Colour in painting

How important is colour?

The purpose of this post is to provide a link to the first chapter of my book “Painting with Light and Colour“. In it is a set of dogmas that changed my life. They were given me, during the first weeks of my life as an artist, by the Polish artist, teacher and mathematician, Professor Marian Bohusz-Szyszko. He claimed that:

  • “All good painting is based on colour”.
  • “The use of colour in painting should be based on colour in nature”.

The importance to me personally of these two dogmatic propositions and, more importantly, 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.

One reason why the dogmas of Marian Bohusz-Szyszko were to prove to be so fruitful, related to their origins, for they were his way of providing a synthesis of ideas coming from a number of his predecessors.  Particularly important among these were Seurat, Cézanne and Bonnard (one of Bohusz-Szyszko’s mentors). A major reason for taking the dogmas seriously is the the degree to which these artists and their Modernist Painter contemporaries were  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 is not a property of surfaces in the external world 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 understandings about:

  • Induced colour
  • The three primaries.
  • Optical mixing

It was these that inspired Seurat to develop his pointillist methods as a means of fulfilling 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:

  • Having access to a greater range of both more fully-saturated and more nuanced colours.
  • Being a master of  whole-field colour relations.

All these issues will be elaborated upon in subsequent Posts. For the time being, as promised above, I want to share with you the first chapter of my book “Painting with 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.
  • All five of his dogmas, and the ways in which they proved helpful.


“Painting with Light and Colour”: Chapter 1-“The Dogmas


Click here for lists of other Posts

*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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16 thoughts on “Colour in painting”

  1. Refreshes the dogmas and makes great painters experience and theories useful to beginner and experienced professional alike. I am waiting for more…

  2. This is such an interesting account of the start of your artistic journeying. I am always suspicious of dogmas…. but they have served you as a jumping off point, fascinating!

  3. One of the most fascinating and ‘live’ ways I’ve ever experienced Colour & Light was to see your paintings Francis. Thin painted canvas strips (3.0 mm if I remember correctly) attached to underlying squares of paint on canvas. The effect of movement around the static painting creates colours of grey (as the two colours merge, at a certain distance) and then flashes of vibrant colours. It has to really be experienced to feel and see the effects of colour, light, movement, distance, human brain and eyes; we take it in in seconds. Amazing!

    1. Thanks Alison. It is always good to have one’s paintings appreciated. Actually the stripes are approximately 0.8mm, and they are painted with acrylic paint on the underlying squares. It is also important to mention that stripes are always of an approximately complementary colour to that of the squares on which they are painted and partly obscure. The fact that they are made of paint is important, for it is the translucency of the paint that makes possible the “flashes of vibrant colours” that are experienced when matters are viewed from the side, or when the sunlight rakes across the surface. By the way, you did not mention that the spaces between the stripes are also approximately 0.8mm wide. As a result, the finished painting is seen as alternating thin stripes of complementary colours. When these are viewed from the front, at an appropriate distance and in natural lightning conditions, the complementary pairs mix optically to produce the greys you mention.

      1. I too was fascinated by these and, well really, all the art I saw that you did. I appreciate the explanation of these gems. You are a gifted teacher.

    2. I totally agree: truly amazing! So very interesting to learn to appreciate both the art and the scientific facts underneath it!

    1. Bonjour Marie-Thérèse, comment vas-tu? Tout l’enseignement de Francis est vraiment passionnant, n’est-ce pas (même si dans mon cas ça fait très longtemps maintenant que j’étais à Montmiral la dernière fois – je ne peins plus vraiment, réalisant de temps en temps depuis une dizaine d’années des projets socio-artistiques dans l’espace public)?

  4. As a cognitive psychologist, teacher of psychology and practicing artist discovering this aspect of psychology proved to be a damasian moment in my studies. The realisation that we all experience colour and light differently laid bare any notions of what was a correct way of painting . It also underpins the importance of the thrill of good light which for me at any rate is the source of inspiration for much of my work. Crystal light makes my heart sing as it ignites the colours in the landscape.

    An excellent article, discovering that colour like beauty is in the eye of the beholder has been pivotal to my understanding of painting. Gordon Frickers and I have spent many hours discussing the subtle nuances that can come from the pleasure of enjoying colour.

  5. Thank you for your clear and concise presentation in Chapter 1 of Marian Bohusz-Szyszko’s dogmas and demonstrating their potency through the earnest effort you made in testing them. Truly the flowing together of art and science.

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