Color: A Course In Mastering The Art Of Mixing Colors

by Betty Edwards Penguin Group Inc., New York, 2004 206 pages, plus glossary, bibliography, and index
BOOK CRITIQUE . . . by Denise Beusen, Teachers’ Certification Candidate
Originally Published Winter 2005

Betty Edwards’ new book, Color: A Course In Mastering The Art of Mixing Colors, may be the closest thing yet to a 12-step program for those who consider themselves color challenged. As she did in Drawing On the Right Side of the Brain, the author gives readers a practical guide to move beyond conceptual and perceptual barriers, in this case enabling the reader to appreciate, understand, and use color.

The author is Professor Emeritus of art at California State University -Long Beach with extensive teaching experience. Her classroom observations led to the realization that most people don’t make the transition from color theory to productive color practice. The methods she developed to address this problem are the key components of this book. The concepts are presented in a logical order, starting with brain processes in drawing, color, and painting; then moving on to color theory and vocabulary; buying and using paints and brushes; understanding hue, value, and intensity; what constitutes harmony in color and how to create it; the effects of light on color; and finally, the meaning of color for society and to the individual.

The book offers a perfunctory treatment of color theories, moving quickly to practical tools and exercises by which students can internalize what they’ve learned. The author’s writing style is easy to read: jargon is for the most part defined, and the sentence structure is complex enough to be engaging without being confusing. In support of her approach, the author shows and cites original works by many color theorists and artists. Each chapter is focused on a related set of concepts that are presented concisely, making for easily digestible information.

The core thesis of the approach is that color harmony consists of balancing across all three color attributes: hue, value, and intensity (chroma). Starting from any sort of color scheme, the author’s definition of balanced color is:

  • Complements at the same value and intensity levels for each hue in a design
  • Opposite values for each hue
  • Opposite intensities for each hue

The primary vehicle by which the author integrates the properties of color is the wheel. The familiar color wheel is used to introduce and relate hues. For both value and intensity, the extremes are placed at the 6 and 12 o’clock positions with gradations between these extremes on the remaining positions of the wheel. The color, value, and intensity wheels are used as tools in identifying similar and opposite characteristics of each property, since one need only locate a similar value on the wheel and look to the
opposite side to find its opposite.

The exercises in the book were compelling, particularly those dealing with color harmony and illustrating the concept that opposites lead to pleasing harmonies. Unlike past experiences with similar books, I was moved to stop reading and actually work many of the exercises, a step that finally took me out of the limiting world of colored pencils. The author provides a list of acrylics that are needed for the exercises, but not the manufacturer name.

Consequently, I couldn’t find some of the recommended acrylics and had to make substitutions. The discussion on intensity is better than any other I’ve read; however, one exercise on the subject did not work in my hands. The author suggested adding a color’s complement to adjust its intensity. The Liquitex guide says this often doesn’t work, and in fact, it didn’t work for me because of large changes in hue. Instead, I used the Liquitex-suggested method of mixing a color with a gray of comparable value to reduce its intensity. Nonetheless, I found myself slipping quickly into a comfortable mode of identifying a hue, adjusting its value, and then tweaking its intensity to match samples of wallpaper – achieving the previously unattainable goal of moving from an internal vision of a color to a paint mix that represents it.

Beyond the basics of constructing the wheels – both for illustrative and practical purposes, since they are useful tools for any project – the author provides detailed, step-by-step exercises for creating a balanced color combination from a patterned piece of fabric or paper, and for creating a geometric and a floral still life. All of these exercises make the impossible eminently doable. While being gently guided, the student learns not only to identify and represent hue, value, and intensity, but also to recognize and simulate the impact of light on all of these properties. In addition to hands-on exercises with paints, the author suggests other on-the-fly exercises that educate the eye – identifying hue, value, and intensity in the external world; and inventorying one’s surroundings to identify personal preferences in color.

The production quality of the book is reasonably high. It is printed on good quality paper, and each page has a wide outside margin containing quotes, illustrations, or notes. The illustrations are clear and relevant to the text. Obviously a great deal of care was taken in color reproductions, which are generally excellent. There are a few technical problems, such as a chapter that ends in mid-sentence; oddly numbered figures; and a couple of figures (page 66 and 67) that fall short of making the point because of color reproduction issues.

This text is best for someone trying to make the leap from owning a color wheel to actually employing it in real life, but the exercises are sufficiently novel that the book would be useful for those more experienced, including artists, decorators, and designers. What makes it unique are practical exercises that offer readers a detailed step-by-step path from “book knowledge” to usable know-how. For the scholar/teacher, it offers a fresh perspective, and even if you don’t agree entirely with the approach,there are bound to be meritorious tidbits that will stimulate new ideas.