Notes on Colour

The delight of colour is to see it differently to have it offer a new state when it happens we feel a complete sense of wonder.

Colour changes, it is not static. It combines light with the material. Both light and material fluctuate. Our reception of both these aspects, combined in painting, alters through cultural change and personal change. A painting appears static because we are in a constant state of instability. How can we hold on to our sense of security, a sense of the world remaining the same? We can do this by not seeing, not hearing, not tasting, and not smelling. Then a piece of art in it''s purest form knocks us sideways takes us out of ourselves and delivers a blow, Kristeva refers to this in ÔGiotto''s JoyÕ. Colour does this by presenting us with the material we meet every day in a form we cannot help but look at.
We cannot help but look

It seems as if through colour we touch both earth and light. The reflection and absorption of light is negotiated through these coloured soils and lakes. In their raw form they fascinate and have been perceived as both spiritual but also sensually physical and charismatic. In order to understand the nature that the colour should take in a painting the painter has to experiment with the way it is carried. The handling and the qualities of fluidity are part of the expression of the colour.
A red may be empty and cool

We are fascinated by the notion that a certain blue might make the mouth drop. A certain red provides a kick. A green may both fascinate and relax. An orange can excite. The eye follows tonal moves like humming quiet puzzles. The regularly exercised eye is excited by small events too. Colour in painting works with the physical aspects of the paint and support, as well as the light, with a result that is complex and far removed from systematic conclusions.

We may perceive the paint''s performance like an old darned sock, or mud, or hurting skin in its physical presence; this perception takes the universal and the generic towards the personal, the cultural and the specific.
An orange may be offered humbly and the still tangible excitement is relocated.

When Josef Albers chose to deliver his lessons on colour perception through working with coloured paper he was constraining the production. The act of production through the material of paper and flat colour created a system that offered boundaries. As Michael Craig-Martin has said

ÔIt says much for Albers that he used the rigour of his pedagogic gifts not to promote a narrow and authoritarian dogma, but to lend authority to an idea of perception as fundamentally relativistic.Õ

Albers also taught that colour redefines itself continually not only by the interaction of colour with colour but through interaction with it''s material presentation. The interaction of the colour is supported by mix and edge and flatness and shine, by presentation. The gift of the painter is to represent colour and have the viewer change their awareness of it within the criteria set up by the painting.
All production is fundamental to reception.

We look at a work that offers a different production. With every new visual perception we begin to reassess all the things we have previously viewed. The ostensible baggage of past works, the history of painting, can be renegotiated with every new viably different work. Consequently artists must look and see how things are made. They need to understand not only, how other art is made but also to understand how their own work is made differently. They need to know how it is itself.
The exploration of colour cannot be detached from the material, the medium.

It has been vexing artists for some time that painting remains a centre for visual exploration. Victor Burgin called it Ô medieval Õ in his damning essay of the seventies. Most recently painting has had a return to being referred to as alchemy. Each new take on painting, decade on decade, seems to be significant to the way that we reference our attachment to the world. The use of video, photography, billboard or performance offers the artist the same formal considerations as paint. There is a primary act of production in painting. It can be so many things including medieval, commercial, convoluted or primeval, or it can be simply idiotic.
The eye likes paint.

The act of covering a surface with a colour can be done in many different ways. Children sometimes make a painting, and then liking the green or some other colour and allow it to flood all the other colours until the whole sheet is just a beautiful single but undulating colour.

Undulating colour makes the eye run with the movement of the production. A knitter runs out of wool and starts a new ball that is slightly different resulting from a different dye batch.
Change in colour can occur deliberately or as a result of need.

We know when we see cover being done systematically that there is the possibility of accident and when an accident occurs in a grid of marks that it could be deliberate. A machine can be handled deliberately to force accident or a machine may generate production badly creating accidents. These events are different to the judicious accident left by a painter, but we learn to perceive the intention of the painting in a similar way, we know the painter has a choice and a need. We decide in viewing it what the nature of that complex intention was and is.
The eye tries to work out what the material is doing.

We try to work out which colour was laid first and how it became what it is. We enjoy seeing a colour appear at one side of the canvas that has been carried through from the other side, secretly, underneath. The yellow is there, working away under the red, sometimes carrying the red or, sometimes not even making its presence known until suddenly there it is.
The history of a colour matters within the painting.

This activation of the way the colour is laid is spatial in a fundamental way, because it is linked to the act of production. When this performance is linked to an optical spatially disturbing occurrence, it becomes very exciting. A yellow pokes through a blue because of its nature or vice versa. It might be the colour value or the tone. It is similar to the way we may watch a performance of music where the different instruments take up positions in relation to the construction of the music and what is constructed layer on layer becomes a physical space to our hearing sense.
The colour determines how the mark can perform under different circumstances.

The implied speed of colour informs our reception of it. Those slow precise black, grey and white marks of an Agnes Martin grid perform so differently as colours to Motherwell''s rampant blacks and whites.
The mark determines how colour can perform under different circumstances.

