I have an insatiable hunger for color.
This affair began to emerge in my consciousness in my high school art class as I learned the theories that comprise good painting: color wheels, primary, secondary, tertiary, harmonic and dissonant combinations. But I didn’t really grasp the glory of it until after art school, when I started faux-finishing and mural painting. I still get a great rush of energy and joy from transforming white walls into living, breathing canvases of color. Color is, after all, a cosmic language that affects us physically, emotionally and spiritually. (Read more on color psychology here.)
Since then, whenever I’ve had the privilege to paint the houses I’ve lived in, I’ve run with it. My first big faux-finishing experiment was in my own bedroom in a turn of the century Oakland Craftsman with a barrel vaulted ceiling and picture molding at the top of its lathe and plaster walls. I painted those walls to look like aged stone, and on the ceiling I laid an undercoat of rich ultramarine and glazed over it with transparent indigo. It was glorious–like a medieval chapel with a ceiling open to the night sky. I loved it! My heart (and my artist’s ego) broke when when the landlord made me paint it over white when I moved out some months later. But for those few months it was utterly magical to fall asleep under that ceiling of sky.
In my numerous domiciles over the years, I’ve painted a dining room in a luscious watermelon-hued wash, a kitchen in sunflower yellow and another kitchen in spring leaf green. My fiancé and I sleep in our bedroom of rich, thistle purple, with shimmering curtains in multicolored tie-silks. Our studio walls are bathed in a delicious red wash, and our guest bedroom is a dusty aqua–a happy accidental mix of leftover paints that just happens to perfectly frame my old print of an antique French Quarter map. I love stepping from painting to painting as you walk through the rooms of our little house. Each room has its own mood and its own language.
I really came to know the depth of this mad affair (because all great loves have a little bit of madness in them) a couple of years ago, when I challenged myself to create one piece of art every day for a whole year. One of the unexpected side-effects of this process was that it permanently and powerfully shifted how I see the world. As I occasionally fell short of inspirations for these daily exercises, I started taking snapshots of anything out in nature that I found remotely interesting or visually stimulating. Flowers, sunsets, architecture, any texture or color or combination thereof that caught my eye. Even after an exhausting 365 days of this, I still find myself seeing the world as a series of fleeting snapshots, panning my viewscapes for those snapshots that could someday turn into small work of art in pen or paint. I see every nuance of color and its relationship to its surroundings in vivid detail. At times, this can be a crippling phenomenon, as I sometimes lose the ability to exist in the moment…to simply see for the transient joy of the experience. I unwittingly cultivated a habit of looking at everything as a future moment of art, a moment of time and space expertly and creatively captured for some yet unknown patron. Much of my trip to France in 2012 was spent behind the lens of my new Canon Rebel, which I employed dutifully in the interest of capturing the entire experience for future reference.
Along my various color-soaked paths over the years, I have been an art needlework designer, piecing together intricate pictures with rainbows of colored thread, a muralist dressing walls with sumptuous color, pattern and vignettes, and a costumer accumulating piles of dupioni silks, velvets, and damasks. These days I’m wearing my illustrator shoes, recently having created a whole set of hand-drawn Tarot cards with design markers and Prismacolor pencils. I love every speck of color that crosses my path, it infuses my life with power, inspiration and passion. It gives me tangible joy. I get an indescribable pleasure from drinking my morning coffee in a colorful handthrown mug, from wrapping a delicately hand-dyed scarf around my neck no matter what the weather, from collaging designs into being out of the colorful pages of magazines and calendars. From simply sitting in my studio in that magic window of time when the sun drenches the rich, pomegranate-washed walls and lights up the room like the slow opening of a rose. I live for those moments.
Though I do so love them all…the vast rainbow of colors perceivable with the human eye, there is one that rises above the others in my heart of hearts. And it has a name as poetic and gorgeous as its hue.
Coquelicot, the delicate but ubiquitous orange-red poppy that blankets the fields of central France in spring. I took many photos of les coquelicots on our jaunt through France last May. And I even managed to do a painting from them. It belongs to a whole family of warm piquant reds that drift in and out of my artistic sensibilities: vermillion, cinnabar, tangerine, garnet, carnelian, cardinal, mahogany, rosewood, crimson, carmine, scarlet.
The magical properties of red are almost as boundless as its variations. Elemental fire, love, passion, sexuality, courage, will-power, determination, aggression, masculinity, independence, physical strength, competition, conflicts, fertility.
Add a dash of orange and you get magic, manifestation, fortune, charm, kindness, encouragement, stimulation, optimism, success, abundance, prosperity, and celebration.
What more is there to be infatuated with than that?
I think my first experience of this color came from a little room in my grandparents’ house, a guest bathroom wallpapered with sensuous Alphonse Mucha posters. Sarah Bernhardt with her flowing red hair, surrounded with decorative flourishes and mosaic windows in lush oranges, greens and violets of the secondary palette. In this same room, a print of J.W. Waterhouse’s beautiful tawny-haired “Lady of Shalott” captivated me from childhood, introducing me to a lifelong love of Pre-Raphaelite art. Those red-haired beauties were my first muses, prompting me to dye my own hair that unmistakable vibrant henna red for nearly a decade.
It seems that some manifestation or other of these reds have possessed me ever since those days of losing myself in the montage of the Sarah Bernhardt bathroom. I have a memory that’s always stuck with me of a girl in my high school drawing class that told me very matter-of-factly that I had a fiery russet aura (which I still agree with). Another friend told me I looked like a tigress, as I tipped my head back and let my wild mane of henna’d hair spill over the back of my chair. (I also seem to have acquired a tiger spirit guide in the last few years, go figure.) Coquelicot has woven its magic into me.
In just the last year, my love of les rouges has entrenched itself even deeper into my life. My office at work is peppered with shades of peach, spice, and rosewood. At our Fall Equinox wedding in a couple of months, I won’t be wearing a white dress. But what color, you ask? I’ll let you have a guess.
I bathe in a sea of intangible rose petals each day. A simple, primal joy…the color of life itself.
And if you’d like a painterly literary recommendation, check out The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova. A beautiful novel about art, French Impressionists, passion, obsession and the sheer elemental magic of painting. Listening to this story on audiobook was my inspiration for this post!