To Paint is to Love Again, Part 5: The Wonder of Colour

Abraham Rattner, Young Woman with White Gloves (fragment), 1945 | Image via Flickr (fair use)

One of the bigger frustrations painters experience is not getting things ‘right’ — this will often mean struggling to depict something in correct scale and proportions. ‘My eyes often resemble the eyes one sees in an optician’s window. (…) As for hands and feet, generally it is impossible to tell whether they are those of a human or an animal’, wrote Henry Miller about his own attempts at faithfully depicting reality.

We strive for perfection: symmetry, ideal proportions, flawlessness. There’s a popular notion that the more symmetrical a face is, the more beautiful. But when artist Alex John Beck decided to a test this theory by juxtaposing side-by-side portraits of models whose faces have been photoshopped to be mirror images of the left and right sides of their faces, he discovered that these ultra-symmetrical faces lacked character.

An architect friend of mine says the same about CAD technical drawings — he thinks that drawing by hand, almost extinct now in the architecture industry, gives the design a touch of character and uniqueness which is impossible to achieve with perfectly rendered computer-generated imagery.

At art schools, we learn life drawing and life painting, which is basically trying to depict an object — be it a bowl of fruit, a piece of clothing, or a body — as realistically as possible. And realism is built on proportions and perspective. But should that be the goal? I’m not too sure about it. Between David Kassan and Modigliani, I’ll always choose the latter. When it comes to painting, photorealism and hyperrealism, heck, even realism have absolutely no appeal to me.

When I think of my favourite painters, virtually none of them painted ‘correctly’. Bacon, Balthus, Modigliani, Paula Rego, Neue Sachlichkeit painters are all artists who distorted scale and used peculiar proportions which gave their work its unique stamp. Because a painting is neither a photograph nor an architectural drawing — it’s not meant to be a perfect rendering of reality. Painting is not about proportions, it’s about emotions. And the thing that can communicate and evoke emotions particularly well is colour. Which all the above artists used exquisitely.

The wonder of colour and its effect on our psychological state has been examined ever since people began using pigments — a combination of soil, animal fat, burnt charcoal, and chalk — as early as 40,000 years ago, creating a basic palette of five colours: red, yellow, brown, black, and white. The first colour theory was referenced by Italian artist Leon Battista Alberti in 1435 but the big breakthrough in the subject with mathematician Isaac Newton’s conceptualization of the colour wheel in 1704. A century later, in 1810, Goethe wrote a book called Theory of Colours which refined Newton’s theory, providing the first systematic study of the physiological and psychological effects of colour: ‘When the eye sees a colour it is immediately excited and it is its nature, spontaneously and of necessity, at once to produce another, which with the original colour, comprehends the whole chromatic scale’. His observations on the effect of opposed colours —  ‘(…) for the colours diametrically opposed to each other (…) are those that reciprocally evoke each other in the eye’ — led him to a symmetric arrangement of his colour wheel.

Newton’s and Gother’s studies had an immense impact on 19th-century painters such as Van Gogh, JMW Turner and Georges Seurat, who all became obsessed with the science of colour (which, coupled with the history of pigment making is indeed quite fascinating — take a look at my post on colours and ‘non-colours’). Some artists, however, like Mark Rothko, decided to ignore the colour wheel and mix colours against its rules, creating paintings with stripes of colours that clash instead of complementing each other.

Because, actually, rules are to be broken. What matters the most is the individual perception of colour and the emotions it evokes — which Henry Miller beautifully described in his book. He also talks about the colourfulness of painters’ lives compared to the ‘pale, awkward, incompetent in everything except the business of putting words together’ writers.

Perhaps the love of colour comes with the love of life. And the ability to render hues on canvas transfers into the need of mixing different emotions in various proportions and configurations in our life. For joy can only be appreciated when set against sorrow, and the act of balancing excitement with tranquility is one of the keys to our well-being.


