Contextualizing Ceramic Color

1 Lauren Mabry’s Composition of Enclosed Cylinders, 38 in. (97 cm) in length, red earthenware, slip, glaze, 2016.

Color produces profound effects on people. It can raise our excitement, calm us down, or make us feel a little queasy. Colors can transport us to a memory and bring about associations from our experiences. As artists, color is a powerful tool for communicating ideas.

When asked about the relationship status between color and ceramics, one fitting answer would be, “It’s complicated.” Glazes like copper red are technically difficult to achieve. Many ceramic colorants become muted at high temperatures. A trend of earthy-colored reduction glazes permeated much of the second half of the 20th century.

Today, color is embraced. Electric firing has become much more common, and with it, lower temperature ranges: low fire, mid range, and the cone 1–3 range are all being explored more widely. Zircon encapsulated stains can produce fire-engine red or canary yellow in a wood kiln. Ceramic decals are printed in CMYK. Non-ceramic surfaces are more common with sculptural work.

Universal Truths

With these developments in the accessibility of color, some universal truths of ceramics hold true. Unlike painters, we don’t see the fired color when we apply it. We mentally predict the outcome and hope for the best. There is also the task of choosing colors to deliver the harmony, narrative, emotion, or symbolism of our intentions. We can look to history, nature, fashion, interior design, and art for color schemes. Color theory can assist in answering this question as well.

This article is a primer or refresher on how colors interact and how ceramic artists can harness these expressive powers. I draw from The Art of Color by Johannes Itten and Interaction of Color by Josef Albers, a survey that I conducted among ceramic artists, and my own studio research. Following Itten’s model, contemporary ceramic works illustrate aspects of color theory.

Artists often learn color theory (sometimes begrudgingly) in art foundations courses. Most ceramic artists I surveyed say that color theory is not a conscious part of their decision making or they see it is a set of restraining rules. To the contrary, both Itten and Albers write about understanding color through an awareness of what is happening in the moment rather than following a formula. As artist and educator John Gill said, “All colors work together—some just need to try harder than others.” With an understanding of how colors interact, we can make informed choices and color outside the lines at the same time.

2 Color wheel illustrations. The large wheel shows the location of primary colors, secondary colors (mixes of two primary colors), and tertiary colors (mixtures of adjacent primary and secondary colors, like green and blue). The small wheels show a triad (three equidistant hues on the wheel), a tetrad (two complementary pairs used together), and a split compliment (one color and the analogous colors of its compliment). Illustrations by Mark Taggart.

Seven Types of Color Contrast

Albers states, “In visual perception, a color is almost never seen

as it really is—as it physically is.” The excitement and challenge

of working with color is that the context in which a color is seen

changes our impression of it. In The Art of Color, Itten defines seven types of color contrast that explain the effects of context.

1. Contrast of Hue

Hue refers to pure colors or colors at full saturation. For this type of contrast, at least three colors are required, which are typically equidistant on the color wheel. The strongest version of this interaction involves the primary colors and each degree into secondary and tertiary colors softens the effect (see the color triad illustration in figure 2).

2. Light–Dark Contrast

Well-composed black-and-white photos have a range of value from dark to light and gradients in between. Dark tones cause lighter tones to advance and light tones cause dark tones to recede. When color is involved, squinting while looking at a composition gives a clearer sense of the range of values.

3. Cold–Warm Contrast

Cool colors lie between green and violet on the color wheel. Red-violet through yellow-green are warm (see figure 2). Contrast between colors of different temperatures heightens visual interaction. Cool and warm mixtures of a single color such as yellow-green and blue-green create more subtle tension.

4. Complimentary Contrast

Directly across from each other on the color wheel, complimentary pairs are chromatic opposites. Complimentary contrast is often the most vivid type of interaction and depending on the viewer, it can be either satisfying or objectionable.

