Friday, August 23, 2019

Of Color

“The chief function of color should be to serve expression.” Henri Matisse

Working drawing of the 'God's Own Child' Mural. Edward Riojas. 2019. Finished size will be 5' tall by 24' wide.
(All photos courtesy of the artist. Copyright © Edward Riojas. Images may not be reproduced.)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Being of a peculiar breed, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise when artists wax eloquently – or obsessively – about color. For some artists, color is a delicious dream. For others, it is an elusive reality. Yet other artists sometimes ponder over it in unnatural places – in Claude Monet's case, on the face of a dead woman laid out at a funeral.

Color, however, can serve other purposes beyond the kind of expression to which Henri Matisse was alluding. In church, for example, most can tell what Church season it is simply by what color dominates the chancel. Those specific colors were developed throughout the history of the Church and have meaning attached, even if we jostle each other over violet or blue or [gasp!] rose. And there are yet other purposes for color.

A current project for St. Paul Lutheran Church, Council Bluffs, Iowa, makes use of color in a mural based on Erdmann Neumeister’s hymn, “God’s Own Child I Gladly Say It.” In what is becoming a favorite visual theme among clients, a large body of saints processes across the mural. The client made it clear early on in the project that this procession of saints should truly reflect the spectrum of God’s children. Hence, the use of color was made to serve a deliberate purpose.

Detail of the mural in progress.
There aren’t only representations of buttoned-down, Germanic Europeans. There aren’t simple, token delegates of African descent. There is such a variety of facial types and ages and stylistic lifestyles to guarantee the viewer that, yes, God’s children come from every walk of life and every corner of the earth.

What struck me once the painting was under way is that every figure in the mural – no matter what ethnic origin – was painted with warm colors. In artistic parlance, the warm umbers and siennas and ochres used in human flesh are often called “earth colors,” because the pigments used to produce those colors often come from different types of clay.

This simple fact is profound, if only we allow it. Adam was formed of the dust of the earth. “Dust you are, and to dust you will return.” There is great humility in knowing we are only as good as the dirt beneath our feet.

Thanks be to God that there is another group of colors in the mural. Beneath the earth tones is a flood of blues, greens, and other cool colors. These colors change the way the figures appear beneath water. That life-giving water issues from a Baptismal font, washing over the procession of saints, and finally bears them up in the resurrection of the flesh.

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