Wednesday, April 20, 2011


A Brief History Of Colour In Painting

A brief history...

Various artists through history have been highly tuned to the possibilities of colour in painting. They have understood colours potential to stop a viewer, to transfix, to overpower, to coax gently, to seduce, in short, to manipulate a viewer psychologically. However colour is not equally important to every artist. Some artists are colourists. For them colour is integral to the construction of the painting - they cannot say what they want to say without it, and more often than not colour becomes the subject of the work. Many artists are not colourists. Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) for example, was not a colourist.
Artists you should look up who were/are colourists include: Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665), Diego Velasquez (1599-1660), Giambattista Tiepolo (1696-1770), Veronese (1528-88), Tintoretto (1514-94), Titian (1488/90-1576), Jan Vermeer van Delft (1632-75), John Simeon Baptiste Chardin (1699-1779), Claude Monet (1840-1926) and all of the other Impressionists and Post-Impressionists (see below), Paul Cezanne (1839-1906), Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), Edouard Vuillard (1868-1940), Henri Matisse (1869-1954) and the other Fauves (see below), Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964), Patrick Heron (b. 1920), Gary Hume (b. 1962), and the Australian, George Haynes (b. 1938). You should become familiar with as many of these artists as you can.
Artists have not only been interested in colour as individuals. Various art movements through the history of painting have had a basis in colour. The long running philosophical division of art into Classical and Romantic camps is one example. Very simply, Classicism stands for order and rational thinking whilst Romanticism stands for sensuality (of the body) and the more intuitive processes. Colour is usually placed - sometimes pejoratively - in the Romantic camp. The Venetian painters of the Renaissance used colour flamboyantly to concoct rich, sensual paintings (e.g. Giambattista Tiepolo, Veronese, Tintoretto, Titian) in opposition to the Florentine and Roman painters of the same period (e.g. Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Raphael Santi) whose work is renowned for its cool, rational, ordered approach.
The rule does not always fit though, and you need not concern yourself overly much with these sorts of categorisations. They are interesting in a historical sense and always break down anyway. Paul Cezanne for example, was very interested in colour but his manner of working is often described as Classical (as was Poussin who influenced Cezanne). And where do the colour-field minimalists fit?
Impressionism, a 19th century movement which began in France aimed to capture the ‘impression’ of a scene rather than render it realistically. The Impressionists were very interested in the nature of light and how it affected colour. Light changing could equate with passing time and the observations they made about colour in the landscape evoked a sense of the atmosphere and space. In particular you should look at the blue landscapes by Cezanne and Monet's fifty paintings of the Rouen Cathedral.
As a result of the Impressionist's close observations and the discovery of the colour wheel they were able to liberate colour from its traditional use. Shadows for example, had always been mixed with black whereas the Impressionists proposed that shadows actually contained colour and painted them that way. Important Impressionist painters you should be aware of include: Eduoard Manet (1832-83), Claude Monet (1840-1926), Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), Edgar Degas (1834-1917), and Camille Pissarro (1830-1903)
The Post-impressionists were a group of artists who reacted in some way against the Impressionist preoccupation with how things appeared. Their styles vary greatly (as indeed did the Impressionists) but most of them place importance on colour. They include Georges Seurat (1859-91), Paul Cezanne (1839-1906), Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890), Paul Gaugin (1848-1903), Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), Edouard Vuillard (1868-1940) and Henri Matisse (1869-1947).
Matisse was so interested in colour that he continued to experiment with it and gradually liberated colour from its representative role. He was instrumental in starting the group known as the Fauves who are known for free, flat and patterned use of colour. Other members of the group included Kees van Dongen (1877-1968), Maurice de Vlaminck (1876-1958), Raoul Dufy (1877-1953) and Pierre-Albert Marquet (1875-1947).
More recently in the history of painting are the colour-field painters of the 1950’s. They worked in the U.S. and were concerned with the role of abstract colour over a large area. They include Robert Motherwell (1915-91), Barnett Newman (1905-70), Ad Reinhardt (1913-67), Mark Rothko (1906-70) and Clyfford Still (1904-80)

Why Use Colour?

