DIGITAL COLOR HUNTING

WORDS & IMAGES: ELLEN JULIA BROWN

For the last few weeks, I have been exploring color through processes that are intentionally slow and highly manual—harvesting pigments from the earth and grinding them by hand to make paint. These techniques have mostly been abandoned by modern artists, because the accessibility and affordability of factory-made paints makes them a no-brainer. When we’re accustomed to immediate gratification, taking the time to learn these age-old practices is almost an act of defiance. It takes a conscious pushing back and slowing down, a firm belief that there is beauty and meaning lost in the shortcuts, something worth rediscovering along those older, timeworn paths.

And yet, a complete romanticization of the past is unhelpful. There’s no undoing the industrial revolution, the massive proliferation of cheap art supplies, or the fact that our brains have come to accept our smartphones as an extension of our hands. And technology is (mostly) great. Especially the possibilities it opens up in the realm of color. Which is why, over the past week, I decided to embrace it completely.

I began by returning to a photograph that I took while foraging for pigments along the Sandy River. It’s an array of colored rocks and minerals, some of which I brought home with me to grind with a pestle and mortar and mix with watercolor medium to create paint. This time, I simply airdropped the photo from my iPhone to my iPad Pro and opened it up in a drawing/painting app called ProCreate. I made the photograph smaller, dragged it over to the corner, and created another layer on which to work. Then, using the color selection tool (kind of like the Eyedropper in PhotoShop) I moved my cursor over the photograph until I came across a color I liked and could instantly sweep my digital brush across the canvas with that hue, as if the photo were an infinitely-selectable paintbox. It was like I was digitally extracting the pigments from the minerals—with no mess, no physical labor, no additional cost, no finite supply.   

The first time I used an iPad Pro, drawing directly on the screen with the pencil as if it were a piece of paper, I kind of fell in love. I didn’t want to like it as much as I did. In fact, there was a fair amount of guilt that went with admitting how much I liked the digital drawing experience. A real artist works in physical reality, in paint-splattered clothes, in a studio piled with a mess of canvases. For the most part, I’m still firmly in that camp. But that doesn’t negate the fact that working out quick (or not so quick) ideas on the iPad is ah-mazing. There are hundreds of different brush strokes to choose from, so you can switch from oil pastel to gouache to watercolor in a matter of seconds. You can layer and select and do collage-style cut-and-paste and don’t even get me started on that ‘undo’ button. Try it if you haven’t. It’s seriously seductive.

And yet, and yet, and yet... Hiking through moss-covered evergreens, finding yellow ochre in a trail-side waterfall, coming to understand local geological history, painting with pigments that you lovingly gathered and processed yourself. What’s a modern artist to do?

iPads and iPhones aren’t going away anytime soon. As always, we should be conscious consumers, fully aware of the environmental and human impacts of their production. But for better or worse, we live amongst these technologies. We might as well find ways to use them as tools for increasing connection, healing, and understanding whenever possible. For all of the unnecessary distraction my phone brings into my life, having a camera in my pocket at all times actually helps me tune in to the natural world on a regular basis. On my walk to work, at the dog park, while trying to remember where I parked my car, I am constantly noticing and capturing colors, textures, shapes, and shadows. Many of these images make their way into my studio work, in one form or another.

This week, I chose three photos and worked some iPad magic on them, looking to nature to define my color palette. First up was a purple and yellow viola from a window box at my house.

Then some bright, yellow-green moss on a rock by the Willamette River.

And finally a potpourri of pink Camellias, fallen beneath a tree.  

I had a lot of fun with this process. Each of these abstract “paintings” took less than an hour. And I was taking mental notes about the colors as I went, filing away a visual vocabulary of color combinations that I may not have arrived at on my own. There are entire college-level courses taught on color theory, learning about how to select colors that work harmoniously together. Using a color wheel, we can identify colors that are “analogous” or “complementary” or a host of other terms that all equal some kind of desired visual effect. And nature does all of this and more on its own! Violas don’t need a color wheel to tell them that purple and yellow compliment and amplify each other. Whether your medium of choice is pigments or pixels, there’s so much to learn by simply paying attention to the natural world.