Color Theory Gets a Workout

     Colour perception is a tricky concept. For Toronto-based painter Alex Cameron, colour theory means limitations.

     “You have to put it out of your mind. You have to throw it out,” Cameron said.

     Trichromatic theory suggests humans are sensitive to blue, red and green. We perceive colour with help from cone cells, which work together to take in wavelengths of light that produce a cellular response, creating colour as we see it.

     The opponent-process theory suggests that there are six primary colours in three pairs: red/green, yellow/blue and white/black. If one colour turns off a receptor, the colour it is coupled with will excite the receptor, creating the image of a colour. Humans can perceive up to 10 million different colours.

     What really throws a metaphorical wrench into the gears of these scientific theories is the fact that colour perception varies from person to person. And then the laws of the norm come into play: we are taught that grass and mountains are green, the sky and the ocean are blue, the sun is yellow, etc. But what happens when the grass is red? When the sky is yellow and the ocean is pink? We tilt our heads in confusion, trying to envision this nearly unimaginable colour switcheroo. For Cameron, the norm goes out the window. 

     Cameron guesses that he painted his first landscape when he was about 15 years old. “When I was 20, I had a really good dealer right away, so I was able to produce more work. I spent six days out of seven in the studio,” he said. “My (current) studio is a complete mess. There’s oil paint everywhere,” Cameron says with a laugh. Cameron laughs while he explains how he would come home covered in paint up to his elbows. He’s not afraid to stick his fingers into layers of oil paint to achieve the effect he’s looking for. Thick layers of oil paint adorn the canvases of his landscapes, but his abstracts seem to be piled even thicker. He estimates that he uses about $1,000 worth of paint on each piece. “I do landscapes and abstracts, going back and forth all the time,” Cameron said, which explains why abstract elements are easily found in Cameron’s landscapes. Floating branches are searching for their native trees and leaves are sometimes the width of trees trunks.

     When asked if he paints landscapes from scenes in nature or scenes created in his own mind’s eye, Cameron said he has done both. His wife, Lorna, explains that Cameron travels to remote locations with his geologist brother. On these trips to Northwest Territories, the Yukon, British Columbia and Algonquin Park, Cameron finds new scenery to paint. Cameron has also ventured to India and Nepal with artist friend David Bolduc for inspiration.  And, he has also found inspiration for landscapes in Newfoundland.

     Cameron holds onto these images in his mind and transfers them to canvas, choosing the colours to portray the scene in a different light. His intense use of colour and blending of colours to create new shades have been present in his artwork for many years, but new elements have been added by a strange medical phenomenon. Cameron used to have intense cluster headaches, which Lorna explains feels like having burning spears stuck into your eyeballs.

     “Part of it is not just the painful sensation, but the perception of colours. He used those in his paintings. I remember Alex saying something like, ‘Well, I figure I might as well get something out of it,’ which resulted in some really phenomenal colours,” his wife said. 

     The artist churns out, on average, one painting a week, but is able to create pieces from start to finish very quickly. He recently finished a 6’ x 6’ piece in one day. “I used to work where I lived, so I was painting all the time,” Cameron said. His studio is no longer in his home, but he spends a large chunk of each day painting.

     Cameron met Queen Elizabeth of England during the 25th Jubilee celebrations and one of his paintings was presented to the Queen as a gift. The artist said the best part of the experience was showing his mother it really was possible to make a living as an artist.

     During a previous trip to Newfoundland, Cameron was taken aback by the saltbox houses and traditional fencing in Pouch Cove, leading him to create watercolour pieces that resemble his oil landscapes, albeit in a different thickness.


Wendy Rose