Colour is essential in a painting, being, perhaps the first thing a viewer experiences an intuitive response to, no matter whether it is a portrait, landscape, abstract, or still life. We choose colour schemes for our homes, we find colours which we are comfortable wearing, we select a colour for our car. Who has not been asked at some stage in their life what their favourite colour is?
Colour encapsulates certain associations. Pure and clean white, perfect for anew-born and traditionally used for wedding dresses, red for anger, blood and danger, green for fresh new growth and renewal, blue for calm and soothing water, yellow for bright and cheery sunshine. To some extent these are personal connections and will, of course, differ from person to person, but colour has been built into our psyche and language over generations.
Colour was utilised by even the very first cavemen artists, a combination of soil, chalk, charcoal and animal fat, producing a limited palette of reds, yellows, browns, black and white. In fact, up until the relatively present day (think the Impressionists and the advent of modern art in the mid-1800s) the production and creation of colour was a craft -form in it’s own right, a world of chemistry, mastery and, almost, an element of magic and wizardry. With mysterious and poetic names such as Cochineal, Lapis Lazuli, Vermillion, Dragon’s blood, Cobalt, Verdigris, Umber and Celadon, artists were required to source the pigments, often at great expense, and to possess the training and knowledge with which to mix those pigments with a binder in order to produce their paint. It is perhaps surprising to learn that colour choices within a painting were often made based on the expense of the raw pigment as opposed to it’s aesthetic value. For example, since Medieval times the Virgin Mary has been depicted wearing blue robes and this was due to the hefty price tag associated with Lapiz Lazuli, the gem stone used to make the distinctive colour. For hundreds of years the price of the stone rivalled even the price of gold, it being found only in Afghanistan. As paintings were only produced by artists for rich patrons or the Church, the use of Lapis Lazuli would indicate and symbolise the wealth of the owner of the completed work of art.
The same was true of Cochineal red, produced as it was from the crushed cochineal insect which could only be found on cacti in Mexico. Thus, it became sought after and revered as it was only available through import from the ‘New World’.
All this began to change in the mid-1800s with the development of easily transportable metal paint tubes. Up until that point, paint was made by mixing raw pigment with oil, before being stored in a pigs’ bladders. With the advent of tubes, paints could be purchased already made. Couple this with synthetic paints beginning to be produced commercially and a whole new world opened for artists. Colour became an element within a painting which could be experimented with, a tool with which to explore form and to create mood and express emotion. Modern Art was born.
A growing understanding of colour theory began to influence and assist in this new understanding and use of colour.
Whilst studying white light reflected off prisms, Issac Newton discovered that light reflected a spectrum of colours (a rainbow), and in 1704 he made the original Colour Wheel. It was Newton who developed the theory of the three primary colours – red yellow and blue, and that all other colour derived from these. From this point came a gradual understanding of contrasting and complimentary colours. Colours next to each other on the wheel would harmonise together, for example, red, yellow and orange, whereas those colours directly opposite each other would contrast, creating vibrancy and brightness. Whilst this is clearly something which earlier Medieval and Renaissance artists intuitively and instinctively grasped, the scientific knowledge opened the floodgates for experimentation with the formal elements of painting. Artists discovered and played with the concept that colours could create optical effect for the viewer, directing their eye and offering illusions of depth. It could stimulate the senses and emotions and it could add to the aesthetic value of a work of art. This growing understanding of colour and the development of new synthetic, easily transportable tubes allowed for the birth of art movements such as Impressionism, Cubism, Pointillism, Expressionism, Fauvism – the list goes on and on.
“Walking home at night from my first college, under the orange street lamps I couldn’t see any green in the grass. That first moment when I realised that nothing has colour other than what the light allows was literally an eye-opener for me.
All my working life, as a teacher and as a painter, colour has been very important to me. I am always surprised when people comment, as they frequently do, on the bright colours I use. But then to walk into our bright blue kitchen with tiles in no less than 29 colours I suppose they may have a point!” Mark Ward
“My pictures have to work formally. The product designer in me is creating an object, a slab on a wall that impacts on the surroundings in a formal way. This slab can be a single colour, even white, or be divided into areas or patterns. Patterns often relate to the subject.
I might choose the colour to go with the creatures, or vice versa. I use complementary, analogous, or whatever colours appear to work. I do spend a lot of time playing with coloured paper, a photocopier, and mixing paints. The choice of colours for creatures may be close to nature, as in the Pitta Birds and Bumbarrel, or playful as in Wrosy Wren and Flap Snap.
Despite the strong formal element to my work, that is only setting the stage for whatever little drama is taking place.” Mark Ward
As is clear from the paintings in ‘Still aLife’ colour plays a fundamental role in Mark’s work. Contrasting and complimentary tones perform a formal function, accentuating harmony and balance, aiding composition.
‘Wrosy Wren’ is a bright and vibrant painting utilising a restricted palette of pink, green, white and grey. The juicy, fresh green of the bird’s leg and wide-open beak marking an effective contrast with the predominately pink canvas. There is so much pink it positively buzzes in front of your eyes, and yet there is such a variety of shades – a magenta strip to the right, the neon pink directly behind the bird, the variations in the shadows with tones of white, red and grey. The bird’s eye resembles a wonderful, bright and shiny burgundy berry highlighted by the glorious white sweeping plumage. This tiny Wren is made fierce by the shadow it casts, the mysterious circle in the top left corner almost, in some optical illusory way, suggesting a giant observing eye. I love the notion of the tiny wee bird almost stomping it’s foot, shouting loudly, pretending through the magic and trickery of light to be colossal and terrifying.
If you are interested in colour and its history then I can highly recommend this book:
‘The Secret Lives of Colour’, Kassia St Claire