In the same way musical sound is inextricably linked to the instrument, the material carrying its presence determines the performance of colour. The self-styled signature of the artist is their way of determining the kind of presence they wish the colour to hold. To select the kind of mark is to constrain your exploration inside a particular field of study. This study often reflects the character of the artist but the point of selection is made judiciously because they have or wish to enjoy that particular brand of intelligence.
To talk about colour one must also talk about its material presence.

Theories on colour mostly offer the scientific presentation in flat formal shapes. Yet for artists considering the thinking of artist teachers such as Albers, Itten and Klee, this understanding can only become real in front of their marks. Colour is not randomly subjective in its determined or received meaning it is offered intelligently. When Josef Albers used a palette knife to scrape his square in square in square works he was offering us an attitude, which we understand from the way the paint, offers the colour. They are so exciting to see in their carelessly, careful raw presence. This experimental attitude of Albers is not distantly scientific but subjectively explorative.

The lack of masking tape is great and so are the bits of board he used to work on.
This material feeds the colour to us.

It was good to read a reference to shine in David Bachelors ÔChromophobiaÕ. The surface of colour is not only part of the visual experience; it actually determines how we understand and relate to the colour. We notice it particularly with black because suddenly instead of absorbing it returns our image to us, it reflects. Painters worry about shine easing it into the movement of the colour, accepting and dealing with it when it happens unexpectedly.
Colour has to be dealt with mostly on the hoof.

When a painter experiments with colour it is a real activity. It is partly a theoretical process. It is partly an abstract process. The thinking, however, can only be done properly when it involves material and engages that part of the thinking process that deals with our understanding of the physical reality of colour held on both a material support and a transitory ray of light.
We can rejoice in a dissolving colour.

The use of colour is not removed from the process of touch, as we read the gesture held in the mark we replay the performance of making. We note the sticky aspect of the paint or it''s fluidity we judge how easily the mark was made what implement carried the colour, how the colour engaged with the support, what is revealed by the under colour, how it mixes and finally what it means. It becomes a referent for both itself and that which we have already experienced.
Paint strokes colour into both a political and a personal dimension.

We may be looking at a daffodil yellow yet be reflecting on fairground signs, dust and tatty display. The paint presents referents in the performance of the colour that operate with a myriad of reminders both personal and social. With the demise of the avant garde the reference to other art has, strangely, become less important than what they signified. They operated as significant of their time. The social beliefs they represented, the knowledge that had been acquired. These ideologies still stand as tokens of our past but are wrapped up in the blood, sweat and tears of our continuing development of a cultural context that surrounded and continues to surround those ideologies. It is these that we remake according to our present moral framework.
To be afraid of the dark.

The personal dimension helps us to resist the obvious it speaks to our imagination. We engage with what we are seeing in it''s own terms. The job of mass media is to repeat a way of seeing until it is accepted. The task of remaking, representing an image is a process of undoing, unmaking what has been accepted. Sometimes as in the case of the hybrid daffodil yellow fairground colour we can trace its system of framing our thinking, quite literally, sometimes we cannot. It could be that the lift of a colour against another simply gives us an extraordinary sense of the eye working with a dimension it desires. If the desire is produced by an image that is banal, regurgitated pastiche it is fetishistic. It gives pleasure by allowing our world to remain intact. It sublimates our desire for what is forbidden.
Hand made.

In a factory in China there is someone that makes my tools. There is a woman in India sewing a dress for me. There is a young man in South America making my shoes. Making by hand matters. We look and we see how it is made. The politics of it and our responsibility are held in the decisions made regarding production and reception. Fundamental to our perception of our selves particularly within a world where we allow our selves to be serviced by others, is looking at what we have made, for our selves.
When we see we make.

To engage with a coloured mark is to engage with our senses at both an intellectual and a subjective level. It is simple but offers the complex fears of isolated thought. Isolated by the criteria set up in the work and engaged with by the viewer. Wollheim refers to Ôseeing inÕ particularly with reference to figuration and the ability of the viewer to identify with a space, a character, a narrative. He is actually discussing the way we identify with a space created by coloured marks and us, a character created by coloured marks and us, and, a narrative set up by coloured marks and us.
Why we like snowstorms.

Colour can change the position of figure and ground. It can poke a hole, it can reverse our space, we can re-position our selves, fly above or sink below simply by looking. Light creates a similar disturbance of our world when it settles on coloured objects, including paintings. You can set a trap for it. Trapping the light.
Trapping the eye.

By studying the research into materials and methods by figures such as Max Doerner the painter can not only set traps but realise the importance of the materials that do the job for them.
Dirty colour.

Wonder in colour does not necessarily come from sublime blues and purity it can come out of dirty colours, badly dissolved colour, patched or flaky colour.
Convincing the eye.

All those stories of believing the unreal are built around the eye.
What is real and what is a trick of the eye, optical play. Authentic experience

Desire in Language Julia Kristeva Blackwell 1981
The Teaching of Josef Albers: A Personal Reminiscence. Cat. Josef Albers South Bank Centre 1994
The Absence of Presence Burgin V 1984
Chromophobia David Bachelor
Painting as an Art Wollheim R. 1987

Helen Baker