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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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.

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