'The Secret Lives of Color' on display at Brandt-Roberts Galleries

Sixteen artists, including painter Cody Heichel, created works from colors assigned to them by Michelle Brandt, who was inspired by a book about color

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
“Dusk in December, 270 Overpass,” acrylic on canvas, by artist Cody Heichel

As the owner of Brandt-Roberts Galleries, Michelle Brandt is surrounded by colorful artwork more often than not. But after reading The Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St. Clair, Brandt realized she hadn’t fully appreciated the complex history of color.

“Color and pigment — what we see on canvases and panels and everything else — I think we take it for granted. It's so easy now because of the ubiquitous little tubes of paint,” Brandt said, noting that before the industrial revolution, artists had a more hands-on relationship with specific colors. “They were grinding up beetles to make certain pigments. It all came from the earth. …  A lot of times, these artists would have apprentices, and they were dealing with some pigments that were unstable. It could be really dangerous. We take for granted that artists can just go to the art store and buy paint now, but that wasn't always the case.” 

The more she thought about it, the more Brandt liked the idea of hosting a group show at the gallery centered around the book, with each artist focusing on a specific color from the text. She started by sending a copy of the book to the artists Brandt-Roberts represents, but instead of letting each artist pick a color, Brandt decided to assign colors herself to push the artists out of their comfort zones. 

“We wanted to see how they would discover the color in their work,” Brandt said. “There were a number of artists that balked a little bit. … I would say 90 percent of them were not exactly thrilled about their color. We went through the book and said, ‘Oh, Christopher Burk would never use avocado, ever. Guess what? Christopher Burk is getting avocado.’” 

The gallery initially scheduled the resulting 16-artist exhibition, “The Secret Lives of Color,” for last spring, but COVID-19 protocols postponed the show until this Friday, April 30, where it will remain on view through the end of May. In addition, at noon on Thursday, April 29, the gallery will partner with CCAD to host a virtual roundtable discussion with Secret Lives author Kassia St. Clair (register here). 

Artist Cody Heichel, who recently wrapped up a solo show at Brandt-Roberts, said he tends to enjoy parameters to help guide and frame his painting, though he was previously unfamiliar with his assigned color: Mountbatten Pink.  

“It was interesting to look into the history of it. The name came from Lord Mountbatten, who was with the British Royal Navy. He wanted to paint the battleships a certain color that would recede into either the dusk or dawn color palette so that they would be better hidden. And so he had a fleet of ships painted this dusty, pinkish color,” said Heichel, who noticed, upon further digging, that the camouflaging attempt didn’t appear to be successful. “It seems like maybe it made them stand out further, which I thought was really funny.” 

Once he familiarized himself with the color, Heichel began looking for it in his everyday life, particularly at dawn and dusk. “When you add a new word to your vocabulary, or you hear about something for the first time, suddenly it starts popping up everywhere and you're like, OK, is this coincidence or has it been in front of me the whole time?” Heichel said. “As soon as that color was brought to my attention, it kind of opened this lens, and suddenly I started seeing it in all these places.” 

Heichel often paints street scenes, and on one cold, winter day, Mountbatten Pink revealed itself as he went across an I-270 overpass. “It was a wintry scene at dusk, and the asphalt had taken on that color of light,” Heichel said. “It seemed like the most striking representation of that color that I had found once I opened my eyes to look for it.”  

Heichel took a video of the scene and used it as the basis for his contribution to the show, “Dusk in December, 270 Overpass,” complete with Mountbatten Pink roadways.  

Since Brandt gave him the assignment more than a year ago, Heichel said he has begun to focus more on color. “I didn't go to school for painting or fine art or visual art, so I've been teaching myself along the way. … Color didn't play a very important role in my paintings for most of the time that I've been painting. It's been a lot more about a muted atmosphere,” he said. “But in this last year or so, I've started studying color more. I started paying attention to color more. It has started to become a much more important component in the paintings themselves.”