Thursday, December 9, 2010

BLACK & WHITE – And Other Shades of Gray

One of my first college studio art assignments was to create an 8-inch by 8-inch paper collage, each of whose 64 one-by-one squares was black. The squares could actually be taken from any sheet source—paper, fabric, plastic or any other material—as long as each one was pure black.

I used all of these materials, including many samples taken from magazine photos of black objects: a car, a dress, a night sky, a piano.

With my grid lightly penciled in and my little squares neatly stacked, I started gluing them all down to the cardboard base.

     If you see anything as black or white—
     as purely one way or the other—you're not 
     looking carefully or thoughtfully enough.

What took shape was not a solid sheet of "black." Far from it. It was an elegant mosaic of deep, rich colors, each brought out only by its contrast with its neighbors. What might have seemed common black in its original, unchallenged environment now shone with distinct color: eggplant, mahogany, claret, midnight blue; deep woods green, ebony.

And it wasn't just the hues; a range of textures came into play too. Even the blackest value rendered on newsprint now looked dull and flat next to a sample printed on glossy magazine stock. A square of black muslin paled next to, of all things, a swatch of black plastic garbage bag.

The second part of the "Black & White" assignment was to do exactly the same thing with "whites." Suffice it to say the results were every bit as surprising and beautiful as those with the "blacks."

       I'd already learned that truth comes only 
       in shades of gray; now I was thinking, if 
       only it were that simple.

This project left an indelible impression on me. It reinforced my nascent understanding that, at least in terms of color, everything is relative. It illustrated what we'd been learning about color theory, specifically that perfect white comprises all colors, while perfect black is the absence of color. And that any but the truest black owes its hue to some color it's not absorbing, while shades of white fail to reflect all colors.

On a more philosophical level, the exercise reminded me that there are no absolutes. I'd already learned that truth comes only in shades of gray; now I was thinking if only it were that simple.

In life, as in art, things you might think plain at first prove to be rich with nuanced beauty and meaning. If you see anything as black or white—as purely one way or the other—you're not looking carefully or thoughtfully enough. For the fact is, in triumph or defeat, in health or disease, in agony or ecstasy, there always exist undertones of the opposite.

Isn't this what makes life so interesting? Do you find, as I do, something reassuring and hopeful about it? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

(For a fascinating look at subtle distinctions of color, check out this fantastic color visualization tool)


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