknowledged before: there was vibrant colour in much of the graphic work, whilst in my personal work, the palette was muted or monotone. Did how I use colour, equate with how my brain processed these different creative processes?

When I am designing to a graphics brief, it’s usually for a fairly well-defined demographic. I imagine my connection with this audience rather like you might a conversation. You want to use your full persuasive powers to find and keep the listener’s interest. You hope to create pauses, as you would when engaged in a two-way conversation, through the use of white space and typographic hierarchy, that also helps to guide and direct the viewer around the design. And you use colour. Nothing adds a visceral spark to a visual conversation more that a blast of colour, especially if it is unexpected or used in considered isolation.

For example, when designing the branding and artwork for The Cambridge Health Networks, ‘NOT THE Healthcare Awards’, I was mindful that the client envisaged this as the healthcare world getting together for a refreshingly irreverent evening and a tongue-in-cheek “awards” ceremony. So the use of breakout colour on the erstwhile traditional black tie graphic, reflected this sentiment and issued a warning; expect the unexpected! And in doing so, visually reiterated the ‘NOT THE’ of the award title. Here’s the original bowtie artwork:

Whereas, the work that comes from my own practice, feels like I am liberating something that already exists, and doesn’t have a defined audience. I am concentrating so hard on just moving the other ‘stuff’ out of the way, so that this one thought can see the light of day, that so far considering colour doesn’t seem to be a priority.

Having been interested in the aesthetic values of ‘wabi-sabi’ (Japanese celebration of imperfection and impermanence) for many years, for me, monotone brings a stillness, serenity, and a contemplative quality. This aesthetic often uses pared-down imagery, has a strong connection with nature, and highlights the integrity of natural materials and process. The overall feeling evokes a serene melancholy and a spiritual longing. Much of my current work is inspired by philosophical themes and authentic connection, which suggests itself to the use of a limited and calm colour palette. Here’s a fuller explanation of ‘wabi-sabi’.

I was intrigued about the disparity between my application of colour in design and more tonal artwork, did it resonate elsewhere in the creative process?

  • Many artists, and even Old Masters, started their paintings in monotone. Usually working out the lighting issues and contrasts in their art by using only gray tones. This technique, called grisaille, uses a palette that includes only a grayscale or brown color scheme. Colour is then applied on top of the grisaille, or on a completely new canvas, after the issues of the artwork have been ironed out.
  • Babies only see in monotone! Although they can see colour from birth, they have difficulty distinguishing similar tones, such as red and orange. For this reason, books and illustrations for this age group often focus on monotone or high-contrast patterns.
  • As mentioned, there are also many references on the use of a monotone palette to reflect the aesthetic of pared-down ‘wabi-sabi’. Where historically, artists have utilised colour to express emotions, with hot colours such as as red to convey passion or anger, whilst cooler blues for a calmer tone, a lack of colour seems to evoke a transcendence to a simpler ethos, where all life is valued… ‘The Zen of Things’.

Perhaps when a new process is emerging, or thoughts are being worked through, the use of colour adds an unnecessary complication. Certainly, in my personal work I am learning to have a different kind of visual conversation. Keeping the colour palette set to natural tones helps me represent the larger natural forces at play. Perhaps removing decisions about colour choices might also be a little about be self-preservation!

Example Journal Post Five