Saturday Studio: Full Spectrum

Alyssa Dumire, Director of Children’s Education

One year ago, four of the Fort Wayne Museum of Art’s galleries were occupied by the eye-popping Op art of Julian Stanczak and the organic sculptures of Barbara Stanczak in the exhibition Full Spectrum. Leading up to the show, we were worried that the visually intense paintings would leave touring students with headaches (or stomachaches!), and maybe some did, but they were also too beautiful to look away. It was a great opportunity for us to focus on just two artists, when we usually have four different exhibitions to work through.

A visiting student examines the work of Julian Stanczak. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Op, or Optical, art was a name coined at an exhibition of Julian Stanczak’s work, but it wasn’t the term he preferred. “Optical” simply refers to seeing, so any art is optical. Julian preferred “perceptual” art, since that refers to the process of our brain trying to make sense of what we see. In Op art, the play of lines and shapes in contrasting colors create the illusion of warped or moving surfaces. Although some of Stanczak’s work was black and white, what really set him apart from the other Op artists was the way he applied color theory.
Take, for example, Environmental, which is the second painting from the right below. What colors do you see? It’s a grayish brown, right?

Students and their parents take a long look at Stanczak’s “Environmental”. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

As we zoom in to the painting, below, we can see that these beige tones are really made from the visual mixing of blue, green, and red! (Your eyes may not want to focus on them, and cameras certainly have a hard time capturing the colors accurately.)

Julian Stanczak, Polish American, 1928-2017. Environmental (detail). Acrylic on canvas, 1987. On loan from a Private Collection. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Now look below at Conferring Blue from the FWMoA collection. In the center of the print, the green squares against the red background almost appear to be floating and vibrating. This is because red and green are complementary colors, meaning they’re across from each other on the color wheel, and when two complements of a similar intensity are placed next to each other, the visual push and pull can create some weird perceptual effects.

Julian Stanczak, Polish American, 1928-2017. Conferring Blue. Screenprint, 1979. Gift of Adam E. Schuster, 1996.29. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Today, we’re going to explore these effects, focusing on color theory and mixing to create our own Op-art inspired work! We tested this out a couple of times, and the first time worked but was a bit of a headache, and turned out somewhat messy. For the perceptual effects to have the maximum impact, we want our work as precise as possible. This is why Stanczak used tape to mask off the shapes in his paintings–Julian and Barbara even invented a machine that would cut a roll of tape to whatever thickness he needed! The instructions below might seem more complicated upfront, and they do require some measuring, but will turn out much more nicely and Stanczak-esque. You can see our original examples at the end.


  • Paper
  • Ruler
  • Pencil
  • Scissors
  • Paint (tempera is best since it dries more flat and smooth!)
  • Paintbrushes
  • Masking or painter’s tape, preferably thin

First, prepare your paper. I decided to make my rectangular, 9”x12” paper, into a square by cutting 3” from one of the long sides, but you can keep yours rectangular if you prefer.

Next, measure your stripes!

  1. Measure in from each side of your paper the width that you want the outer stripe to be. A reminder on how to measure properly (if you need it): measure in the same distance twice on each side and make a tiny dot or dash each time, then align your ruler with these marks, and draw the line across. Repeat on each side of the paper. This outermost stripe is an “A” stripe.
  2. Measure in from your first line the width of your tape, and draw all the way around again. This is a “B” stripe.
  3. Measure in the width you’d like your next stripe to be. It can be the same width as the outer stripe, or slightly narrower.
  4. Repeat steps 2 and 3, alternating A and B stripes, until you reach the center of your paper and have a small square or rectangle left. Make sure the center rectangle or square is an A stripe (or shape in this case). I labeled my shapes above for reference, but you don’t need to.

We’re ready to paint! First we must choose our colors, and for that, we turn to the color wheel!

Choose two colors that are next to each other. I chose yellow and orange. These are called analogous colors. Look across the color wheel from each of your first two colors. Across from yellow is violet, and across from blue is orange. These colors are the complements of the first pair (and they are also analogous to each other!). As mentioned above, when complementary colors of a similar intensity are placed next to each other, they create a vibrating effect, and that is what we’re trying to accomplish.

To paint:

  1. Start with the B stripes, the ones that are the width of your tape. Use your lighter set of analogous colors for these stripes (for me, this is yellow and orange).
  2. Paint one color in the outermost B stripe (which is the second stripe in, overall). Paint the other color in the innermost B stripe, the one around the center shape. It’s okay here if you go outside the lines a little!
  3. The remaining B stripes will gradually transition from the inner to the outer color. Mix a little of the center color into the outer color, just enough so it’s noticeably different. Paint this in the second B stripe in. Note that some colors are stronger than others! I had to mix more yellow into my orange to shift it than I would have thought.
  4. Mix in a little more of the center color, and paint this in the next stripe. Repeat until you’ve filled in all of the B stripes. 
  5. Let your paint dry completely.

Next, take your tape, and cut the end with scissors so it is straight across (rather than tearing it). Stick it on your pants to remove some of the stickiness, then pull it off and tape over the B stripes you painted. You should be able to faintly see your pencil marks to help you line it up. Tape over all of the B stripes.

Now, use your A set of colors. Paint the complement of the center B color in the center shape (for me, violet), and the complement of your outer B color in the outer stripe (blue).

Repeat the steps to mix the transition colors and paint in the remaining stripes. Since the blue and violet are pretty dark, and similar to begin with, the transitions are very subtle.

Let the paint dry completely, then slowly and carefully pull off the tape. Pull at an angle and keep the end you’re pulling against the paper.

Here it is after removing the tape! Each stripe of color, even the transitions, should be next to a color that is roughly its complement. Below are our original (messier) examples:

Here is the (simpler, but in the end more frustrating) process by which we made these: Tape off the B stripes, then paint the A colors, get impatient and pull the tape off before the paint dries all the way (which will rip your paper), then the B stripes without taping again. The end result works, but it’s a little messy, even after I went back in and cleaned it up! You can see how, in version two, the cleaner edges accentuate the visual impact. My colors are also the opposite of how I recommend you place them above. Galeena’s color choices really pop!

Ready to try? Once you’ve completed your optical art, share it with us here on the blog or on our social media pages: Facebook, Instagram, & Twitter.

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