5. Simultaneous Contrast

When we see a color, our brain seeks the balance of its complimentary partner. If the compliment is not present, the brain projects it onto the area around the color. For instance, if you place a small neutral gray square in the center of a larger yellow square, the gray square will begin to take on a purple shade as you look at the yellow. This is also known as an after image.

6. Contrast of Saturation

The vibrancy of a color is accentuated when it is seen beside a desaturated version of itself. Tints, tones, and shades—a color mixed with white, gray, or black, respectively—lessen the saturation of that color.

7. Contrast of Extension

This type of contrast deals with relationships between quantities of color. A color used in a large amount may dominate a composition, but a small amount of a second color can draw attention and create an important point of emphasis.

Ken Price once said that his works “really looked as if they were made out of color.” The expanding ceramic palette provides a vehicle for pushing against the limitations of our materials to discover our own subjective color. Color theory maps options for realizing the expressive chromatic potential in our work. Deciphering how color is used in the following pieces will illuminate some of Itten and Albers’ concepts.

3 Marc Digeros’ ewer, 5½ in. (14 cm) in height, handbuilt porcelain, underglaze, glaze, fired to cone 6 oxidation, 2017.

Chris Pickett’s Teapot (6) 

Chris Pickett uses color to reference childhood toys and mid-century furniture, and explains that, “This form/color relationship serves as a point of access to an individual’s personal experiences that evoke an emotion based on those experiences.” The gray glaze covering the majority of the teapot breaks to nearly white on the edges and pools to a deep gray in the lower areas of seams or embossed texture. Albers calls this effect volume color and it is prevalent in ceramics in a variety of glazes such as celadon. This creates a light-dark contrast with the application of a single glaze. Finally, there are three degrees of contrast of extension at play. The turquoise is seen as more important than the gray because it is used more sparingly to emphasize the appendages of the pot. The vertical motion of the red-orange becomes the focal point, since it is complimentary to turquoise, is the most saturated color, and  is used in the smallest quantity.

Lauren Mabry’s Composition of Enclosed Cylinders (1)

Lauren Mabry states that, “The forms I paint on are still, like silence, so the colors clash and resound with a kind of musical timbre, flowing with movement and creating rich, hypnotic tones and texture.” Cylinders and curved planes provide unobtrusive canvasses for her slip and glaze paintings. Composition of Enclosed Cylinders is filled with movement, not only from the natural flow of molten glaze, but in the arrangement of the composition. The initial impression is a balance of greens, oranges, and purples that create a contrast of hue. Within each of these colors is a range of values. The overall composition takes the light-dark contrast a step further as the darker values, with the additions of black and dark brown, cause the lighter values to advance. The interspersing of colors throughout the piece generates a constant eye movement as the viewer traces a path of similar colors or ricochets like a pinball from one cylinder to the next. Along the way are many places to focus on small details before continuing to bounce.

4 Nathan Prouty’s Amelia (Canyoner), 7¾ in. (20 cm) in diameter, ceramic, underglaze, glitter, resin, flocking, foam, 2015.

5 Kevin Snipes’ Gridlock, 8 in. (20 cm) in height, porcelain, glaze, underglaze, oxide wash, 2016.

Nathan Prouty’s Amelia (4)

Nathan Prouty says that he uses an even mix of planning and intuition when working with color, “I try to notice color combinations that really hum or crackle and fit well together.” In Amelia, the crackle is saturated color with a little added sparkle. The candy-like gloss of the turquoise resin juxtaposes with the matte pink of the central figure. The importance of the small amount of pink is heightened in the surrounding pool of blue-green, showing the contrast of extension. Blue-green and yellow-green complete a split complimentary relationship (see illustration in figure 2) to the pink figure. Although non-ceramic, Prouty’s use of resin interestingly references glaze with its drips and reflectivity. Uncertainty of materials paired with abstract form piques our curiosity for deciphering the piece.

