Playful fancies as a stimulus to creativity

Having fun with creativity

The last but one chapter in my book “Fresh Perspectives on Creativity” illustrates how indulging in playful fancies can stimulate creativity. The chapter as a whole has been described by a friend as “very Postmodernist” and is by far the longest in the book. It demonstrates how even the silliest ideas can spark a ragbag of speculations and, thereby, lead along unimagined routes, to all sorts of thoughts, in all sorts of domains. In this chapter, some of the ideas turned out to be a bit frivolous, but all of them have an underpinning seriousness, and all lead on to another batch of speculations.

Right-minded or wrongheaded

The title of the chapter is “Having fun with creativity”. In it I let my hair down and enjoy playing with ideas from a wide variety of domains. Many of them have direct relevance to creativity in drawing and painting, while many others stray into a multiplicity of other disciplines, including scientific and philosophical ones. The point being made is that, whatever the long term focus of interest, it is difficult to be sure which of these could be of relevance to the current domain of interest  For example, whether right-minded or wrongheaded, or whether in the realms of science, philosophy or anecdote, a great deal of what is to be found in this chapter could turn out to have an analogous relation to the making of drawings or paintings as did:

  • The Neoplatonist ideas that were so important to Michelangelo and Paul Cézanne.
  • The Theosophical beliefs had such an influence in the work of Piet Mondrian and Wassily Kandinsky.
  • The science-based propositions that inspired Piero della Francesca and Michael Kidner.

In all cases, except perhaps that of Piero della Francesca, with his interest in the more arcane aspects of linear perspective, the origin of the ideas lay in philosophical speculation, rather than in artistic production, but how creatively they were used by the different artists and how difficult to imagine the same ideas coming out in such different works of art.

playful fancies
Michelangelo and Cezanne, both seeking to get below the ephemeral surface of appearances

 

playful fancies
Wassily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian, both following the ideas of Mme Blavatsky

 

playful fancies
Piero della Francesca and Michael Kidner both obsessed with mathematics

A not very serious suggestion

I start my chapter with a not very serious suggestion. I deliberately chose this evidently silly idea because one of the key propositions of this book is that almost any point of departure, no matter how trivial, misguided or crackbrain, has the potential to lead to significant creativity. My belief is that as long as it is followed up with serious intent, with an open mind and with a good dose of positive motivation, it can lead by one route or another, however circuitous, to interesting new ideas and creative actions. When I chose to start the chapter with a lighthearted youthful fancy that I could never have taken seriously, I had little idea where it would end up. But I decided to put my trust in it and see where it would take me. In the event, it proved to be a catalyst to all the other ideas in the remainder of the chapter, some of which I have already Posted (for example, The story of the potato” and “On being a On being a Flat-Earther”)

The silly idea

As an adolescent and young adult I spent an inordinate amount of time listening to opera records. Among them was Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg“, and I remember an idle fancy relating to this particular work that gave me a frisson of lighthearted pleasure. It was based on the kind of extremely improbable idea that can pop into my head in moments of relaxed reverie and spark playful mind games. It started with my admiration for anyone who could have the degree of self-assurance necessary for conceiving a plot which hinges on reaching a climax with a song to excel all songs with its perfection, uniting the old and the new in perfect harmony (“The Prize Song” ).

Although it must be every composer’s dream to finish with something extra special, what caught my youthful  imagination was the sheer bravado of making explicit the intention of finishing up with “perfection”, and to do so from so early on in the story. As someone with a taste for lighthearted idea-games, building on the proposition that the prize song represented the composer’s idea of the very best, I imagined Wagner determining to keep this perfection in reserve and hold his audience’s attention with over three hours of deliberately less-than-perfect music.

Giving playful credence to such not-to-be-taken-too-seriously possibilities is of the essence of the seemingly inconsequential, but very enjoyable “private pleasures” of the imagination, which seem to bubble up as part of the creative process, and which so often turn out to have the capacity to animate it in interesting directions. Lighthearted idea-games can push us into unexpected reveries and stimulating speculations.

Deliberate imperfection

Thus, the not very serious possibility that Wagner might have written second-class music on purpose can lead naturally to thoughts about definitions of “good” and “bad”, and from there, both to the medieval wood sculptors, whose work adorns so many of our cathedrals, churches and public buildings, and to the Middle Eastern carpet makers.

I realise that these two subjects might not be ones that would jump to everybody’s mind. But that is grist to the mill of the argument I have been making throughout this book, namely that it is the uniqueness of each individual’s reaction that pushes ideas in a maximum of different directions, thus increasing the possibilities for the evolution of the sum of human creative thought.

