Uncovering the Color / by Michelle Cowan

I just want to add one more thing about painting today.

At one point during the painting process, I covered everything in black. This was a heartbreaker at first. I’d spent so much time on the color work and decided to cover it up. It seemed so morbid and wrong.

But as I painted on the black, I recognized a persistence of color. I took my fingers and scratched at the canvas. The colors reappeared in all their vibrance, peeking through the dark overlay. It looked fantastic. I couldn’t believe it. Even the black itself wasn’t really black. It was a glossy, purpley mix of everything underneath.

That final creation—vibrant color peeking through black and gray, embodies much of what I’m about. I believe in the power of darkness to drive us to new heights of life and light. I believe that we each hold massive amounts of color and joy within us, but it must be uncovered. Life is not only growing and adding and finding new color. It is revealing the color that already exists within us, and that color is part of the darkness. Black is actually EVERY color combined. It’s not an empty thing. It holds everything. It holds all possibility.

Also, about covering up the color: Is the color worthless if no one sees it? Or does it create form and texture that the painting would lack without it? The artist wouldn’t have gotten to the final purple-black finish without all the color beforehand.

I understand Rothko’s chapel paintings a little more now. Endless color rests beneath the dark finish. And even though I’m curious and wish he’d unleashed the color to the world, at least I know that the color exists.

With Rothko, though, I wonder if he got to the point where he couldn’t see beyond the mass of color that turned to black. He couldn’t separate all the color he saw into different pieces. I wonder if, in a way, he might have been trapped inside the mix of color. He couldn’t make sense of it and so felt he had to leave us (committing suicide).

It isn’t bad to feel confused or dominated or overwhelmed by the colors and thoughts and ideas of the world and within ourselves, but it does make it more difficult to cope with life. That is the curse of the artist: a million ideas. What do we do with them? And when we do something with them, the onlookers tend to critique them to death.

What’s more, the thing we as artists create rarely if never fully expresses the idea within. Artists who can accept this and the reinterpretation of their own ideas by others thrive. Those who obsess over getting across EVERY nuance or who feel shot down when their ideas are interpreted in an unsatisfactory way have a much more difficult time.

I want to accept my thoughts and the thoughts of others. I’d like to have a conversation with uncomfortable ideas instead of immediately shoving them away. I want to recognize that everything holds color. It all shines, even the darkness.

Curiosity is key. I want to investigate what might live under the surface of things. I want to scratch away the black until I see that the black has a purpose, too.