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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Contents list of available Posts

To make it easier to find the Post that interests you, I have created a contents list divided into five categories. Most of the material in the categories “drawing”, “painting” and “creativity” comes from my books on those subjects. In addition there are sections for “Painting School News” and “Miscellaneous”. As a Preface to these there is a Post that explains the need for the material that can be found in my books.

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Horace Lecoq Boisbaudran & Alphonse Legros



by Rodin pupil of Horace Lecoq Boisbaudran
A fast Drawing by Auguste Rodin, a pupil of Horace Lecoq Boisbaudran
Drawing by Degas, friend of Alphonse Legros pupil of Horace Lecoq Boisbaudran
Drawing by Edgar Degas, a close friend of Alphonse Legros,  pupil of Horace Lecoq Boisbaudran

This post on Horace Lecoq Boisbaudran was promised in to the New Year Letter to Students posted in the category “Painting School News“. In this I mentioned the similarities between the teaching methods of Horace Lecoq Boisbaudran and mine. In later posts I will be saying more about these. Meanwhile here is an extract from the “Glossary”  to “Drawing on Both Sides of the Brain” that provides an introduction to his ideas and his influence. I have also added the entry for Alphonse Legros, described as his star pupil, who had great success in spreading his ideas to both his own generation and the following ones.

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