I learnt about the wood carver’s, along with my lesson about the truth, from, my medieval history tutor, Bruce McFarlane. Apparently, prospective buyers could go to a workshop and demand a first, second or third class production and these supreme professionals had neither qualms nor aesthetic problems in obliging their customers accordingly (at first, second or third class prices).

The case of the carpet makers is more generally known. Their Islamic convictions insist that they must always leave a flaw in their handiwork, so as not to compete with the perfection only attainable by the Almighty. But, hold on a moment, doesn’t the very fact of considering themselves capable of choosing imperfection imply the very knowledge of the perfection which their contrivance is intended to deny? Surely the All Knowing One would see through their ruse and condemn them for their double-bluff pride?

Nor is that the end of the matter for some theorists proclaim aesthetic virtue in imperfection. For example, it is not easy to explain why a blemish on a woman’s face should set off her beauty, but, in the past, there have been poets and the fashion houses a plenty, who have made much of the belief that it does. If they are right, where does that leave the Islamic carpet makers? Could it mean that the flawed pattern may be more beautiful than their idea of the perfect one and the flaw be the very reverse of a defect? One can only speculate as to what Allah might think of such a possibility. And, remember “Les Incohérents“, who proposed that what had hitherto been widely accepted as “bad” might actually be “good”. It would seem that the more the imagination is allowed to wander, the more confusing and, at the same time, the more intriguing the situation becomes.

More playful fancies

With these thoughts in mind, it is time to move on to insights from Antoni Tàpies, who also advocates playful fancies. But for that we shall have to wait for a later Post which starts with an extract from one of his writings.

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Traditional artistic practices

In furtherance of my project publishing chapters from my books, we now come to a chapter on traditional artistic practices. Its title is “The Renaissance and the Academic Method”. To understand how it fits into the structure of “Drawing with Both Sides of the Brain”, please go to the POSTSCRIPT below. To read the chapter just click on “TRADITIONAL PRACTICES” on the line below.

TRADITIONAL PRACTICES

Some illustrations of traditional artistic practices

As you will see the chapter is richly illustrated: The four images below show either the traditional artistic practices in action or their fruits. The first two give a foretaste of the use of essentially mechanical devices, while the second two illustrate the advantage of a having a comprehensive knowledge of anatomy and linear perspective respectively.

 

traditional artistic practices
Woodcut by Albrecht Durer showing a device for making an accurate drawing of a lute.

 

traditional artistic practices
A print from 1887 showing a camera obscura

 

traditional artistic practices
Anatomical drawing by Leonardo da Vinci

 

traditional artistic practices
The flagellation of Christ by Piero della Franscesca

 

POSTSCRIPT

This chapter is from “Drawing on Both Sides of the Brain”, which is divided into two BOOKS.

  • BOOK ONEDrawing with Feeling” and
  • BOOK TWO, “Drawing with Knowledge“.

Each book is divided into several parts. Thus BOOK ONE, to which contains the chapter to which this post is devoted, is divided into three parts:

  • Part 1, “Objectives“.
  • Part 2, “Established practices“.
  • Part 3The new drawing lesson“.

The Chapter found in this post is BOOK ONE, Part 2, Chapter 2. It follows the sole chapter from Part 1 which has already been posted and can be obtained by clicking on its title below:

In the coming weeks and months other chapters from BOOK ONE, Part 2 will be posted as .PDF files.

  • Chapter 3: The arrival of Modernist teaching methods,
  • Chapter 4: The sketch as a link between old ways and new.
  • Chapter 5: Negative shapes.
  • Chapter 6: Contour drawing.
  • Chapter 7: Photographs.
  • Chapter 8: Movement, speed and memory.

Following these chapters, comes  PAR T 3, which can be described as “the hub of the book”. It consists of three chapters devoted to my  “feeling based drawing lesson“.  These describe the drawing process in considerable depth, before embarking on my drawing lesson with its host of innovatory suggestions.

Also, I will be posting other chapters and extracts on the theme of drawing. These are from BOOK 2, “Drawing with Knowledge” and they will provide a raft of new perspectives on linear perspective and human anatomy.

 

List of Posts relating to “Drawing on Both Sides of the Brain”

 

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My books on drawing and painting

Why my books are needed?

