The above image shows the color palette in a 3 x 3 inch detail area of a 40 x 40 inch painting by landscape painter Diana Young. The painting is of a landmark building in Eastport, Maine, the Eastport Customs House.
In a landscape painting featuring a brown building, one would expect the side of the building to be, well, brown. But what we see in this small detail of the wall of the tower is something else completely. Most of the colors the painter uses for the wall are generally related to earth tones. However, there is a large color diversity within, and even beyond, the normal range of colors one would expect to complement the base color, brown.
To the viewer, the building still “reads” as a building overall. But more importantly, the painter chooses to add – within just this 3×3 inch square – at least two distinct oranges; an almost flesh-colored pink; a purple hue, and what looks like an almost muted green. These are not the actual colors of the side of a building in Eastport, Maine. These are the interpretation of the painter of the building, what I’d describe as the ‘life’ of the building.
Judging by eye what exact colors are in a painting is actually pretty hard. Color perception is plagued by relativism. If you’ve studied color theory, you know what color we perceive is heavily affected by the shape, size and positioning of neighboring color fields. (Josef Albers, a pioneer in color theory in Germany’s early 20th Century Bauhaus movement, literally wrote the book on color relationships in visual art.)
The complexity of color theory – putting colors together in shapes and sizes that work – is what makes this three by three inch square of Customs House quite remarkable. The safest color application for rendering this wall would be a single brown pigment with a physical texture painted, or with minor variations of brown to complement the base color. But here we’re looking at everything from green to purple complementing brown.
Diana Young appears to take the least ‘safe’ approach: She seems to be figuring out, in nearly every area of the painting, how she can pack in as many colors as possible. To rationally think through how this many colors could work together on a 40 x 40 inch canvas – that’s 1600 square inches – of painting, would be a mind-crushing calculation. For a skilled photographer adept in the use of color, like myself, this task would cause exasperation in short order.
I’d go so far as to posit that even a majority of talented painters wouldn’t attempt this level of color application.
But Diana Young seems to approach this complex task with true joy. And she doesn’t do it just in Customs House, Eastport, but in nearly every landscape work she’s painted since around 2000. In fact, I purposely selected a painting for this analysis that I felt had a relatively tame subject matter to highlight how even a relatively static subject is intensely colored in Young’s paintings.
Take a look at something that’s actually alive, like the potted topiary in “Enter Here,” if you’re really looking for fireworks. It’s packed with color. One part of one shrub has nearly a complete rainbow of color.
Young seems to have internal guidance for discovering what colors are capable of working together. That she does this without compromising an accurate reading of her subjects for the viewer is an impressive balancing act. Given that this color construction occurs nearly everywhere in Young’s paintings points to a multifaceted personal color language. Everything is interpreted.
Returning to Customs House for a second, take a look at the sky. It’s anything but blank. Where there is a graded tonal range or cloudbursts in the real world, in a Diana Young painting there is almost always, nearly every time, a quiet explosion of color. And that’s a great way to see the world.
Original analysis by T.R. Brogunier, posted March 1, 2018.
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