The autumn I was twenty-one, I was lucky enough to find myself in the class of a revered, and feared, teacher of color theory. It was my first semester of art school in Los Angeles, and at the time, I knew nothing about Professor Theory, but with his natty gray suit and wire glasses, Mr. Theory cut a spry figure at the chalkboard.
“Okay babies,” he announced to the freshman class of illustration majors, “time to paint a gray scale.”
I didn’t know what that was, but I understood the concept. Ten equal steps from white to black, each one ten-percent grayer than the next. The task seemed simple enough, except for one hitch: you couldn’t leave until it was perfect.
If I recall it was an afternoon class, which meant that if we made quick work of our gray scale, we’d be out early. Except that didn’t happen. It’s not as easy as you might think, gauging a progression of gray in proportionate measure. As I began to mix the gouache, I panicked, understanding only then the difficulty of this seemingly easy task. In fact, I’d never done anything so technical, and on this first try, it had to be perfect.
The boy next to me, as ashen as I was, leaned near and whispered, “Easier if you go white to black,” and so with that essential piece of knowledge I moved forward. I kept track of the drops of black gouache that fell into white, and despite my atrocious math skills, somehow calculated a ten-percent increase for each step. As the class worked, the room was silent, and as Professor Theory moved along the tables, he’d check for missteps and if he found one, would instruct the student to ditch it and begin again.
In the end, I wasn’t the first semester color theory student out the door, but I wasn’t the last either. When the Professor finally gave my gray scale a pass, I gathered up my tool box of paints and brushes and moved as fast I could through the halls to Third Street, where on the broad green lawn, the shadows were just starting to grow long. It was good to be in L.A. that afternoon, the day I’d met the challenge of a teacher who demanded a daunting level of rigor, and I’d somehow managed to meet it.