Two quotations from students who have come on my courses at the Painting School of Montmiral indicate why there is a need for my books on drawing and painting. The first talks of, “a very different and vastly more interesting type of artistic education than I have met before” (Yolande Hart). The second goes into greater detail, explaining that, “This course, with its reference to proven research and with the patient explanations of its implications with respect to how the brain receives and interprets information provides a fundamentally sound approach commonly lacking in other courses and literature” (Iain McCowan).

traditional practices
Ian McCowan presenting his drawing of the butcher’s shop to the butcher

 

Other comments on the uniqueness and efficacy of the methods I use in my teaching can be found on the “Comments” page of the Painting School website. Over 200 examples of student work can be found on the Student Work page

The limitations of existing books

At the end of a course, students often ask me to recommend books to read that will help them reinforce the new ideas to which they have been exposed. The explanation as to why I have found it difficult to give them a satisfactory answer is the same as the reason I seized an opportunity to do research at the University of Stirling in Scotland. Before arriving at this turning point in my life as an artist, an important part of my time had been devoted to teaching drawing and painting. Despite enjoying my work and although my approach was clearly appreciated by my students, I always felt that there must be some better ways of helping them. In my efforts to improve matters, I tried out a variety of the practices recommended in books, including most of the ideas later to be popularised by Betty Edwards in “Drawing with the Right Side of the Brain”. I found that most of these helped up to a point, sometimes spectacularly so. The problem was that there were always important reasons for wanting to go beyond that point. I also used ideas coming from the Psychologists of Perception, that centred on their concept of “schemas” and the way these influenced both looking and doing strategies. Again, they helped to some extent, but left too many questions unanswered.

An opportunity to learn more

At the University of Stirling, I found myself gifted with the opportunity to do ten years of fundamental research into different aspects of how artists use their eyes when drawing and painting, It was during this time that, with the invaluable encouragement and help from colleagues, I was able to find convincing answers, not only to most of the questions I had brought with me but also to many others that emerged with the passage of time. In the process, I learnt a lot about reasons for the strengths and limitations of practices that are routinely recommended in how-to-do it painting and drawing books. Evidently, my new knowledge indicated a need for updating or replacing a surprising number of ideas that had previously been taken as fundamental truths. An additional, and quite unexpected spin-off of the research was the discovery of a rich vein of information relating to the birth and early development of Modernism in Painting.

In short, for a whole bunch of reasons, while at Stirling, I found myself being more and more excited by what I came to experience as a bubbling fountain of new ideas. So confident was I that I took the step of setting up my summer school in S.W. France as a way of both sharing and testing them. When it came to teaching students, the use of the new knowledge both confirmed its validity and enabled me to expand it further. I must admit that I felt exhilarated by how well everything seemed to be going in both practice and theory. The subject matter that was later to provide the substance of my books was accumulating.

A lone voice finds a soul mate

The only problem was that, when I looked at what other people had written on the theory and practice of drawing and painting, I had to face the fact that I had was a lone voice crying in a wilderness: I found myself wanting to point out shortcomings in every book I read. Nor did anything change very much  for a long time. Indeed it was to be more than twenty-five years before, totally unexpectedly, I came across intriguing references to the nineteenth century teacher Horace Lecoq Boisbaudran (1802-1897), formerly Director of  the “École spéciale de dessin et de mathématiques” in Paris.

Rodin fast drawings for my books
Two fast drawings by Auguste Rodin

 

What led me to this little known, but hugely influential figure was the discovery that Auguste Rodin, whose rapid and expressive drawings I had for long admired, was one of his students and a lifelong advocate of his ideas.* I also learnt that Lecoq Boisbaudran was a hard taskmaster. Later, when at last I came across his writings. I was amazed at how much there was in common between his attitudes, ideas and teaching methods and mine.

How Lecoq Boisbaudran came to write his book

One of the things we had in common was that both of us hesitated before committing ourselves to the task of writing our books. Another was that we were both were urged on by our students. in a Preface to one of his writings Lecoq Boisbaudran recounted how his ones had prevailed on him to set down his ideas . He told how when they put pressure on him to publish what they described as his “true method”, his first response focused on the word “true”:

“The ‘true’ one! That is far too exclusive a word. There is not and can never be only one method. Every sensible teacher should have full liberty to construct his own method, provided always that he bases it on upon true principles and rational deductions.”

But these salutary words, with which I completely agree, did not deter his students who pushed their argument further, saying:

“If the poorness of contemporary teaching is due to a general ignorance of principles and if you believe yourself to possess the required principles, it is your duty to make them known, and to spread them abroad.”

My students likewise have encouraged me to publish my “true principles and rational deductions” and they have done so for much the same reasons as the students of Lecoq Boisbaudran. And, like him, I allowed myself to be convinced that I should “make known” and “spread abroad” the ideas I teach. In other words I was persuaded to write my books.

What we have in common

So what else do we have in common? At the general level, we share three priorities, namely to:

  • Help students develop their individuality.
  • Emphasise the importance of training the memory.
  • Explain why, contrary, not only to the beliefs of many but also to what might seem to be the dictates of logic, the aspiration to achieve accuracy in drawing from observation provides a particularly effective preparation for those who wish to free themselves from the straitjacket of habit and explore new ways of seeing and doing.

