From David Hockney to Tonya Harding, Edith Young’s ‘Color Scheme’ Reframes Color

Posted inColor & Design

Just how red are the red caps of Renaissance paintings? 

In the full context of each work, the answer would appear to be pretty red—the brightest shade of each painting, no doubt. But what if you looked at those reds another way—isolated from context in a color palette where the true diversity of shades is made obvious?

This is Edith Young’s project. Inspired by a quote in Diana Vreeland’s autobiography about the best shade of red being “the color of a child’s cap in any Renaissance portrait,” Young, a graphic designer and writer, built a color palette isolating the colors of twenty red caps in Renaissance paintings from 1460 to 1535. The range of hue and brightness is eye-catching; some are fire-hydrant colored, while others are barely red at all, edging toward pink, orange, or dark brown. 

In her new book Color Scheme: An Irreverent History of Art and Pop Culture in Color Palettes, Young presents color as a throughline for comparing multiple artists’ treatment of one subject or tracing a single artist’s preoccupations throughout their career. Perhaps most interestingly, Young branches out into considering pop culture, creating palettes for Tonya Harding’s skating dresses and Spike Lee’s glasses alongside David Hockney’s swimming pools and John James Audubon’s bird bills. Mixed with anecdote, analysis, and occasional notes on her methodology, Color Palette is a fun and innovative deconstruction of art and design through the lens of color.

(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

How long did it take for this project to come together?

I started making the palettes in 2016, and I was making them on my own in my last semester at [Rhode Island School of Design] and printing them for friends. At the end of 2017, I started making more, and I started making a few commissions. And then, when I started working on the book in 2020, I made about 20 more palettes.

Did your thinking about art and pop culture as seen through culture start to shift as you began to work on the book in earnest?

Definitely. In the beginning, the project was entirely about paintings done a really long time ago and canonical themes and tropes throughout art history. Then, when I saw the movie I, Tonya, I was thinking, “wow, that’s an entirely different genre that could translate well,” because the way Tonya dressed during that part of her career is historical visual culture, but still in the pop culture vernacular. 

Some of these palettes must have taken a great deal of research—in the fine art portion, of course. But perhaps even more so, I’m thinking about ones from the pop culture section like Craig Sager’s and Walt Frazier’s suits throughout their careers or Dennis Rodman’s hair throughout his time in the NBA. What was that research process like?

The meat of the project is in the research, and the execution is not as complicated. I was looking at photos in various libraries, through Getty Images and other places, but also YouTube videos of various games, cross-referencing them all to make sure I’m as close to accurate as possible about some of these things. It definitely requires a fair amount of organization to execute!

I’m interested in this idea of isolating the color of one element as a way of framing an artist’s oeuvre. Were there any surprises in the process of researching and creating these palettes, and did it change the way you viewed any of the artists you studied?

The Alice Neel palette—that’s of the stripes on clothes in her various portraits—I would have definitely expected to be much brighter, poppier. Considering how punchy her portraits look in person, I was surprised by how dark and subdued the palette was.

I guess the palettes don’t tell the full story, or else they’re telling a very different story from that of the paintings because you have all this context of other colors.

Yeah, and the more specific you get about which detail you zoom in on, it portrays something different than the full image. For Spike Lee’s glasses, as well, I think people think of him as wearing one specific pair, but the palette reveals that he sort of has a bunch of different identities just based on that one element. 

You have a bunch of palettes that track one element over a long span of time—I’m thinking about David Hockney’s swimming pools—and I’m wondering what this book and this use of color as a framing device have to teach its audience?

One thing I think is valuable about this method is that color is so accessible and approachable. And maybe there isn’t something really compelling to gleam in comparing Hockney’s 1964 pool color to his 1987 one, but in creating the palette, I think that someone who doesn’t know a lot about him can think, “this is interesting, it seems like this is a theme he’s been working with for a long time.” The idea that color can be a sort of equalizer in approaching art history and contemporary art is appealing to me. I did Marie Antoinette’s cheeks in chronological order, and it was kind of grim because they seemed to get less and less colorful over time. So the color does often portray a narrative.