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Can Restraint in Color Choices Make You Cry?

I sat with the rest of the audience upstairs in the large yoga and all-purpose hall at a world-renowned craft school near Asheville, NC.  While staring at the artist’s slide images of tapestries (the work of former Benedictine weaver-monk and New Mexican artist James Koehler), my (unaltered) brain began to melt. I was dumbfounded. How could someone do that with wool?

I was a student at Penland School of Arts and Crafts in 2005. The daily schedule included evening slide shows presented by instructors from that session. I had no interest in fabric arts or weaving, but I always liked to attend the slide shows. What Koehler showed was unforgettable.

I am going to explain mind melt in technical and historical terms.

  1. Koehler was a student of Evelyn Anselevicius, who studied at Black Mountain College when Bauhaus color theorist Josef Albers taught there in 1948-1949.
  1. In Josef Alber’s lessons in his 1963 book Interaction of Color, Albers describes ways to juxtapose colors together to show transparency, ways to change the perception of a specific color within the context of other colors, ways to create the illusion of transparency and space illusion, and ways to learn discernment of color lightness and color intensity.
  2. Color lightness and intensity can be interpreted in intervals. Koehler understood color and form. Klee also influenced him.

Interval Transformation Excercise: Secret Ingredient to Your Color Theory

In art class in elementary school, we learn all about color lightness (dark to light) but are rarely trained in discerning color intensity (what red is more red?) Albers likens color intensity intervals to a melody of tones, such as in his example, the song “Good morning to you.” The song can be sung at a higher or lower key. 

Keys can also describe color intensity. “Sing it in a higher key. Sing it in lower key.”

In his interval transformation exercise, Albers presents an exercise of putting down four adjacent squares of random color and then, again, to the right, painting four more squares of the same color but taken to a higher or lower key in parallel intensity to the first four squares. 

Imagine doing this yet again in another interval and then another and another until you have a constellation of steps of intensity. Imagine also taking smaller steps or longer steps. 

Then, imagine placing the subsequent squares, made smaller,  into the middle of other squares so there is a complete context, or surrounding relationship, of one interval to one of its mates. 

Harmonic Oscillations

In his tapestries, Koehler used his hand-dyed yarns stepped in small increments of lightness and intensity as described in the interval transformation exercise.

At first glance of one of his tapestries below, you may see mostly a plain, simple, large swathe of few colors, but as your eyes adjust, you begin to see a dance… and you start to wonder about your interpretations of reality.  Of course, color alone doesn’t affect us this way; the shapes, size, and texture all come into play.

Here are photographs of a few of Koehler’s tapestries.

The wavy works are from his series Harmonic Oscillations.

  • Multiple images of tapestries showing understated color variations that create the illusions of depth, wave forms, openings to other dimensions.
  • Multiple images of tapestries showing understated color variations that create the illusions of depth, wave forms, openings to other dimensions.
  • Four red squares divided by more squares of varying degrees of red, including pink, brick, and red oranges.
  • Multiple images of tapestries showing understated color variations that create the illusions of depth, wave forms, openings to other dimensions.
  • Multiple images of tapestries showing understated color variations that create the illusions of depth, wave forms, openings to other dimensions.
  • Multiple images of tapestries showing understated color variations that create the illusions of depth, wave forms, openings to other dimensions.
  • Multiple images of tapestries showing understated color variations that create the illusions of depth, wave forms, openings to other dimensions.
  • Multiple images of tapestries showing understated color variations that create the illusions of depth, wave forms, openings to other dimensions.
  • Multiple images of tapestries showing understated color variations that create the illusions of depth, wave forms, openings to other dimensions.

And his loom

A mystery

Koehler describes his ideas about mystery and the work of painter Mark Rothko in his autobiography.

“Much of my work has to do with my own meditation on mystery. Recently, I saw a production on PBS where Mark Rothko talked about his work. One of the things he brought up over and over again was the concept of mystery. Rothko feels that his work is something people can enter into. It affects them on both emotional and spiritual levels. My hope—and it is a sliver of a hope—is that my work will affect people in much the same way.“

In Koehler’s autobiography, Woven Color, he describes his intent to work in subtleties and work in the world of the understated. The effect of his tapestries on others was remarkable.

“When I had the Regarding Abiquiu series on display, The Whelan Gallery in Santa Fe and Gallery Materia in Scottsdale sold a lot of the tapestries. When people came to see the shows, many of them cried. They walked in, and they just sort of broke down when they saw the work because they felt it was so powerful.”

Unfortunately, Koehler died at the young age of 58 in 2011. To view a full video about James Koehler you can go to one of his student’s website: https://rebeccamezoff.com/james

Action Steps in Your Studio

If you are a surface pattern designer, quilter, or stained glass artist, you can begin a project by choosing an interesting palette that you know will do illusionary things in the right combinations.

Many teachers suggest lining up boxes of color when you choose your palette. You should also put boxes in front of larger boxes to see the effect that can produce. A single color, for example, will look totally different on a different background. You are getting “two hues for the price of one.”

Some hues give the look of transparency. Some hues will nearly disappear on certain other hues.

Print-on-Demand Color Interval Exercise

I decided to play with Spoonflower’s digital print colors. I have uploaded their ASE file to Adobe Illustrator. You can find the file here by scrolling down the page to the heading Adobe Swatch Exchange File

https://support.spoonflower.com/hc/en-us/articles/204444620-How-Can-I-Make-Sure-My-Design-is-the-Color-I-Want-

I am choosing a few palettes from their color chart to see if I can create some interesting effects on fabric. I have already discovered how much range they have available in certain hues, (limited), but I will try a few experiments that may or may not have harmonious outcomes.

Stained Glass Color Interval Exercise

I will also check out my glass supply, see what stock I have in certain hues, and code those hues with my hiker’s color journal to start watercolor painting some cartoons. It’s good to remember I can also create new hues by layering glass. 

You can also check out my first SGOL article on building the hiker’s color journal.
My newsletter, Patterned Visions, addresses cross-craft theories in action and how-to guides for stained glass artists. This article is #3 in SGOL, Stained Glass as an Other Language. You can get Patterned Visions delivered to your inbox by completing the fields below.

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