Hello! For those of you that are new here, welcome! Thank you for visiting and I hope you enjoy your time here! And for returning readers, a very special welcome back! I don’t know about you all but this seemed like the summer that never was to me! It flew by so quickly, I can hardly believe that classes are right around the corner (and many of you heroes have already started back!)
The beginning of the year is a great time to revisit your values and reaffirm your beliefs to prepare and get energized for the work ahead. Since several of you are new Color Wheel Killers, I think it’s especially appropriate to share why I’m here and hopefully that will resonate with you and this community will be something you want to continue to be a part of. Together we can advance the field of visual art learning.
I started this blog a year ago as a challenge to myself to be more transparent in my teaching and therefore more vulnerable - to share what I was doing with others struggling with how to teach better and more creatively. I wanted a place where I could share my thoughts about teaching and the things going on in my classroom. It was a risk I’m glad I’ve taken and has since helped me to think more deeply and meaningfully about my teaching practice and research. I’ve taken (mischievous) pleasure knowing that my provocative title has connected with you and others as we think about how better to connect our students to their own creativity through encounters with contemporary art.
So why is my (in)famous logo, poor Carl the Color Wheel, getting dispatched in such gruesome fashion? Well, because blood is cool, obviously. But yes, I know it's not so much the gore but my call for eliminating color wheels that can elicit gasps among some of my colleagues, even accusations of blasphemy. ‘YOU MONSTER!! HOW COULD YOU?!? HOW ELSE CAN STUDENTS LEARN TO APPRECIATE COLOR?!? The color wheel is precious and every child must know it, use it, memorize it, and love it. Blue and red make purple! Yellow and purple complement each other! This is critical art stuff here!’ I worry how some of my colleagues seem to so strongly identify with this tool or see it somehow as endemic of all of art education. I'm not attacking anyone - just an idea.
What do I have against color wheels, the art teacher’s beloved class accessory? For the record, I like color and I think color theory is really interesting. like rainbows. I’m not opposed to circular rainbows.
I consider myself to be in good company in my disdain for the color wheel. Art educator Olivia Gude, whom I’ve followed for years, has likewise repeatedly called for an end to the antiquated practice of making color wheels:
And HS Art teacher Amelia Hernandez recalls an Olivia Gude anti-color wheel presentation from a recent NAEA convention in Chicago where Gude says, “If you still get the urge to teach a color wheel assignment, just lie down on the ground and wait until the feeling passes.”
While I might see similarities between my thinking and that of one of the top movers-and-shakers in our field, I’m definitely not trying to claim superiority by any means. How do I know color wheels are a waste of time? Because I’ve made classrooms full of students paint color wheels (but we made them into flowers, so that’s better right?!? No? No.) I deeply regret it. If you have done this too, I’m not judging you. But if you don’t have a darn good reason for doing it after reading this, then I might.
What is most important about art? This is a question my mentor Craig Roland would ask his students. What’s the one thing you want them to remember about their time in your art class?
Our time is so short with our students and therefore even more precious. Every student doesn’t take art, isn’t required or doesn’t have access to take visual art in school. Will they go throughout their lives with the secret shame of never having made a wheel of colors of their very own? Will they have some disadvantage in life which you could point to? In the typical visual art class, not every student is going to be an artist. In fact, this is most likely true for the vast majority of them. How does the color wheel improve the life of the dentist? The auto mechanic? The garbage person? The postal worker? How will the color wheel help them encounter a contemporary work of art or engage an object in an artful way.
Of course, I’m sure everyone thinks what they’re teaching is important. I didn’t think I was wasting my student’s time as they spent class after class filling in the colors. But why is the color wheel important? Is it important beyond itself? Some call it an important tool. But is the use of a tool in it’s form or in it’s purpose? Certainly, a pencil can be beautiful - but isn’t the beauty of the pencil found in the purpose in which it is employed? An elegant equation? A poignant sentence? An expressive line?
But surely the color wheel has some purpose! I grant you that. I see no doubt that the color wheel serves the painter better than most. It’s a little less useful already for other visual art forms however, say for example the sculptor that works in earthtones or the digital artist whose color palette is based on an entirely different wheel of color based on light rather than pigment. For every person that claims how useful the color wheel was to them, I wonder if I couldn’t find 100 that would say not a day has gone by that they have occupied their thoughts with wheels of color?
Understanding the color wheel will help students see better! They will appreciate color more! First, I’d like to see the evidence for this. Seriously. I’m unaware of any research that demonstrates that an intervention involving color wheel training is correlated with subsequent reports of significantly higher levels of aesthetic satisfaction. Secondly, do you really think the color wheel is the best, or only, way to produce that satisfaction?
Is there a right way to use color? Color wheels allegedly teach students “ideal” ways to choose colors. This must certainly refer to some of the so-called “rules” some art teachers must be referring to when they state that “you must first learn the rules before you can break the rules.” But color preference is personal, cultural, and contextual. The color wheel can tell you what colors might look “pretty” or “nice” together (according to a particular socio-cultural viewpoint) and encourages encourage a formulaic or prescriptive application of color. “Step 1: Follow directions; Step 2: Use at least 1 color and its complement; Step 3: Clean up after...” Sound familiar? Much like a disgruntled older woman in search of beef in the 80s, I can’t help but ask: “Where’s the meaing?”