Also, there are many similarities in the details of our different methods . For example, we share a belief in the effectiveness of rigour as a learning tool.

Need to update

However there are also substantial differences in the details of the two methods and in their underpinning ideas-base. This is because in the more than one hundred and fifty years since Lecoq Boisbaudran published his first book, significant developments have taken place in the knowledge available both in the domains of visual perception and in the neurophysiology of eye/brain function. Because of these, there is a need to update the “true principles” and the “rational deductions” of which the pupils of Horace Lecoq Boisbaudran spoke.

The purpose of my books is to meet this need for updating the contents of books on the practice of drawing and painting in the light of modern research. More specifically, it is to make use of the new knowledge to provide useful modifications and practical alternatives to widely taught artistic practices.

*His enthusiasm is evident from the letter to M Luard, the editor of a 2013 edition of Lecoq Boisbaudran’s writings. M Luard placed it on the first page after the title. In this letter Rodin wrote of Lecoq Boisbaudran’s teaching: “The greater part of what he taught me stays with me still. I very much wish that every young artist could profit from his teaching and I strongly advise you to circulate his ideas by means of a new edition of his writings.”

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How reliable are my “truths”?

The nature of “truths”

When, as a young man, I went to university to study history, I was fortunate to have as one of my my tutors K.B McFarlane, who has been described as the most influential Medieval historian of the 20th century. Of the many things he taught me, perhaps the most enduring concerned the nature of “truths”.

In the course of a general conversation on essay writing, I confessed my horror at the idea of committing anything half-baked to paper and deplored the unenviable predicament in which this placed me. As a raw undergraduate under constant time pressure (two essays a week and an analysis of a constitutional document), I felt there to be no possibility of fitting in the research necessary for providing satisfactory answers to the essay questions that I was being given. My tutor seemed surprised. He said that this was a problem that had only caught up with him in later life (possibly explaining his growing reluctance to publish his own work). He then told me that when he was a student, a number of his contemporaries, being primarily interested in non-academic aspects of university life, left themselves too little time for their studies. To help these fun-loving friends with their logistic problem, the precocious undergraduate had offered to write their essays for them.

When he did so, he quite frequently found himself faced with having to produce more than one answer to the same question. To make life more interesting, he challenged himself to make the arguments used in the different essays as unlike one another as he reasonably could within the constraints provided by the “facts” at his disposal. I felt, “how marvelous to be free to generate different and, even, incompatible “truths” from the same material, how instructive, how creative and how salutary.”

truths from KB McFarlane
K.B. McFarlane

A liberation

It was a profound turning point in my intellectual life. This open-minded approach to the nature of “truths” enabled me to have a much more relaxed attitude to making sense of historical events. Ever since, I have ceased to regard the aim of the historian as presenting irrefutable conclusions, based on unambiguous evidence. Now, I take pleasure in looking for alternative ways of making sense out of the material at my disposal.

This game-playing attitude to the nature of “truths” has been of great value in the evolution of the ideas presented in my books on painting, drawing and creativity. Among other things, it has influenced the way I have told the story of Modernism in Painting, which plays an important role in all of them.

My understanding of this subject was hugely influenced by my two main art teachers, Marian Bohusz-Szyszko and Michael Kidner. It was they who gifted me the issues and ideas that set me on my personal journey of discovery. Hardly surprisingly, their selections of “facts”, and the interpretations they based on them, related to their personal history of concerns as artists. This is probably why, the stories they told were so different in their selection and interpretation of content, from those presented by art historians and critics.  Presumably, it is also why I have been unable to find some of the “truths” they communicated in the writings of others.

Was what my teachers taught me true?

Two of the now inaccessible sources upon which I built my life both as an artist and as a teacher were:

  • The dogmas of Marian Bohusz-Szyszko, which, according to him, embodied, “all you need to know about painting”.
  • The account of the origins of American Abstract Expressionism given to me by Michael Kidner, which focused on the value of what he termed the “propositional approach”.*

Both were the products of attempts to abstract an essence from complex issues. Both have the virtue of presenting an easy-to-follow blend of simplicity and a clarity. However, it seems that these desirably qualities could only come at the expense of nuancing, or even of suppressing, potentially contradictory detail. Accordingly, the question arises as to whether what was lost in the synthesising process diminishes the value of what was gained.

truths from Maian Bohusz-Szyszko
Professor Bohusz-Szyszko
truths from Michael Kidner
Michael Kidner RA

Does it matter what their simplifications leave out?

