This post comes to us from Carolyn Nims, Education Assistant.
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Milky Way (2010) is part of Brown Gillespie’s ongoing project, Light Visions. This cutting edge contemporary artwork consists of an abstract acrylic painting on canvas recessed in a frame set with light emitting diode (LED) lights all along the inside. The LED lights are a continuous alternating series of red, green, and blue, which are programmed to fade in and out in varying patterns and combinations. The effects are visually and intellectually stimulating. As the lighting color combinations change, so do the colors of the acrylic painting. Usually, when viewing a painting under white light, the color of the paint is static. We assume that once a pigment is set, so is the color. We consider color as a constant within a work of art, while other aspects are more subjective. However, the LED lights play with color mixing principles to show how mutable color can be, in relation to light and other colors. The viewer may wonder, Why do these colors change? This artwork bids us to question the rules that govern color, making it worthwhile to be at least familiar with some color theory, in particular the color mixing principles that Gillespie plays with.
There are two color mixing principles based on two different sets of primary colors. There is the traditional red, blue, and yellow for subtractive color, and blue, red, and green for additive color. Additive color synthesis is the creation of color by mixing colors of light. Human vision relies on light sensitive cells in the retina of the eye. There are two basic kinds of sensors, rods and cones. Rods are cells which can work at very low intensity but cannot resolve sharp images or color. Cones are the cells that can resolve sharp images and color but require much higher levels of light to work. The combined information from these sensors is sent to the brain and enables us to perceive. There are three types of cones. Red cones are sensitive to red light, green cones to green light, and blue cones to blue light.
The perception of color depends on an imbalance between the level of stimulation of the different cell types. Additive color processes, like television, work by generating an image composed of red, green, and blue light. The three primaries in light are red, green, and blue because they correspond to the red, green, and blue cones in the eye. With an understanding of the functioning the cones in the eye, LED lights are usually designed to create white light by emitting simultaneously intense red, green, and blue. Since no one sensor in the eye is stimulated most, the brain perceives white.
Subtractive color synthesis is the creation of color by mixing colors of pigments, such as paint or ink in your computer’s printer. Typically this type of color mixing is used in art and design. When learning basic color theory, art students use the familiar primary colors: red, yellow, and blue. To get secondary and tertiary colors, the subtractive color process blocks out portions of the spectrum. The idea is to reduce the amount of undesired color from reaching the eye. For example, a yellow image would require a dye that allows red and green to reach the eye but blocks out blue. The additive primaries red and green make yellow, an additive secondary. Remember: the cones in the eye are only sensitive to combinations of red, green, and blue—additive primaries.
Color theory is fascinating, even if you’re only scratching the surface of it. It also gives you a better idea of the questions you should be asking when viewing Milky Way: what is the real subject of the artwork? Is it the objects, the light, the colors? What can we learn from this artwork? How does this artwork change us and the way we see?
Gillespie is asking, Why do colors change in relation to each other and how do these changes change our experience and thinking? As the light washes over the painting, the objects change hue, depending on which lights or which light combinations are used. All the chameleon changes keep us alert. They appeal to our senses: the sudden awareness of subtle shifts amount to a recalibration. The metaphor Gillespie uses is a walk in the woods. The wind through the trees may become as loud as the traffic roar on a freeway.
To some, it may come as a surprise that color is the most relative medium, depending so much on its neighbors. The possibilities that mixing color and light create are inexhaustible. Gillespie uses technology to address these issues of color theory, and this new media project is part of a continuum of color benders, from the Impressionists painting en plein air, to pointillists like Seurat who visually mixed color, to other artists such as Kandinsky, Klee, and Albers, and to those taking advantage of recent advances in science to push the human experience of color beyond its current boundaries.