The history of colour is fascinating not only because of the surprising materials used to create the pigments but also the personal journeys made by artists in their pursuit of new hues. Ultramarine blue for instance, which comes from lapis lazuli, a gemstone that for centuries could only be found in a single mountain range in Afghanistan, was as coveted as gold upon its discovery. An easy summarisation of how many contemporary artists came to use colour in a more dynamic and less descriptive or naturalistic way can be found in a quote from Henri Matisse who famously said “When I put down green it doesn’t mean grass, and when I put down blue it doesn’t mean sky”.
Scientifically speaking, to understand colour, it is necessary to understand light. Visible light to the human eye is subdivided into seven major colours—red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. The objective components of colour are a source of radiant energy, like the sun or a light bulb and a medium through which energy travels. The psychology behind colours states that warm colours such as red, yellow and orange, can spark a variety of emotions such as comfort and warmth while cool colours, such as green, blue and purple, often spark feelings of calmness. How we perceive colours can depend on whether an artist has set out to create harmony within a painting, stark contrasts, a unity, or even a rhythm or motion.
While the source of colour inspiration maybe from observation of nature either consciously or subconsciously, the artists in this exhibition all have a very different approach to colour. Making colour, whether developing it in overlapping layers or building the pigments from scratch as Jane Goodwin does is a sort of alchemy. Painting with a restricted palette of three blues, colour is the pulse of her painting, both an energising and life-giving force. Lydia’s Mammes is a colourist with an entirely different approach. Through careful transparent layering of diverse tones and hues she creates floating fields of colour that can radiate both energy and a meditative calmness depending on how the light falls on them.
Filtered through memory and imagination, Cecile van Hanja’s tropical shades that fill some of her architectural compositions with light and warmth, perhaps are a sub-conscious nod to her childhood spent in Corsica. When she is working she goes out into urban spaces, photographs architecture and the transforms those images into paintings, altering colour, light and atmosphere. Roy Osborne’s paintings come from an entirely theoretical standpoint. Having written countless books and lectured all over the world on colour theory, Roy’s paintings are informed and meticulously precise. In them we see how the simplest of forms can, when arranged according to certain scientific principles of colour, create a sense of movement and rhythm, and an optical illusion of depth and space.
In the purest tradition of abstract painting we also have artists like Bernd Mechler, who empties out his canvases of any objects in order to focus on the rhythm and motion of colour. His use of colour is highly sensory with multiple layers of alternating dark and bright tones, energised by planes of intense colour with intervals of softer more atmospheric pastel shades. And Lars Rylander who walks around the canvas and whimsically but harmoniously composes a lyrical arrangement of colourful forms abstracted from the nature around him in his native Sweden. Or Michael Luther with his sublime ‘colour landscapes’, which although are absent of any recognisable subject matter, are driven by a focus on the process of painting itself and the rich, fluid brushwork.
So many of us are afraid of colour, but these artists allow us to dive in to a whole brighter, fresher world. Ultimately the role of colour in our lives is neatly summarised in the words of Christopher Le Brun, president of the Royal Academy: “colour is the medium in which we swim”.