Saturday, June 11, 2016

Painted Ladies: The Colorist Movement

Colour Studio principal Jill Pilaroscia played a pivotal role in San Francisco’s colorist movement, which spawned the popular “Painted Ladies” – fancifully painted Victorian houses for which the city is now famous.   These houses are beloved by visitors around the world, but many don’t know the history behind them.


Painted Ladies on Steiner Street in Alamo Square, also known as Postcard Row

To begin, it's important to note San Francisco's role as a "unique architectural museum," write The Painted Ladies book series authors Michael Larson and Elizabeth Pomada.  48,000 Victorian houses were built here between 1850 and 1915.   After the 1906 earthquake and fire, some 16,000 original houses remained; more modest and mass-produced homes were built on the western and southern sides of the city. 

The colorist movement began in the “Psychedelic ‘60s” in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury neighborhood, the heart of the counterculture of the time, Pilaroscia explains. "People wanted to show their joie de vivre and express their individuality through restoring and painting these beautifully ornamented buildings." Homeowners and professional housepainters adorned their Victorians in numerous whimsical colors, from vermillion and cobalt to gold and turquoise. Strong color was used to differentiate architectural detail and ornament typical of the period, including fanciful gingerbread trim and light-capturing bay windows. Color was used to accentuate the asymmetrical facades and detailed patterns that architects of the period used to distinguish buildings from one another.

San Franciscans were “passionate about using color to make Victorian architecture sing,” Pomada and Larson point out in How to Create Your Own Painted Lady.  “By painting Victorian homes with extraordinary details in every color that hand, mind, and eye can conceive, San Francisco’s colorist movement became a unique form of self-expression.”

As the Christian Science Monitor wrote in 1987, “What started as a lark became a local then national trend." The Painted Ladies effort eventually spread to nearly every American city with similar architecture, with notable concentrations in St. Louis, Baltimore, New Orleans, and Cincinnati.



Jill Pilaroscia mixing colors in the early days of the Painted Ladies

Pilaroscia began mixing her own colors in 1975 after graduating from the San Francisco Art Institute, joining  a “boys club” of local colorists/painters.“I had to be able to do everything they did,” she remembers, including mixing paint in the back of her truck and climbing scaffolding to apply it.




Pilaroscia's color scheme for 700 Broderick uses warm terra cotta tones and features a subtle faux finish on the massive chimney.

Pilaroscia's design for 700 Broderick Street sparkles with 23 karat patent gold leaf.

Customizing color for these detail-rich structures was no simple task. “Victorian architecture provides many planes for color,” Pilaroscia says, “and each client wanted their house to look different.”    In devising a color palette, she took cues from the house’s architecture to create a balanced, unique scheme.   

The house at 700 Broderick Street in San Francisco is a case in point. For this Stick/Eastlake structure, Pilaroscia hand-mixed each color based on the house's colorful stained glass window.  The overall palette grew from those hues, she says. It was a study in cool and warm.  "I like working with complimentary colors as it gives a scheme complexity and dimension," she notes. "You can see more gradations that way.”

Integrating the house’s many surfaces which advance and recede as well as its ornaments is a main objective.  “I like to do ribbons of color to weave the house together,” Pilaroscia explains.  “It orchestrates the surfaces of a building and integrates the bay and the body.” 

Pilaroscia's knowledge of color, along with her art and science practice set her up as an expert in her field. In 1987 she was recruited by Hewlett Packard's corporate real estate division to become their global color consultant for both exterior and interior environments for 14 years. Yet the legacy of Pilaroscia's role in the colorist movement lives on. As Pomada and Larsen note, “The Painted Ladies make people look up. They make people more aware and eager for color, and not just on Victorians but on all styles of architecture.”


Pilaroscia's 1919 Pierce Street color scheme painted by Local Color Painting

Pilaroscia  states, "It was a privilege to be in involved with the Painted Ladies and the colorist movement. It allowed me the opportunity to contribute to San Francisco's beloved and dynamic visual landscape."  





Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Color Shock: Sandy Skoglund

Sandy Skoglund is a conceptual artist and photographer based in New Jersey. The artist began creating life-size installations in the early 1970s.  By the late 1970s, she became interested in photographically documenting her conceptual ideas.

Color plays a large role in Skoglund’s work.  The artist employs contrasting hues within monochromatic scenes to engage the brain's visual process using color psychology and associations to manipulate the viewer's experience. 

She works meticulously on large-scale installations, crafting every detail by hand with a team of assistants.  A single piece can often take several months to complete.   The resulting surrealistic scenes, dominated by strong color, are sometimes playful, sometimes haunting.  Art critic Marge Goldwater states Skoglund can “transform the mundane into the mysterious."

Germs are Everywhere, copyright 1984

“Skoglund juxtaposes unlikely images to create tension and the impression of a world gone seriously wrong,” notes an article in Artask.com. Most of her pieces feature an altered landscape or artificial environment where nature and human culture are twisted or exaggerated.  They seem designed specifically to make the viewer uncomfortable.

Raining Popcorn, copyright 2001

“Color vibration is always exciting to me, “ Skoglund shared via email.   “The adjacent edges of contrasting cool and warm being my favorite strategy. I use this method in order to enhance the visual excitement within the images.”  She says, “I call my work with color ‘color shock."

Radioactive Cats, copyright 1980

Two of her most renowned and evocative works, Radioactive Cats and Revenge of the Goldfish, appeared at the Whitney Biennial Exhibition in 1981. Radioactive Cats features green painted clay cats running amok in a grey kitchen. It is a scene she sculpted over a period of months and subsequently photographed. When asked about her color choice, Skoglund says, “I arrived at the green because the cats have turned radioactive and green would be one of the colors that you might think would reference nuclear properties.” 

Portrait of Sandy Skoglund, copyright A. Baccili 2016

In Revenge of the Goldfish, the artist imagined the bedroom as a “watery” place and chose a blue-green aqua that she says “feels like water and sky at the same time.”  “The vibration of orange against blue makes the orange more vivid and the blue more vivid than if they were by themselves,” she notes. “I wanted the vibrancy that comes from opposing colors banging up against each other.”

Revenge of the Goldfish, copyright 1981

For Skoglund's work entitled Fox Games she says, “I wanted a true red, and the selection of grey had to do with a grey that would vibrate with the red.  I always spend a lot of time on the color, getting the exact value, hue and intensity. “ 


Fox Games, copyright 1989


In Cocktail Party, the artist used a method she calls “color flooding.”  The scene is made up of bright orange cheese doodles, producing an almost neon effect merely through repetition. “Some color is naturally unnatural,” she points out.  “I did not enhance the bright yellow orange of the entire piece – I simply copied the garish color that was already part of the identity of the subject matter.”  

Cocktail Party, copyright 1992. 

Whether she is evoking danger, disaster or uncertainty, Sandy Skoglund relies on color to surprise, unsettle, and trigger emotion.



Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Color Sensation: Robert Swain

This month we’re eager to share the work of Robert Swain, a painter whose 50-year career has focused on the dynamics and subtleties of color.  Swain’s large-scale, rainbow-hued grid paintings explore just how color is perceived and experienced by individual viewers. 

Untitled, 10 ft. x 70 ft., 2014  Photo by Jeff McLane. From the show "Robert Swain: The Form of Color" at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, 2014

In his artist’s statement, Swain describes color as a transfer of energy:  Color is a form of energy derived from the electromagnetic spectrum that stimulates our perceptual processes and is instrumental in conveying emotions."  




Every visible color has a specific wavelength frequency.  Red vibrates with a steady rolling stimulus, while purple at the opposite end of the spectrum vibrates with a high variable stimulus.  These frequencies generate both biological and physiological responses that are body-based and primordial or empirically-based on one's positive or negative memories and experiences.

Untitled 712, 7 ft. x 7 ft. (1978); Untitled 703, 7 ft. x 7ft. (1978); Untitled 10 ft. x 30 ft. (1973)



Untitled, 30 Part Circle, 8 ft. 6 in. diameter. 1971. Swain's color system includes 30 distinct hues.