‘There is almost no aspect of thought and feeling which does not involve colour in some way, most critically in our responses to food - involving survival of the individual - and in our response to sexual display - involving survival of the species.’ Roy Osborne, Lights and Pigments; Colour Principles for Artists.
The above quote by Osborne establishes the importance of colour in our lives. Colour is all around us. Leonardo da Vinci developed theories of aerial perspective whereby he identified that colour fades toward the distance. Colour affects us psychologically (e.g. green is calming, red is exciting) and offers sensual delight. We associate colours in memory with particular things, with places and activities, with times of the day and different climates. What are the colours you associate with Australia? More specifically with Melbourne and Sydney? What colours do you associate with a traumatic event in your childhood? What colours make food appetising? The theatre exciting? A storm foreboding? A moment quiet?
Learning to use colour effectively in painting is not always about using highly keyed, bright colours, such as in the work of Bonnard, Matisse and the Fauves. Velazquez’s paintings are muted in comparison. He only used a narrow range of colours. However close examination reveals just how many different colours he has mixed within this narrow range (look up some colour reproductions which show close ups of his paintings). A sense of richness results. Morandi tended to use many neutral colours to produce quiet, contemplative effects in his work. When he did use bright colour, it tended to be as an accent and stands out all the more
in contrast to the greys around it. Chardin also used dark colours as a rich contrast to brighter colours - try to look for a reproduction of Basket of Wild Strawberries (1761)for an absolutely mouth watering example of the power of colour.
Other artists have used colour in very carefully thought out arrangements to produce specific effects. Seurat used colour with a pointillist technique to experiment with the phenomenon of colour mixing in the eye. Cezanne used colour in harmonious relationships while the colour-field painters used limited colour on a massive scale to overwhelm the viewer with a bodily experience of that colour (see the works by the artists mentioned above).
One of the most important lessons you should learn in the next few weeks, by looking at the work of other artists and by practising colour exercises yourself, is that colour is relative. That is, any colour looks like it does because you see it in relation to other colours (look again at Chardin’s strawberries). So when you are “tweaking” your paint (i.e. making subtle changes) trying to get a particular colour as bright as you see it, remember to also “tweak” the other colours around it on your painting - try to make them duller and see what happens.

Understanding Colour Mixing

One traditional approach to understanding colour mixing is through the idea of a colour wheel (see the ‘12 colour subtractive circle’ on the website at first put forward by Moses Harris in 1776. The colour wheel model shows relationships of hue and tone and came about as a result of discovering that you can mix quite a range of other colours with three basic colours. These three colours are red, yellow and blue. They are called the primaries.
‘Traditionally the “primaries” are thought of as being the base colours from which other colours are mixed but which can not, themselves, be created from any other colours. Secondary colours (orange, violet and green) are derived by mixing the primaries - red and yellow make orange, red and blue make violet, yellow and blue make green.’
The above is quoted from Blue and Yellow Don’t Make Green by Michael Wilcox. This book provides a relatively simple guide to understanding colour. It explains the downfall of the traditional ‘three primary system’ when it is applied to the actual range of pigments that can be manufactured for artist’s use. To overcome this stumbling block he suggests using a system of six principle colours as the basis for colour mixing; a cool red, a warm red, a cool yellow, a warm yellow, a cool blue and a warm blue.
So which manufactured colours are the most useful to buy? Under Materials and Equipment you will have found our recommendations, which are also Michael Wilcox’s. You can paint with a minimum of colours and imaginative colour mixing. All you basically need are a warm and cool red, a warm and cool yellow, a warm and cool blue, some earth hues and black and white.
Cadmium Red is a warm red, i.e. on the colour wheel it is closer to orange than it is to violet. It is a strongly tinted, opaque colour - a little goes a long way and it will cover most other colours underneath it. Alizarin Crimson is a cool red (leaning toward violet) and a clear, transparent colour - colours beneath it will glow through. Transparent colours are therefore useful for glazing.
Cadmium Yellow is warm - it leans toward orange - with properties similar to Cadmium Red. Lemon Yellow is cool - it leans toward green - and also transparent.
French Ultramarine is a warm blue, closer to violet than it is to green on the colour wheel. In artist’s quality paints this colour is beautifully transparent. Cerulean Blue is cool - leans toward green - and is more opaque than French Ultramarine therefore its covering power is greater. Cobalt Blue is the closest pigment to a pure blue you will find. It does not lean either toward the warm or cool end of the spectrum. However, you should still use the other blues.
Then there is Mars Black (warmish and opaque), Ivory Black (cooler and semi-transparent), Titanium White (warmish and opaque) and Zinc White (cool and semi-transparent). There is no need to buy all of these - Mars Black and Titanium White will do - but you should be aware of the different qualities of colours made from different pigments. At some point in the future you might want to exploit them.
As you progress and add to your colour box you will learn the particular beauty of specific pigments; for example Chrome Green, Cadmium Green, Cadmium Scarlet, Indian Red or Venetian Red, Burnt Umber, Cobalt Violet, Prussian Blue, and Naples Yellow have inherent qualities which are difficult to mix. There are also several other pigments that by nature of their transparency are excellent glazing colours. These include Pthalocyanine Blue (which also mixes beautiful clear greens), Pthalocyanine Green, Viridian Green, Sienna/Burnt Sienna, Brown Pink, Australian Red Gold and Transparent Gold Ochre.
Avoid colours such as Payne’s Grey, Tasman Blue, Turquoise etc, which are convenient mixtures of colours you should already have and therefore a waste of money. You can mix them on your own palette.
Play around with your colour box! Learn the different qualities each pigment has.
If you are particularly interested in colour and would like to know more you can either follow up some of the additional websites given at the website above (they are hotlinked) or request the following books from the library:
Lights and Pigments; Colour Principles for Artists written by Roy Osborne and published in 1980 by Harper and Row (New York).

Colour Theory Websites

Colour terms

Advanced colour science


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