“…I had ranged the reds from pink to orange, which rose into the yellows as far as lemon with light and dark greens.”
— Vincent van Gogh writing to Theo about painting a portrait of Roulin?s wife, 22 January 1889
What I take from this is to not think of a colour as limited to only tubes marked that colour, but to include analogous colours too (colours that sit alongside one another on the colour wheel). So, not thinking of red as reds alone, but including yellow and orange as well as purple and blue. For blue to include green and yellow. Yellow to include green and orange, and so on.
Or put another way, the ‘secret’ to Van Gogh’s beautiful reds is to use more than only red.
[The paintings] “deliberately invite viewers to slow their pace and to look closely …meaning is assembled from an unstable but fertile mixture of chance and memory” — Ernst Vegelin van Claerbergen, Head of The Courtauld Gallery
“Johns seems open to unexpected encounter, and in turn his art often provokes us to unexpected ways of seeing, thinking and feeling. …? Johns has always tried not to have intentions that act as a driving force of his art. Instead he simply begins and carries on working until something happens.” — Barnaby Wright, curator
Jasper Johns’ Regrets series developed from a chance encounter he had with a reproduction in a Christie’s auction catalogue of a photo of a young Lucian Freud sitting on a bed in the Francis Bacon’s studio. I chanced upon the exhibition when at the Courtauld Gallery in London to see the Egon Schiele exhibition (more on that later this week). Like most people, I initially merely glanced at the Regrets paintings as I walked through the room where they were, intent on getting to Schiele, but am glad I did come back for a closer, slower look.
There are layers of meaning and symbolism that can be unpacked, on “themes of creativity, memory, reflection and mortality”, which the Courtauld catalogue (and I presume the MoMA catalogue) explains. About how in his process of exploring and transforming the photo in numerous experiments using oil, watercolour, pencil and ink he mirrored and doubled the original image, and in doing so, the form of a skull emerged in the centre of his new composition. This ?apparition? creates a reminder of death or memento mori at the heart of the works.
But I only found that out afterwards when I read the catalogue. What fascinated me was how the photo guided my interpretation of abstract paintings which, without this reference or anchor in reality, I probably wouldn’t have spent as much time look at. My favourite was an ink painting on plastic paper, and impact of this on the mark making which has ‘dissolved’ lines, spread shapes with soft edges. It was mesmerizing, my eyes moving from one shape to another, feeling the hand of the artist and the happy accident of the paper, getting lost in the pattern while simultaneously overlaying the photo in my mind, engaging imagination and intellect in that special way that painting does.
“When [Monet] reduced his compositions to horizontal bands or combinations of simple shapes, he relied on colour and brushwork to bring the painting to life.
“…every area of the painting is enlivened in some way… a sense of space and recession is created entirely by nuances of colour and inflections of the brush.
“…thick strokes of paint which were allowed to dry before surface colours where added
“…skip strokes, where a loaded brush is drawn very lightly across the canvas so that it skips, depositing paint where it touches, allowing the colours below to show clearly through these superimposed accents, and thus creating an active interplay between the success paint layers”
(Source: Monet: Nature into Art by John House, page 87/92)
The way we apply colour, which colours we use and how many are in a particular painting, all form part of our individual painting style. I was talking to an artist over the weekend who’d been working with some new colours, getting to know which had the degree of opacity she was wanting and which were too translucent. Adding titanium white came up; being so strongly opaque it can shift a transparent colour into translucent, but with the problem that it also lightens a colour.
Might this be counteracted by subsequently glazing over with the transluscent colour to enrich it? But that would add another round to the creation of the painting. More work and more time, as well as a delay in getting where you want to be. Ultimately the answer lies in trying each, in painting up a colour chart, in getting first-hand knowledge of the properties of individual pigments.
If you’re feeling jaded [colour pun intended], have a rethink about the colours on your palette. Do you use mainly transparent or opaque? Are there any you’re no longer using? When last did you try a new one? Do you layer it or physically mix? Are you using too many? In some of my seascapes I’ve used only titanium white, Prussian blue, and raw umber over a cadmium orange ground, though generally there are a few more colours involved, especially when it comes to mixing interesting darks.
“The freedom of Eardley’s gestural painting in her landscapes is contained within very well thought-out compositions. The use in all her paintings of brilliant touches of colour in key positions shows her schooled eye for balance and dynanism.” Source: Joan Eardley by Fiona Pearson, National Galleries of Scotland p9
Brilliant in thoughtfully positioned and in intensity of colour. To take one example from the paintings Scottish artist Joan Eardley: look at the reds on the chimneys of a painting titled Snow. Then at the yellow in the bottom right-hand corner, which is echoed in the central foreground. Muted to an earthy, ochre yellow it dances across the landscape, ending mixed with the red as a touch of orange in the distant cloud.
Small touches of colour that change the whole mood of a painting, and pull your eye across the composition. Did Eardley plan the placement and choice of the beforehand or did it evolve? I imagine a bit of both. Ultimately it doesn’t matter when it was decided, only that it was.
Vincent van Gogh’s various paintings of cut sunflowers in a vase (e.g. Sunflowers 1888) are probably his best-known flower paintings, but he also painted growing flowers, such as these irises. I enjoy not only his use of colour and mark making, but the way he makes flowers fill the whole composition and flattens the depth of field (an influence from Japanese art on him). A floral colour field, to apply a concept from a few decades later, and another influence on my painting, Rothko.
This detail from a Turner oil painting of Venice, first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1833 over a decade after Turner visited the city, shows Canaletto painting one of his magnificent views of Venice. As the wall label in Tate Britain (where I came across it) pointed out, Canaletto’s canvas on his easel is “already improbably framed”. This tiny detail in the painting, so easily overlooked, makes me smile every time. The rest of the painting doesn’t do much for me; I prefer Turner’s wilder pieces where he paints mostly the atmosphere and weather.