In my case, there were two reasons why the answer to this question turned out to be “no”. The first was that the simplifications proved to be enormously helpful when I applied them in practice. Right or wrong, what they did for me was to provide clear route maps to follow. These not only opened up new ways of thinking about paintings but also, quite as significantly, new ways of feeling about them.

The second reason was more a matter of my personality. I have to admit that I am temperamentally unsuited to following route maps blindly: There was always a part of me that thought of my paintings as tests of my teacher’s beliefs. In other words, I could not help thinking of them as experiments.** My luck lay in the number of fruitful questions that these generated and the richness of the material that was revealed in the course of my attempts to find answers to them. As it turned out, the research that these triggered led me to delve into a wide range of sources of which the most important were:

  • Books on the practice of painting and drawing.
  • The history of the ideas of artists and art teachers.
  • The science of visual perception.

What I found led me to frequent questioning of widely accepted norms. I was shocked by number of accredited “facts” I came across that turned out to be either misleading or simply untrue, not least among them ones that claimed to have scientific backing.

Can my truths be trusted?

Faced with this predicament, I felt compelled to look for more reliable “truths” and over the years I am confident that I have done so. However, two questions arise:

  • Can my alternative “truths” can be trusted?
  • Are they are of practical use.

My attempts at comprehensive answers to these questions provide the main subject matter of my teaching and my writings. In my books, as well as explaining some of the numerous ways they can be of practical use, I give substantial evidence as to why they can be trusted. I have already begun the process of sharing some of this with readers of my Posts, such as the ones on The Venetian Colourists and Colour in Painting.  And, I intend to add many more in the coming weeks and months.

* I intend to elaborate on the “propositional approach” in a later Post that will discuss Michael’s work and ideas.

** Also in a later Post, I intend to submit a Post on the “Art/Science debate”. In this I quote John Constable as saying: “Painting is a science, and should be pursued as an enquiry into the laws of nature. Why then should not painting be regarded as a branch of natural philosophy, of which the pictures are the experiments?”

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Early Modernists

Defining “Early Modernists”

In later posts, the subject of “Modernism” is discussed with special reference to its place in the history of painting. One conclusion that emerges is that “Modernism in Painting” has a very different history to other “Modernisms”. For example, despite all they have in common, it is significantly different from either Modernism in Literature or Modernism in Architecture. For this reason, in my books, where others might write “Early Modernists”, I use “Early Modernist Painters”.

Early Modernist Painters

The purpose of this Post is to share with you Chapter 6  of my book “Painting with Light and Colour”. In it I outline the social, economic, scientific and artistic context from which the Early Modernist Painters emerged. I also give plenty of reasons why Modernism in Painting is different from Modernism in other disciplines. To access what I have written about all this and more, please click on the link below.

CHAPTER SIX : EARLY MODERNIST PAINTERS

Some examples of Early Modernist paintings

To give some visual context to what I have written, please scroll down to the nine images below of the work of some key Early Modernist Painters. Notice that these include:

  • Eduard Manet, Berthe Morisot, Claude Monet and Paul Cézanne from the first generation, all of whom knew each other well from meetings in the home of Berthe Morisot and/or the Café Guerbois where they were joined by Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas and Henri Fantin-Latour (a student of the influential teacher Horace Lecoq Boisbaudran).
  • Emile Bernard, Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec who, in 1886, met in the studio of Fernand Cormon and remained lifelong friends. Not long afterwards, they were joined by John Peter Russel the Australian artist. His importance to them and others was that, via the teaching of Alphonse Legros, he provided a link with Horace Lecoq Boisbaudran and his ideas on painting from memory.
  • Paul Gauguin who, with Emile Bernard, was co-founder of the the Pont-Aven School.  Gauguin also had links with Pissaro, Cézanne and Van Gogh, with whom he spent time in Arles.

Something to keep in mind when you scroll down to the images

We all know that reproductions of paintings whether in books or on websites are very different from the originals when we see them in galleries. However, what is less widely appreciated is the degree of difference between the paintings as they are now and the same paintings when first exhibited.  Thus, among the Early Modernists, Van Gogh used fugitive reds when mixing purples, with the result that the many purples he made by mixing reds with blues now appear as blues.

But the paintings that suffer the most are those of Seurat. The main reason for this is his extensive use of chemically unstable zinc yellows that have since turned brown. Because Seurat’s theory meant that most of the colours he used had to be, at least in part, mixtures between adjacent colours on the colour circle, these yellows occur in virtually all the greens, yellows and oranges in many of his paintings. The result has been catastrophic changes in appearances.

