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Applied Color Theory: Chromatic Gray and Shades of Decay

Tonight was a deeply satisfying and contemplative one spent in the studio. While listening to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and reflecting on my relationship to the genre of horror, I prepared 18 small wood panels for future paintings using color theory and media discussed by Professor Chin-Cheng Hung.

Color gradients with paint and pastel

The preparation of these panels was an exercise in creating a gradual gradation from pink to teal, with chromatic grays developing in the steps between. In one set of panels I completed this exercise with pure paint, while in the other, having fallen in love with the medium, I also applied layers of soft pastel. Each set provided valuable insights into the mixing ratios required for these gradients, and resulted in satisfying colors (the purple I achieved with this method was more complex than one I might achieve with pure red and blue).

The colors I have chosen for these small works evoke not only the sunset palette I have been investigating as a metaphor for transition, but also bodily colors — the blue-greens and purples of veins, bruises, and decay. In the context of death, these colors represent the final physical transition of the body, from a composed form to a decomposed part of the earth.

In one of her informational YouTube videos, Caitlyn Doughty describes the reasons these colors — greens, purples, reds — appear after death, explaining that even after a person dies, there is still a lot of activity taking place in the body:

“Cells break down and spread, bacteria and microorganisms are released; apocalypse in your inner ecosystem. The first real sign of decomposition we see is 2-3 days after death when the lower right part of the abdomen turns green. It’s really more of a lovely aquamarine color…and it’s the red blood cells breaking down that cause that color to appear.” -Caitlyn Doughty, “Death Questions from Kids”

Detail: Théodore Géricault, Raft of the Medusa (1818 - 1819)

Théodore Géricault captures these colors of death with remarkable accuracy in his Raft of the Medusa (painted, in fact, just a year after Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was written, and the same year that Caspar David Friedrich's Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog was painted). He observed actual cadavers for his research, and his dedicated study is evident in the eerie greenish blues he applies. Chromatic grays play a major role in achieving many of the tones in the painting, coming full circle to color theory.

It is fascinating that such bright and beautiful colors should be such a part of death, and also fitting that in the middle ground between these vivid colors, as in life, we should find ourselves confronted with this ambiguous gray, a tone of uncertainty resulting from the complex overlapping of moments. As we journey through periods of transition, we must pass through this obscure zone in order to come out changed on the other side, but it carries with it all the weight of our emotions and experiences. As I continue to investigate life, death, and memory, I hope to delve deeper into the gray areas between the vivid colors of life.

As the first weeks of my graduate career progress, I can feel the once seemingly disparate elements of my research, aesthetic, and interests beginning to merge, which is an exhilarating feeling. The colors I laid down tonight, the result of ongoing theoretical and conceptual research, have energized me greatly for future steps.

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