Ursula Hargens’ I am Ursula (Trophy Jar) (7)

Itten defines subjective color as a person’s idiosyncratic sense of color harmony. Ursula Hargens describes her relationship with color, “Synesthesia is a neurological condition in which one sense is involuntarily linked to another. In color synesthesia or grapheme, letters and numbers are inherently linked to specific colors.” After developing a signature palette, Hargens realized that the colors she uses correspond with the letters of her first name. As the title implies, I am Ursula employs these colors. Two pairs of complimentary colors are present and form a tetrad: reddish-pink/green and blue/orange. The softness of the pink and modulated greens add to the visual lightness in the lower part of the jar. This gives space higher on the piece for the larger dark blue berries to reach upward, activated by the yellow-orange blooms.

6 Chris Pickett’s teapot, 9 in. (23 cm) in width, handbuilt white stoneware, slab construction, drop molded, low-relief stencil, underglaze, glaze, fired to cone 6, 2017.

Kyungmin Park’s Tae Guek (Yin-yang) (8)

Kyungmin Park works from a different color system, explaining, “In South Korea, you will find most of the wooden buildings were painted in a very specific way, which we call Dancheong (literally red and green). Dancheong consists of five basic colors: blue (east), white (west), red (south), black (north), and yellow (center).” Park makes a bold statement by pairing fully saturated red and blue figures to depict balanced opposites in Tae Guek (Yin-yang). While the red figure has a slightly lighter value, both carry the same intensity. If you concentrate on the blue figure for 30 seconds and then shift your gaze to the red, you’ll notice that it has an orange glow. This is simultaneous contrast. Reverse the sequence and the blue figure takes on a green tint.

Marc Digeros’ Ewer (3)

Marc Digeros’ work re-envisions pottery forms. Color and line act as a counterpoint to the geometric shape. “I grew up going to car shows with my father,” he explains “so my appreciation of beautifully colored things started from an early age. Sometimes certain colors together drive me crazy, but if I do happen upon that I will usually try to push it even farther, so that it becomes something I enjoy.” Contrast of saturation is prevalent in his ewer and it is a constant in his work. Glaze with varying levels of transparency is applied over underglaze and the clay body. Saturated red-orange advances through the pointillistic haze of slightly opaque glaze. Pale blue-green pushes the red-orange to the foreground, since it is a desaturated compliment and a much lighter value.

7 Ursula Hargens’ I am Ursula (Trophy Jar), 13 in. (33 cm) in height, earthenware, 2013. Photo: Peter Lee.

8 Kyungmin Park’s Tae Guek (Yin-yang), 10 in. (25 cm) in height, slip-cast porcelain, underglaze, glaze, fired to cone 6, 2017.

Kevin Snipes’ Gridlock (5)

Kevin Snipes’ narrative images often dictate the form they wrap around similarly to the way the bike tire on Gridlock breaks the rectangular plane. Instead of using color to emphasize the figure, the color is predominantly in the background. “The figures in my work are ‘colorless’. They deconstruct the notion that there is hierarchy in skin color. The figures may seem to embody particular racial differences, but this is up to the viewer. As an African American artist, I am looking for ways of exploring the social construct of Otherness.” Though Snipes unexpectedly flips the typical foreground/background relationship, the figure remains the focal point. Analogous colors, side by side on the color wheel, are well matched because they are mixed from the same hues. The grid of blues and greens is an analogous scheme. Gray and black rectangles create degrees of saturation and shifts in value. The orange and red in the grid add warmth to the cool panel and visually direct the eye to the warm colors behind the rider.

Color theory provides a foundation for strategizing how color can be used to communicate design and content ideas. Knowing the rules gives license for breaking them. Understanding contextual relationships combined with the developments in colorants presents the opportunity to surpass previous limitations of ceramic color.

the author Marty Fielding is a studio potter and educator living in Tallahassee, Florida, and teaching at Florida State University. Harnessing the expressive potential of color is a key theme in his work.


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