No wonder it is often difficult to fully connect what we see in some of Seurat’s pointillist paintings (for example, the one found below) with the contemporary descriptions of the excitements produced by the Pointillist method, such as those we find in the writings of Felix Fénéon, the admiring contemporary critic. For example, he writes:

  • “A pigment-based hue is weak and drab compared to a hue born of optical mixture: the latter, mysteriously vivified by a perpetual process of recombination, shimmers, elastic, opulent, lustrous” .
  • “The multicoloured specks melt into undulant, luminous masses”.
  • “The technique vanishes and the eye is no longer attracted by anything but that which is essentially painting” (incidentally, one of the first descriptions of paintings described in purely abstract terms).

While acknowledging the many admirable qualities of Seurat’s paintings as they appear to us today, these comments would now seem a bit over the top.

For more on Seurat’s mould-breaking ideas, see my POST on the Venetian Colourists  and in future Posts.

The nine images by Early Modernists

Early Modernists - Painting by Manet

An early Modernist painting by Manet, whom many consider to be the Father Figure of the Early Modernist Painters

Early Modernists - painting by Berthe Morisot

Berthe Morisot – woman and child in meadow at Bougival

Early Modernists - painting by Monet

Monet – Woman with Umbrella

Early Modernists - Painitng by Seurat

Georges Seurat – Bridge at Courbevoie

Early Modernists - Painting by Gauguin

Emile Bernard – Breton Women

Early Modernists - Painting by Van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh – Starry Night

Early Modernists - Painting by Toulouse-Lautrec

Toulouse – Lautrec – Portrait of Jane Avril

Early Modernists - Painting by Gauguin

Paul Gauguin – Manao Tupapau

Early Modernists - Painting by Cézanne

Paul Cézanne – Portrait of Hortense his wife

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Colourists : different meanings of the word

Colourists in 20th century art

A colourist can be defined as artists who give priority to the creation of colour-based experiences in their paintings. The problem is that it can be used in significantly different ways. In two Posts I suggest two approaches to the unraveling  the consequent ambiguities. This post contrasts the very different meanings of the word for three particular 20th century painters who have been described as colourists. The second Post will analyse its meaning when used in the phrase “Venetian Colourists”.

First approach: Three distinct types of colourist compared

I had two artist teachers who described themselves as colourists. One was interested in whole-field colour relations and the other in local colour-contrast effects. Both represented widely accepted meanings of the word.

  • Marian Bohusz-Szyszko, the Polish artist, teacher and mathematician, thought in terms of a multiplicity of colours (in principle many hundreds of thousands) and, more precisely, the effect of each and every colour on the picture surface on each and every other colour on it.
  • Michael Kidner, the English “Systems Painter”, thought in terms of a very limited number of colours (for example, two, three or four) and was principally interested either in local interactions between them or in their denotative function in his systems.

A well known American artist, had different ideas:

  • Ellsworth Kelly felt that both of the approaches to colour just described divert attention from the experience of colour as itself. He came to the conclusion that the only way of providing a pure experience of colour was to cover the entire surface of a painting with a single colour.

But these are only three examples and many other possibilities exist. For instance, I have met artists and viewers who seem to think that producing more or less any array of what they consider to be colourful colours qualifies them as colourists, no matter how garish and discordant the results appear to the eyes of others.

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Venetian Colourists

Defining “Venetian Colourists”

In a previous Post, I compared three 20th Century artists who have been described as “colourists”, and who had very different ideas on the place of colour in painting. I also suggested that these were only three among many possibilities.

In this second Post, I comment on the meaning art historians’ give the word “colourist” when writing about two different groups of pioneer artists,  one that flourished in the  the Italian Renaissance and the other that overturned all sorts of preconceptions in the last part of the nineteenth century.  The two groups are:

  • The Venetian Colourists (Giovanni Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, Tintoretto, etc.) and other, later artists, who kept within the same tradition (Vermeer, Turner, etc.).
  • The Modernist Painter Colourists of the late nineteenth century (Cézanne, Gauguin, etc) and early twentieth century (Matisse, Bonnard, etc.).

Why Venetians Colourists were not colourists in the sense of the word as used to describe Modernist Painter Colourists

At the time of the Italian Renaissance contemporary commentators were claiming the superiority of Venetian artists in the domain of what they characterised as colour, while giving the laurels to Florentine artists in matters of drawing. However, when we examine what they meant by the word “colour” in this context, we find that it was more about the range and subtlety of lightness relations (“Chiaroscuro”) than about colour in the Modernist Painter sense. For these later artists the word “colour” meant combinations of hue, saturation, lightness and texture.

