Edith Young’s Color Scheme
The color palette becomes a vehicle to examine art history, popular culture, and the artist ’s own professional and artistic development.
(Princeton Architectural Press, 2021)
Edith Young—a graphic designer, photographer, and writer—created her first color palette in college, after being inspired by fashion editor Diana Vreeland’s provoking assertion, “all my life I’ve pursued the perfect red. I can never get painters to mix it for me … the best red is to copy the color of a child’s cap in any Renaissance portrait.” Young followed the assignment closely. Her first palette consisted of a four by 6 grid of squares, each box adhering to the hue of a hat in a Renaissance portrait painted between 1460 and 1535. This satisfying arrangement of crimsons and maroons is the first piece of Young’s in Color Scheme, which uses the color palette as a vehicle to examine art history, popular culture, and the artist’s own professional and artistic development through equally rigorous lenses.
Escorting us through the book in the first person, Young shifts from personal anecdotes to criticism-adjacent analyses. The stories, which she laces throughout the book’s three chronological chapters: art history, contemporary art, and pop culture, are intriguing insofar as they provide insight into the inspiration for her projects: a class at RISD amounts to an interest in typologies, a job at an athleisure brand grants wisdom on color theory.
The majority of Color Scheme explores these dissections of Young’s own artistic interests and work—produced both on her own predilection and on behalf of commissioners. But before getting too far, she acknowledges the artists that have come before her—John Baldessari, Spencer Finch, and the designer of a 1973 Jeep Fleet advertisement, to name a few. The resemblance to her own palettes is palpable. Flipping through the book is like leafing through a ring of Pantone paints or nail polish colors. Each of Young’s prints follows a uniform pattern: squares of equal size are filled in with a single color, captioned with the date and title of the source, and spread across a crisp white foundation.
In Young’s introduction to the concept of the color palette, she compares the art form to a data visualization, “a refillable framework with infinite potential to be recontextualized.” It’s an explanation that—coupled with the book’s endnotes of CMYK values—seems to reveal an artist with left-brained tendencies. Her playful side comes through in her material.
She creates palettes from the blues of David Hockney’s painted pools to the autumnal hair dyes of former professional basketball player Dennis Rodman. One of the greatest powers of these hyper-specific subject choices is that they call attention to artistic decisions that might go unnoticed within their native context. In one of Young’s palettes from her art historical category, for example, we are treated to the blushed cheeks of Madame de Pompadour, a popular muse that 18th-century portraitists couldn’t stay away from. When gazing upon this sea of cheek colors stripped from paintings of Louis XV’s highly-rouged mistress, one may grasp that Pompadour’s pink cheeks were not always in fact painted pink, but rather mauve or copper. It’s a painting secret that’s nearly undetectable when you look at one of the final oil portraits: a composite of painted gradients, shadows, and depths.
Young’s narrative has textured descriptions of an art that is almost too fundamental to describe: “there’s color contained in rectangles, capturing a substance that is otherwise shapeless, and providing form, like water in a glass.” But these asides leave you wanting more specifics. Despite this omission, Color Scheme is proof that Young can sew associative connections in nearly any environment.
Looking at popular culture, she presents a concept she calls “the color strategy”: a tool commercial brands use to renew customer interest by reproducing old products in new hues. It could easily feel advertorial—especially because Young has worked with at least one of the brands she mentions in this section. But this passage, which analogizes fashion retail strategy to Young’s own palette-making process, is a leap we’re willing to take. The primary allure of Color Scheme is Young’s artwork and methodology, but the writing, at times both humorous and sophisticated, will get you to stay.