Kind of Blue


Jeff Greene, left, John Williams, right and the Blue Shirt

When I found John Williams the morning of our pilgrimage to our art mentor, John Semple  — Its a Gift to be Semple, posted in August — I was stopped dead in my tracks by John’s blue shirt. It wasn’t the shirt, it was the color; a near indefinable blue hovering between two hues. I told John that I thought it was an extraordinary blue and he concurred saying that he loved how each part of the shirt, cut from different parts of the bolt of fabric, faded differently.

At that point, Jeff Greene, a fellow artist and driver for our adventure asked me what color I thought the shirt was. I said that I thought it was ultramarine with a touch of thalo in it. Jeff said, “Yes it does have red in it.” John and I nodded, knowing that ultramarine has a kind of red undertone. After thinking about it, I realized that I would substitute manganese blue for the thalo. The staining power of the thalo would be too overwhelming for this color.


Winsor and Newton Color Chart

John, who is a graphic designer chimed in that he thought it hovered between Pantone 299 and Pantone 279.

Pantone Color Chart

Pantone Color Chart

Then Jeff, whose company restores murals and other decorative paintings in historical settings, said that it was Munsell 5PB  5/12 or 6/12.


Munsell Color Sphere

I knew, of course, that Pantone was a color system used by printers and graphic artists to be sure that they have accurately matched up colors between original design and final printed product. Today, since so much graphic design work is done on computer where the accuracy of color from monitor to monitor cannot be relied on, Pantone is the standard used.

I was familiar with Munsell as one of the early color theorists, along with Chevreul and  Goethe (yes, the poet — seems that many of his theories were more poetical than accurate). But I did not know that he had developed a system that “specifies colors based on three color dimensions: hue, value (lightness), and chroma (color purity).”*[Wikepedia] This system was adopted by the USDA as the official color system for soil research in the 1930s.


Munsell System being used to accurately describe the color of the soil.

Jeff said that his company used the system to accurately recreate colors in the walls and ceilings that they restored.

Once on the road, I talked to John about the graphic designer, Carol Jessop, who I had been working with to redesign my website. She went through hundreds of typeface samples before picking the one for my website. I felt it described me well — very straight forward, no nonsense, but with a surprising curve thrown in here and there and an “e” that was weighted oddly.

So, I asked John what typeface he would select for this experience. “Something clean”, he said, ” but also somewhat elegant.” “Like a restaurant with white linen table clothes, ” I said. “Yes, but it would be inviting, too. And you could smell the linen. Very fresh.” Yes, I thought, that seems right.

Jeff, who was in charge of the sound track for our trip  put on Joni Mitchell’s Blue — an anthem from our time at school. But what I heard at that moment was, “I am a lonely painter. I live in a box of paints.”

Not so lonely now, but still in a box of paints.

And What Color Would You Like:


Winsor and Newton


What Does This Color Mean:

It’s a gift to be Semple!

This weekend four of my high school classmates, Jeff Greene, Joe Danciger, John Williams, Stuart Cudlitz and I made a pilgrimage to our art teacher, the Vermont artist, John Semple, now 80 years old. He and his wife, Mallory, still live in the house they graciously invited us to when we were students at a tiny progressive school in South Woodstock, Vermont. All five of us, in one way or another, became professional artists. All of us credited Semple with launching us on our trajectory.

The house stood starkly on the side of the hill surrounded by stone walls that John built with his sons. Sons for whom I once babysat. The light poured into the house, where we found John busily framing paintings for an upcoming retrospective exhibition.

John greeted us at the door wearing a frayed madras shirt that Stuart swore he remembered from 1970, and some old khakis with suspenders.

John Semple in etching studio

John was happy to have stepped away from painting his crowd pleasing Vermont landscapes to dedicate himself to  painting subjects he thought only mattered to him. To use a British phrase, I was “gob smacked” by his self-portraits. They were as intense as the late portraits of Bonnard — an unflinching look at the aging artist. One painting, where almost everything is cropped but his eyes, is direct and intense. In another, he bares his upper torso ravaged by two heart attacks.

John Semple, "Self-Portrait", etching.

John remembered all of us. He told Joe Danciger that he  learned something from him. Joe was an intense painting student. John observed him reworking a painting over and over again. He thought to himself, enough all ready, this kid needs to move on. But Joe persisted. In the end he created a very successful painting. John said that he learned from that, and frequently thought of Joe when he reworked a painting that he would have abandoned otherwise.

Semple told Jeff Greene, “You had such facility. You were so talented. You painted with such ease, I didn’t think you would become an artist. I thought you lacked the drive.”  The rest of us looked at each other with wide eyes. Jeff has created Evergreene Architectural Arts probably the most successful architectural arts painting and restoration company in the world, employing over two hundred artists! But Jeff replied, “In a way, John, you are right.”

John Semple and Jeff Greene

Stuart Cudlitz brought drawings with him that he had done while at school. He wanted to show John the ones where he got what John was trying to teach him. Most memorable of all was one he did on the back of one of John’s drawings. Stuart didn’t have money for materials, so John cut up some of his own drawings and gave them to Stuart, so that he could draw on the back of them and have the experience of working on good paper.

John Semple and Stuart Cuditz

John, who taught us all how to make etchings, continues to grow and experiment in print media. His studio was filled with colorful wood block prints.

One chilling print he showed us was of himself standing bumping up against the grim reaper. He sent a copy of it to his cardiologist with a note saying, “Because of you I am the guy on the right and not the guy on the left.”

John Semple, etching