Silent Treatment

July 6, 2017

Actors often joke that they are never a director’s first choice. I am fortunate that I am usually a client’s preference. Occasionally though, I come after another colorist on a job. The design has not worked or personalities have clashed. I do not railroad clients: my work is not about imposing my aesthetic. There are many answers to a puzzle and my main focus is to extract  kernels of desire and beautifully realize them in the architectural space.  I am not beyond criticism or questioning. Indeed, these are integral to the artistic process. I have good reasons for the choices I make and do not hesitate to state them.

I am working on the Palms hotel, a refurbishing of a Budget Inn in Corte Madera. The firm needs a working palette to present to the city Planning Department to approve construction and renovation. The first colorist’s work was rejected. I admit that I did not understand his choices, which did not at all fit or complement the environment nor juxtapose interestingly with it. I pressed the architect for the reason the colorist was fired: he refused to speak at the meeting. Since privacy cannot apply here we can only conclude fear of incrimination that none of his answers would be acceptable.

Hypothetical Answer #1

I should not have to answer any questions about my work.

Art should speak for itself. This is mainly true however, there are many instances where revelation is necessary or informs appreciation. When I visit a museum, for example, I often let a piece beckon me: if it is not engaging enough on its own why should I bother to walk over to investigate? Knowing something about the picture plane or the history of African-American quilts or whatever, allows me to see more and therefore, admire more. Knowledge can only enhance beauty and interest. Even an auto-didact has something to say about her process, subject matter, or choices; it is not a question of being traditionally educated or being especially articulate. Conversely, if a work can only be understood through exposition  there is a problem; but talking about art cannot in any way spoil it because, in fact, it ultimately must stand on its own.

Architectural color design is, of course, different than painting or sculpture or theater even. First, the impact of the architectural scale is magnified; the effects of the colors must be known by the designer, and often communicated, particularly if the selection is atypical. Sometimes I have to convince clients that my choice is the best because they can only envision what they have seen before, for example. Second, in the case of a public or commercial space (by the way, any exterior is public space), I must account for the general public to some degree and/or am dealing with multiple decision-makers whom I must corral  into some kind of consensus. If an artist can say nothing about her work at all one of two things is happening: she feels superior or has no clue (see below). Feelings of superiority stem from insecurity; in other words, the artist might be discovered.

Hypothetical Answer #2

I don’t know why I make the choices I do.

Everyone knows the adage about the proportion of perspiration to inspiration. Saying that the spirit moves you (a term I use occasionally) or that you are channeling some creative flow  is hooey. I would argue that inspiration (like intuition) is just the instantaneous cataloguing of knowledge that outputs a unique solution. Further, what we call the transcendent is really the nexus where pattern meets surprise. Humans are attracted to and actually require pattern. The repetition of known relationships (shape, color, sound progression, etc.) binds us to an artwork but the point at where the pattern diverges is what transports us. We call this the spirit. Yesterday I went to the de Young to see a survey of African American art of the South. I stared at a (mostly) turquoise and brown paisley quilt from Gee’s Bend, Alabama. It basically repeated, with tiny bits of purple, green and stripes thrown in. All the piecing was askew from ninety degrees just a touch. I wanted to throw myself on the ground before it and declare, Sweet Jesus, it was that beautiful. And I am Jewish.

Think of how ten authors can have the same command of a language yet come up with original sentences.   An artist who practices well his craft has integrated the requirement of originality (i.e. divergence from pattern): this  quality is present in his “catalogue,” along with color, form, effect, etc. Creative flow is the connection an artist might have to physical principles (e.g. color theory as it relates to the human eye/brain) or to universal consciousness (e.g. evolution of color and human response).

I am not saying that artwork should be explained away until the ineffable is snuffed out. It is worth noting that  even though I throw around the word “ineffable,” I see that quality too, as a retrieval of universal or physical attributes, just like inspiration. A response can be  as simple as “I like dogs” or “blue transforms me.” You will not find an accomplished artist in any medium who has nothing to say about his or her work. Someone who refuses to answer thus cannot be considered an artist.

Hypothetical Answer # 3

I make the same choices all the time.

This is perhaps the worst of the three answers and surely underpins the other two. I came after same colorist again a couple days ago for a fairly simple 1940s stucco house. The beauty of the building was its unusually graceful profile and rustic hand troweling. There was a typical single window in the middle of the house over the garage that had thinner casing and two little columns inset in the sashes, which were also on the slender side.  He wanted the same ornate treatment of the minimal woodwork, which he regularly uses, even though the house had nary any trim in proportion to the  body. Likewise he wanted to call out the frame and panel of the garage. An exterior in San Francisco is like a painting:  it is essentially a two-dimensional plane because most of our houses are attached.  His fussiness, where every single detail is highlighted,  detracted from what is beautiful about this house.

I have not even mentioned the color choices themselves. If you constantly repeat yourself, either in approach or palette, it is either because you do not care or because you cannot see. You are essentially making widgets. This factory mindset  is designed for optimal speed and maximum production. You can tell I am offended by what I consider to be such hackery. There is nothing inherently wrong with it unless a client is under the impression that the colorist is paying individual attention. I am quick to admire other people’s work. Skill and talent are never a threat and there are a couple buildings I have seen by this colorist that I do like. Even a broken clock is right twice a day.


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