Science of light and colour

What science can now tell us

Two earlier Posts draw attention to the historical importance of Seurat’s science-based ideas on the practice of painting light and colour. In the one, which is on the “Venetian Colourists” , it is argued that the artists known by this label and those who built upon their ideas were not “colourists” at all. Rather they were “lightists”, whose reputation as “colourists” was based on their mastery of whole-field lightness/darkness relations (“chiaroscuro“). Colour did not enter into the theory of painting light until Seurat introduced his idea of using optically-mixed arrays of separate dots of complementary pigment-colours to give a new kind of luminosity to his paintings. This step proved to be the precursor of a transformative jump from “lightists” to “colourists”. The next steps, which were were taken by such artists as Cézanne, Gauguin and Bonnard, were later to inspire the synthesis of my teacher Marian Bohusz-Szyszko. It is these that provide the main subject matter of the second post mentioned above, namely “The Dogmas, Chapter 1 of my book “Painting with Light and Colour”. There I explain how, as well as having an abiding influence on my own painting and my teaching, they were to:

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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.).

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Colour in painting

How important is colour?

Below, 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 and the elaborations and explanations he added 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.

 

Figure 1 : Raising of Lazarus by Marian Bohusz-Szyszko

 

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 Seurat, 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, as promise above, I want to share with you the first chapter of my book “Painting wth Light and Colour”. It contains an account of:

  • 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.
  • His dogmas.

Painting with Light and Colour, Chapter 1-The Dogmas

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*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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Contents list of available Posts

This website provides a way of making a list of categories. The one I have created can be found at the top of the left-hand side margin, written in brown typeface.  The categories (in upper case) and sub categories (in lower case) are arranged in alphabetical order. They categories are: ‘Creativity’, ‘Drawing’, ‘Extracts from my books’, ‘Miscellaneous subjects’, ‘Painting’, ‘Painting School news’, ‘Science’ and ‘The Glossary’. Click on any of these to access all posts in that category.

Experience shows that many readers find it difficult to find specific Posts by this method. To make it easier, I have created an up to date ‘Contents List’, divided into five categories. Most of the material in the categories “drawing”, “painting” and “creativity” comes from my books on those subjects.

Contents list, listing the five categories and the Posts to be found within each of them:

Preface

1. DRAWING

Chapters from “Drawing on Both Sides of the Brain”.

Other Posts on Drawing

2. PAINTING

Chapters from “Painting with Light and Lolour”:

Other Posts on colour and light in painting:

3. CREATIVITY

Extracts from “Fresh  insights into Creativity”

Extracts from Chapter 10: “Having fun with creativity”

4. PAINTING SCHOOL NEWS

5. MISCELLANEOUS

Your comments on the Contents List page.

I look forward to your comments in the section provided at the bottom of each Post. When you have made them, please leave your email address and tick the box “Notify me of new posts by email.”

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Caladrius bird for the contents list