Swain became fascinated with ways to understand and document color in the 1960s, and soon after began to develop his own color system.  Mixing colors by hand in tiny jars, Swain painted small square color “chips.”   He created paintings by “drawing” with these chips. 

Study for Tupperware, 1981



Swain’s grid paintings, composed of carefully configured color squares, are intensified by scale: some reach as long as 70 feet.  Over the years the artist has experimented with endless configurations and juxtapositions, each producing a sense of movement and light within the work. Often the paintings show color in descending values, which gives the illusion of fading.

Untitled, 7 ft. x 7ft.-703; Untitled, 8 ft. x 8 ft. -AA. 2005-2006


“Seeing color simultaneously brings out the dimensions of color -- the light to dark qualities, the saturation, the hue—and gives to the viewer a spectral array of what the dimension of colors are about,” the artist said in the video “Visual Sensations: The Paintings of Robert Swain.” 

Swain purposefully eliminates all cultural references in an effort to present what he calls “a very direct experience, a color sensation.” 

Untitled, 10 ft. x 11 ft., 1973; Untitled, 10 ft. x 11 ft., 1973


There is a palpable sense of movement and energy in each of these paintings.  In viewing them, we grasp how color behaves on Swain's canvas.  We see red advance and blue recede.  The experience is a testament to the power of color—and the personal response it can bring out in all of us.  Each of us may select a different favorite canvas and palette which makes Swain's color message timeless.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Graphic Color: Massimo Vignelli


This month we pay tribute to the incomparable designer Massimo Vignelli (1931-2014), whose influential modern aesthetic hinged on primary colors and graphic forms.  Born and trained in Milan, Vignelli came to New York in 1965 and set up a multidisciplinary design firm with his wife Leila, an architect.  Throughout his career, Vignelli used color to create a graphic language that spoke louder than mere words could.  




Vignelli was celebrated for his bold use of color and his insistence on simple, functional design.  The designer's Heller dinnerware is a staple of many modernist kitchens; his Ford Motors logo has held fast for 50 years. 



Heller dinnerware organized by color family


The designer also employed bright primary colors;  his Heller dinnerware and nearly ubiquitous Knoll Handkerchief Chair were issued in a rainbow of shades. He once famously declared, “Any color works if you push it to the extreme.”  

Vignelli's vision for Knoll's handkerchief chairs manifests here in a striking orange.


Vignelli's American Airlines logo



His 1972 design for the New York City subway map was both celebrated and controversial. The map omitted many familiar features like streets and parks, and confused riders at first.


New York City subway map


Gray, not green was used to denote Central Park; beige, not blue indicated waterways.  "You want to go from Point A to Point B, period," he explained. "The only thing you are interested in is the spaghetti.” Vignelli's revised design was heralded by New York Times’ architecture critic Paul Goldberger as “more than beautiful…a nearly canonical piece of abstract design.”


Massimo Vignelli in black


He favored what has been called a "severe" palette of red, black and white.  Vignelli always dressed in black, a color he considered all-powerful.  


Stendig calendar in black


He noted in an interview with the Design Observer, "Black has class. It’s the best color. There is no other color that is better than black. There are many others that are appropriate and happy, but those colors belong on flowers. Black is a color that is man-made. It is really a projection of the brain. It is a mind color. It is intangible. It is practical. It works 24 hours a day. In the morning or afternoon, you can dress in tweed, but in the evening, you look like a professor who escaped from college. Everything else has connotations that are different, but black is good for everything." 


Knoll Cube


Red was another Vignelli signature color, as is evident in his work for Knoll, Heller, JC Penny, and his own corporate identity.  He coined the term "Vignelli Red" which is "somewhere on the border of red and orange." 




At Colour Studio we believe judicious use of strong color is infinitely powerful in communicating a message - be it through graphics, architecture, product design, or art. Massimo Vignelli seamlessly employed timeless colors to communicate ideas and emphasize functionality, and for that we celebrate his work.