One way of describing the uniqueness of the Venetian Colourists is to say that they were well on the way to making paintings according to a rule which says that “no two regions of colour in nature are of the same lightness”, and that by following it when depicting whole-field lightness relations, they were achieving new levels with respect to creating subtle effects of space and light. This being the case, it would be more accurate to call them the “Venetian Lightists”.

Actually, the Venetian Colourists used colour in the same way as did the Florentines

Although it cannot be denied that, on occasion, some Venetian Colourists  produced extremely subtle and sensuously beautiful colour effects by using sophisticated glazing techniques (Titian was reputed to have used up to 30 glazes), they were by no means unique in this respect. In fact, the main use of different pigment colours in their paintings was the same as for the Florentines and probably every artist before them, namely denotatively, as a means of distinguishing surfaces, materials and object-types from one another.

colourists -titian madonna
Titian : “Madonna and Chilld” – an example of subtle use of glazing using red underlay.

It is also relevant to point out that Italian Renaissance painters as a whole used very restricted palettes. Although they contained a good selection of earth colours (ochres, earth reds, browns, etc) they were severely limited in other parts of colour space. In particular, they had very few more fully saturated pigment colours.  It is also significant that they seldom  made use of paint mixtures containing complementary colours, except when, on occasion, they created them by glazing one colour on top of another, as in the case of the dress of the Virgin Mary in the “Madonna and Child” by Titian illustrated above.

Venetian Lightists versus Modernist Colourists

In contrast to their predecessors, Modernist Colourists, like Cézanne, Gauguin and Bonnard, extended the rule of non-repetition in nature to include all dimensions of colour (hue, saturation and lightness and texture). Accordingly, their rule became “no two regions of colour in nature are ever the same”. Also, to achieve the consequent variety and for reasons explained below, they made extensive use of paint mixtures containing complementary colours.*

Pierre Bonnard – a painting that illustrates a mixture of complementaries in all colours used.

A new conception of the use of colour in painting

There were several reasons for this watershed development. All related to the new understandings of colour coming as a result of the paradigm shift that occurred when the scientists’ of visual perception realised that colour is not a property of surfaces in the eternal world, as we all experience it, but a creation of the eye/brain taking place inside the head.

The key figure in the process of  updating the Venetian Colourists’ approach to painting light was Georges Seurat, and it was his notion of “painting with light” that set the ball rolling. In arriving at this unprecedented idea, he was inspired by a diagram along the lines of the one below, which he found in a physics book. What inspired him was what the diagram told him about the white light that reflects from surfaces, without changing its wavelength composition (the black arrows). He saw that, if he wanted to represent this reflected light, he would have to characterise the fact that white light always contains the full gamut of wavelengths. It was this realisation that led him to his “Pointillist” method.

Venetian colourists
The diagram that inspired Seurat. It shows a beam of light: (1) reflecting off a surface and (2) entering into it and interacting with pigments found inside, such that some of its wavelengths are absorbed before the remainder are scattered back out again.

At the core Seurat’s theorising was the related facts that all three primaries are necessary to create white and that complementary pairs always contain all three primaries (for example, the complementary pairs blue + orange, green + red and yellow + violet will always be composed of blue + yellow+ red) and . This being the case, he came to the conclusion that he could create effects due to the light reflecting directly back  from surfaces by including adjacent complementaries within dot clusters. He speculated that, if the dots were sufficiently small and closely grouped, they could be made to blend optically into one colour when viewed from a given picture-viewing position (Pissarro suggested a distance of two and a half times the picture height). When he tried out his idea he found that he could produce the wonderfully luminous effects that so excited the critic Félix Fénéon (to a large extent lost to us because the colours Seurat used, particularly the yellows, have changed significantly due to their instability exacerbated by the passage of time).

Later artists such as Cézanne and Bonnard, discovered that they did not need all those dots for they could produce the same kind of luminosity if they followed the rule of ensuring that some component of complementary was mixed into every colour situated on the picture surface.** In combination with the new understanding that among the manifestations of the fact that colour is made in the head is its local and whole-field context-sensitivity (the reasons for Colour-Contrast and Colour-Constancy effects and much more), this all inclusive approach was a main factor in the explosion of colourfulness in paintings associated with the Modernist Painters.

In summary, the word “Colourist” when applied to the Venetian Colourists and the inheritors of their ideas, such as Vermeer, Rembrandt, Velasquez, Goya,  Turner, etc., has a significantly different meaning to the one it has when it is applied to Cézanne, Gauguin, Matisse or Bonnard. The consequent difference in appearance should be evident to anyone who compares their works. It also helps us to understand why 1886, the year Seurat exhibited “La Grande Jatte”, is one of the most significant dates in art history.***

colourists van Gogh experiments building on to pointillism
L’Italienne” 1887: Shows Van Gogh’s experiments with ideas coming from Pointillism

 

* For more on the rule and the admixture of complementaries, see the first chapter of my book “Painting with Light and Colour.