Color is important to me when it is meaningful. Color is important when it helps us create and understand meaning around us. How do I perceive color? What colors create which effects? What colors might best portray a feeling I’m going for? How do certain colors make me feel? How can I use color to affect my mood or that of others? None of these questions are answered by the color wheel.
I see the color wheel in good company with the elements and principles of art. They are the grammar of art, but not the message. They are they HOW, not the WHY or even WHAT. Humans are naturally driven by meaning and purpose and that is not supplied by grammar but comes from the heart. Certainly not useless, but moreso overemphasized if anything. More sophistication does not necessarily imply more meaning. Greater sophistication comes with practice and practice comes with inclination. Interest can be sparked by a good teacher, but not if we are focusing on what isn’t meaningful. To privilege the mechanical aspects of art over the meaningful aspects is pointless to me. We must always begin with the meaning. We must engage ourselves with the purposes of art and go beyond the superficial aspects.
We are all attached to the past in one way or another. Call it tradition, nostalgia, or sentiment. We all have things we either don’t want or are afraid to let go. But when those things get in the way of learning, when those things reduce what we do in art to the lowest common denominator so it can become a multiple choice question on some irrelevant test, then we must challenge ourselves to abandon those things holding us back. If I was a writing teacher, my site might be called, “Kill Your Cursive.” It’s not the style so much as the substantive role art and creativity can have in the lives of everyday people today and have had throughout history.
If you came out of an art education without ever seeing a color wheel, I think it would still be possible for you to live a long and happy life. I believe you’d still be able to enjoy the colors of a sunset or a butterfly’s wing or a Van Gogh.
We live in an age where we can’t believe our eyes. The majority of young people and adults can’t tell the difference between a fake image or news story and a real one. How have we supposedly helped our students “see” if they cannot even see the difference between what is real and what’s fake? How does this prepare them for an unforeseen future as a fully-functional citizen? Will memorizing a color wheel somehow better aid them participate in the society of the future than critical thinking skills or the ability to consider multiple interpretations, build empathy, or make meaning? Because looking at art can help develop those skills. Reproducing colors in a circle don’t.
To grow, we must be prepared to abandon the old ways of doing things and leave behind the things we may once have found useful, even loved, but that no longer serve us. Kill Your Color Wheels is a reminder to focus on what's important: How can art make a real difference in our students’ lives? Plus, killing a color wheel is silly - and I like silly.
If you are as interested in answering that question as I am, then I hope you’ll continue to revisit my blog from time to time and refresh your own thinking with my writing and research. What old habits or ideas are YOU trying to let go?
Thanks so much for reading and I hope you’ll continue to practice and call for more meaningful, creative, contemporary visual art learning!
For more on my views on color wheels, as well some thoughts on art education and creativity, check out the following podcasts:
Art Class Curator Episode 09 Killing Your Color Wheels with Jim O’Donnell: https://artclasscurator.com/09-killing-your-color-wheels-with-jim-odonnell/
Art Ed Radio: Episode 105 Art Ed Should Thrive, Not Just Survive: https://www.theartofed.com/podcasts/art-ed-thrive-not-just-survive-ep-105/
For a similar take on the elements and principles and their role in art education, please check out Cindy Ingram’s excellent blog post at: https://artclasscurator.com/why-i-hate-the-elements-and-principles-of-art-but-teach-them-anyway/
For more interesting ways to think about color, and more picking on the color wheel, see Olivia Gude’s articles
“Color Coding”: http://www.academia.edu/7339685/Color_Coding
Want to learn more about color and perception? Check out this amazing TED Talk by neuroscientist Beau Lotto: https://www.ted.com/talks/beau_lotto_optical_illusions_show_how_we_see
Want to learn even more about color and perception? Check out “relative color”: http://colorisrelative.com/color/
Want to learn even more more about color and perception? More relative color at: http://purplepwny.com/blog/color_relativity_color_theory_beyond_the_wheel.html
“Especially as a beginner, it can be very tempting to look towards mathematical formulas and rigid step-by-step approaches to picking your colors. Unfortunately, there isn’t any one formula that will work for every situation.”
Note: Sorry once again for the delay of my post! Like I said before, this has been whirlwind of a summer! I can’t believe that a new school year is here already! There are so many things I want to share with you, like the wonderful time spent talking to Art Class Curator Cindy Ingram for her new podcast, my lovely first experience working with the Art of Ed creating my first video presentation for their summer conference, my phenomenal experience working with high school creatives during the 31st annual Art-All State Massachusetts as an Artist-Mentor, my trip to Wichita Kansas to present at the regional USSEA Conference where I shared insights gained examining the potential connections between burns, creativity, my classroom community, and finally the art projects I completed, such as a 90 page creative non-fiction novelette about growing up with a mother suffering severe mental illness, which took me 8 years off and on to complete, as well as some other pieces! Phew!!! Hopefully, I’ll have a chance to weave those experiences into future blog posts for you all! In the meantime I'll have classes to teach and a dissertation proposal that will need approving so please expect 1-2 posts a month for the immediate future! Thanks again for your continued support!
I'll mostly be blogging about my experiences teaching. I teach a class online right now called Teaching K12 Art Online where I'll be exploring art online with art teachers. I also currently teach a (formerly?) face-to-face course called Visual Culture: Investigating Diversity & Social Justice which is an art, critical writing, and research course for undergrads. Before this, I taught a class called Art Curriculum & Concepts for Teachers where I was experimenting with cooperative & creative teaching integrating art and "going gradeless" with preservice early childhood education majors.