Delving into colour
"With colour, one obtains an energy that seems to stem from witchcraft." Matisse
Having seen a lot of historical works over the past few months on trips to London and New York, I was struck by how paintings that were created centuries ago can still give the sensation of being colourful and vibrant today, despite the fact that their creators had only a tiny fraction of the pigment range that we now have. It made me realize that I needed to educate myself about the subtler, older colours; the ones that painters have used for ages to great effect. So I'm working on some small, limited palette paintings in the studio right now, trying to get a handle on colour. Actually, I don't believe that goal is truly attainable, but I am trying to learn more than I currently know.
The paintings above contain 3 to 5 colours plus white and most of the pigments are weak ones like yellow ochre or raw sienna. There are no blues because for some reason I'm loathe to use them right now. Blue is a very prominent colour in a painting and I'm leaving it off my palette on occasion so that I'm forced to discover alternatives. This is the kind of thing I do in the week after buying a 200ml tube of ultramarine.
By keeping the number of pigments small, I'm forced to be more creative in how I make the painting look lively and colourful. It's easy to make something pop when it's already high chroma in the tube, but much more interesting and challenging to make a low chroma pigment sing. And, increasingly, I find myself admiring works that are mostly made up of complex greyed mixtures whose components I can only guess at. Being able to look at a painting and name every pigment that it's made of has begun to bother me a lot. Museums have a way of changing my standards overnight.
There are some interesting, old colours on the market produced by companies like Rublev, and I may delve into them someday and buy some verona green or mummy brown, but currently I'm getting to know some paints that I already own: yellow ochre, raw sienna, burnt sienna, raw umber, ivory black, alizarin, cobalt and an excessive number of tubes of venetian red and terra rosa by different manufacturers. (I blame the sale bins at the art store.) They're quite a change from my regular chromatic palette which is full of cadmiums and even contains the incredibly powerful pthalo blue.
So far, my charting is of single pigments with white, but I expect I'll have to splash out and begin charting the results of mixing them with other colours. It could be a long road. Here's the first pass at my earth colours and I've already identified some colours that will bear further exploration. Why this feels more interesting to me than looking at colour charts beside paint tubes in the shop, I don't know, but it does. Knowing that I already own these tubes makes me look at their properties more closely, and seeing them in my studio is very different than seeing them under commercial fluorescent lighting.