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I’ve written a couple of posts about the inspiration behind the paintings in the series Fourths & Fifths in Color, Geometry and Music. Here’s the wall text from the show of the studies for this series at Exhibits 407 in Marfa, Texas:

Synesthesia (literally “union of senses”) is a neurological condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. For example, I sometimes smell or hear color.

A synesthetic experience was the genesis for the series Fourths and Fifths. One day while mixing colors in the studio I heard the color as a major chord, but which chord?

To answer this question, I decided to start by approaching color theory and music theory from a beginner’s mind. I stopped work in the studio and dove into my books on color and searched the internet to see what might turn up. I found an unexpected connection between music theory and Pythagoras in a book of music theory, which led me to re-read Robert Lawlor’s book “Sacred Geometry.” Opening that book, I was amazed to find a chapter on how geometry becomes music. I didn’t remember this chapter from previous readings. It was there I found that the perfect fourth and perfect fifth chords hold special meaning in one of the three types of median proportions: arithmetic, geometric and harmonic. (A median proportion is formed from any group of three numbers where a is greater than b and b is greater than c. The best-known example is the golden mean: a is to b as b is to c.

Plato held that the study of mediation — the resolution of two extremes through a shared quality (the mean term) — was the basis for essential knowledge, as opposed to particular knowledge, the latter being the simple amassing of facts. The harmonic progression is the most complex of the three median proportions, and it results in two mean terms: the perfect fourth and the perfect fifth chords.<

So, to continue my thought experiment, if two primaries are considered as the two extremes of a median proportion (an octave in music), what color would be the fourth and the fifth chords when those two primaries are mixed? Rather than adhere to a strict mathematical approach to this question, which wouldn’t be much fun, I worked intuitively. Put another way, having the mathematical foundation for my original question, I could discard it.

Once I began mixing color and painting swatches, it became obvious that I needed to work with not three primaries, the most widely accepted color theory system, but with four: red, yellow, blue and green. (In paint mixing it is not possible to mix all colors from the standard three primaries of red, yellow and blue, so green is added by some theories. Albert Munsell proposed five: blue, purple, red, yellow and green).

Having my system and my color swatches, I kept my beginner’s mind for the next step, painting. The most basic question in painting is how to apply the paint to the support – what mark do you make. This coupled with my recent disenchantment with the purely flat paintings I was creating. So began the next stage in my research – materials and techniques.

I knew that I had developed an habitual response, a muscle memory, to certain tools (the brush and the knife) and I wanted to break that response. A tried and true way to do that is to be willing to be clumsy again, like drawing with your right hand if you’re left-handed. I also knew that I wanted to apply the colors thickly with a fluid motion, a kind of dance-like movement of the hand. This I knew I would learn from practice, like when I practiced scales on the piano. The goal of this new movement was to experience joy in the studio again. I wanted to play.

I found an article online about the latest results of conservators using the latest technology to determine the contents of the mediums used by the Old Masters, specifically Rembrandt. Contrary to previous theories, that he used all sorts of varnishes and driers, all toxic, he used only linseed oil and chalk (calcium carbonate, or calcite). Calcium carbonate is part of what is used in these paintings, resulting in a luscious paste.

After experimenting with marks made from pottery and baking tools, I finally settled on a flat spatula, which gave me what I wanted.