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The Color of Shadows

During the decade that I taught full-time at The School of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, I would spend hours each day trying to get students to SEE the color of shadows in my observational painting classes. Color in shadows seemed like one of the hardest things for students to see, nonetheless believe.

One late afternoon, just off the MBTA, I arrived home to my sunny kitchen eagerly greeted by my curly-haired 3-year old daughter Celeste. The afternoon sun was raking across our white kitchen table. Sitting on the table was a single orange. Celeste glanced at it and said, “Mama! Look! The orange’s shadow is SO blue!!!” 

After scooping her up and kissing her, it was then that I knew that I was trying too hard “to get students to see.” You can’t force perception. My 3-year old hadn’t been conditioned to second-guess what she saw. She didn’t have years of training and intellect in her way. She just saw purely and instinctively. 

We all still have the potential to perceive purely. How can we settle into some sort of easy confidence around what we are striving for even if it doesn’t come easily? We may need to burn through layers of insecurity and habits. Loosen up.

Recently, I taught an oil painting workshop to an amazing group of students, most very new to painting. Every student there had great enthusiasm and a willingness to learn. When it came time to work from a set up of powdered sugar donuts on white paper, the colors of the shadows cast from the incandescent light were, to my eyes, purple and turquoise cutting across a pinkish-yellow ground plane. 

At first, many couldn’t see the colors. But then, like magic, color started to arise. I asked, “What do you see?” One woman timidly said, “Pink?” but then started to modify and apologize for such a seemingly extreme statement. “YES!” I said. “PINK!” Beautiful. Trust your instincts. First thought, best thought. Don’t kill the purity of what you felt in that moment with second-guessing. Put that pink note down on your painting and see how the rest of the image might rise to that chromatic occasion. 

Until next time, get out of your way. SEE what trusting your perception feels like. Don’t think. CREATE