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Color Sensation: Robert Swain

FRIDAY, APRIL 22, 2016

By Jill Pilaroscia

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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. 

Robert Swain
Images: Courtesy of Jill Pilaroscia

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.

color wavelength

Every visible color has a specific wavelength frequency.

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. 

His 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.

Robert Swain
Untitled 712, 7 ft. x 7 ft., 1978; Untitled 703, 7 ft. x 7ft., 1978; Untitled 10 ft. x 30 ft., 1973.
Robert Swain
Untitled, 30 Part Circle, 8 ft. 6 in. diameter, 1971. Swain's color system includes 30 distinct hues.

“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.”

Robert Swain
Study for Tupperware, 1981.

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

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


Jill Pilaroscia

“Life in Color” is co-authored by architectural color consultant Jill Pilaroscia (pictured), BFA, and creative writer Allison Serrell. Pilaroscia’s firm, Colour Studio Inc., is based in San Francisco. A fully accredited member of the International Association of Color Consultants, Pilaroscia writes and lectures widely on the art and science of color.



Tagged categories: Aesthetics; Artists; Color; Color trends; Decorative painting; Design

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