**The dots are still there in the form of pigment particles, but they are now imperceptible to the conscious eye.

*** Another reason why 1886 was an “annus mirabilis” in the history of painting was that it was the year that Vincent van Vogh joined Emile Bernard,  Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and John Peter Russell (see post on Horace Lecoq Boisbaudran) as students in the studio of Fernand Cormon. All three of these key pioneers of Modern Art were experimenting with ideas coming from Pointillism before the year was out.

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Colour in painting

How important is colour?

For this Post I attach the first  chapter of my book “Painting with Light and Colour“. Its title is “All you need to know about painting“, which was an assertion made to me, during the first weeks of my life as an artist, by the Polish artist, teacher and mathematician, Professor Marian Bohusz-Szyszko. This fount of knowledge on European art went on to tell me, with equal conviction, that “all good painting is based on colour” and that “the use of colour in painting should be based on colour in nature”. The importance to me of these two dogmatic propositions with the elaborations and explanations he added, when combined with a third that he made at the same time, can hardly be exaggerated, for they provided a basis for my life’s work, not only as an artist and teacher but also as a scientist.

The reason why, what I now refer to as, “The Dogmas of Marian Bohusz-Szyszko” were to prove to be so fruitful, related to their origins in his personal synthesis of ideas that critically influenced his predecessors.  Particularly important among these were Seurat, Cézanne and Bonnard (Bohusz-Szyszko’s mentor). Also important was the fact that these artists and their Modernist Painter contemporaries were so importantly influenced by the revolution in the science of visual perception that took place in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

This watershed for scientists and artists alike followed upon the realisation that the colour we see in the external world is not a property of surfaces but a creation of the eye and brain, based on inputs from the amazingly complex patterns of the colourless electromagnetic energy that enters the eyes. From this starting point came realisations about “induced colour” in its various fascinating manifestations. As part of the same revolution came the ideas about the three primaries and optical mixing that led to Seurat’s forging of his pointillist methods to fulfill his ambition to “paint with light”. Little can he have known that he was also bringing about a transformation in the meaning of the word “colourist”. From the time of the so called “Venetian Colourists” to the time of Surat, the meaning of the word “colourist” centred on whole-field lightness relations (popularly referred to as “chiaroscuro”). As we shall see in later Posts, from now on, being a “colourist” meant being a master of  whole-field colour relations.

I am proposing to write more on all these issues in subsequent Posts. For the time being, I want to share with you how it came to pass that I encountered Marian-Bohusz Szyszko, the Professor of Painting at the Academic Community of the Wilno* University in London.

PAINTING WITH LIGHT AND COLOUR, CHAPTER 1-THE DOGMAS

*The Polish name for the formerly Polish town that, due to border changes that took place as a result of the Second World War, has now become Vilnius, the capital city of Lithuania.

The threat posed by Hitler and Stalin was the reason for the fleeing of large numbers of academics from the historic University of Wilno, then in Poland, and their regrouping in London as the Academic Community of the Wilno University in London.

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“At last I don’t know how to draw” : Toulouse-Lautrec the first Modern Painter”

In 1992 I was asked to write an article for “La Revue du Tarn” as a contribution to  the “Year of Toulouse-Lautrec”.  In particular I was asked to give a critique of the big exhibition of his paintings that took place that year in London and Paris. More recently I included an edited adaptation as Chapter 7 of my book “Fresh Perspectives on Creativity“. Click here for a .PDF copy of it.

Apologies for the poor quality of some of the illustrations. They will be better for the published version.

Toulouse-Lautrec drawing-5

Toulouse-Lautrec : Drawing of a woman from the “Artilleur et femme” series

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Why I am a Flat-Earther

“On being a Flat-Earther”, an edited excerpt from Chapter 10 of my book “Fresh Perspectives on Creativity”

A flat-earther is someone who insists that the earth is flat and who is likely to be derided for holding such a factually ignorant view. In this post, at the risk of being laughed at, I claim to be a flat-earther myself. A theme of this chapter is that any starting point, however far-fetched, can lead to creative outcomes, as is proved my the many artists who have painted masterpieces on the basis of crack-brain ideas. My purpose in this post is to emphasise two points, made throughout this chapter, namely that investigating alternative descriptions can unblock stagnant thought-processes and liberate creativity and that they can do it whether the alternatives are sensible or absurd. It is a thought-provoking idea, which is worth expanding on. So here goes: Continue reading “Why I am a Flat-Earther”