Henry Miller “To Paint is to Love Again”, Part 5: The Wonder of Colour

We all learn as much as we wish to and no more. We learn in different ways, sometimes by not learning. I have written about my several attempts, always ludicrous, to take lessons in the art of making watercolors. The one thing I learned was that one can’t learn this way, or at least I can’t. My way is by trial and error, by groping, stumbling, questioning, and – by looking at other men’s work, whether good or bad artist. There are people who never learn to spell correctly, yet they read books, magazines, newspapers. Do they never notice when reading those words they constantly misspell? Spelling never gave me any difficulty. But no matter how many times I look at a head, a figure, a house, a mountain, or what, I am never able to put down what I’m seeing. Again and again, I go back to the paintings of the men I love to see how they did it. And I do see. But I can’t get the hang of it, try as I may. I don’t know how many times, for example, I have examined a certain self-portrait of Cezanne’s in order to observe how he made the eyes and nose. Seems so simple when I study his portrait. What’s wrong with my eyes and noses and those weird appendages called ears? Everything. My eyes often resemble the eyes one sees in an optician’s window. Made of glass, in other words. Usually they have the stare of a mad man. As for hands and feet, generally it is impossible to tell whether they are those of a human or an animal. A smart thing is to leave them out or conceal them in one way or another. What a problem, for instance, to do a bird’s leg. A crane’s, let us say. Whenever I tackle the crane or the ibis, the leg bends the wrong way. I have only to close my eyes and imagine a crane or a stock before me and I know immediately how the leg bends, but I haven’t time to close my eyes, it seems. Or else my hand gets the better of me. Yet here is a strange thing: If the moon is right and the urge strong enough, the picture will come out all right, even though the houses lie on their sides, people walk with line pads, boats sail in the sky, rivers run uphill, saints look like mad men and women like cows. So what makes a picture?

Just as there are days when I can’t talk or write French, so there are days when I can’t draw at all, even a rectangle. Itching to paint, nevertheless, I concentrate on color. If I can achieve the color combinations I am after, to hell with the drawing (I can always go “abstract” or “non-quasi-modicus”). So I begin mixing colors. If I am in a quiet patient mood, I will lay down thin, transparent washes, working on three or four paintings at once in order to permit each layer to dry before applying the next. To work in this manner is a joy. Though the procedure demands patience, it also stimulates the flow of ideas. One waits cautiously and cunningly, as if stalking one’s prey. Now I begin another kind of mixing, in the tray. I may spend hours mixing all the blues with all the yellows just to see what lovely, unimaginable greens will result. When you’ve mixed all the yellows with all the blues, all the blues with all the reds, all the reds with all the greens and so on through the colour wheel, you’ve about put in a day’s work. The grays obtained in this way are fascinating in their subtlety. To get just the right grey-violet, for example, can give one as much of a thrill as hitting on the right sauce for a roast. It makes the mouth water. I remember once doing a peacock for the express purpose of utilizing these marvelous blends. The tail was absolutely magnificent. The body, of course, was something of a joke. But what greens, Misters Windsor and Newton, bless them, would have been enchanted. I know, of course, that to evoke a true feeling of color, to capture the vibrant essence, one should lay one color next to the other in contrasting manner. For me, the master in this domain is Jean Varda, who long ago abandoned brush and canvas in order to make collage. To enter a gallery in which his collages are exhibited is an event in one’s life. One no longer thinks of colors, but of color itself, the wonder and the miracle of it. No painter, however riotous his palette, can ever obtain the results which Varda does by putting together pieces of paper, cloth, or whatever material he chooses to use. The only painter who comes close to rivaling him in this respect is Abraham Rattner. Not Rouault, not Matisse, not Soutine. Varda has devoted his life, one might say, to the study and manipulation of color. With all his strength, his wit, his courage, he has fought against muddiness. For him, Satan is pure black. The lesser devils are the browns and grays. His God, I am tempted to say, is gold. It is a gold which becomes more gold and gold by reason of the surrounding greens and violets. It is not Byzantine gold, though Varda is certainly Byzantine, if he is anything. No, it is the gold of the alchemist, a product of the most subtle powers of transmutation. In short: metaphysical, symbolical heraldry. I must add that to listen to Varda talk color is as great a thrill as to look at his collage. He begins where the textbooks leave off and he never finishes. He merely interrupts himself to talk about something else.

Jean Varda, Carnival, 1955, mixed media collage | Image via San Francisco Chronicle (fair use)

Thinking of Varda’s talk of the magic he puts into his words, I’m reminded of something I’ve repeatedly made mention of – that I enjoyed talking to painters more than two writers. Why? For one reason or another, painters give me the impression of being less used up by their daily task than writers or musicians. Also, they use words in a more plastic way, as if conscious of their very substantial origins. When they write, and I think at the moment of men like Rouault and Vlaminck, they reveal a poetic touch which writers often lack. Perhaps this is due to living continuously with flesh, textures, objects, and not merely with ideas, abstractions, complexes.

Often they are mimes or storytellers, and nearly always good cooks. The writer, on the other hand, is so often pale, awkward, incompetent in everything except the business of putting words together. For one writer like Blaise Cendrars, who sucked the marrow of life, there are a thousand who never left their birdcages, who write about life without ever living it. There are painters, too, of course, whose world is circumscribed, who never leave their native village. But they are the exception rather than the rule. Even Utrillo was definitely not a worldly man or a travelled man. Might be said to have led an adventurous life. When in the closing years of his life, he sequestered himself in the suburban town of Le Vésinet, there had to live with his birds and to pray each day in the chapel installed in the garden. Even then, it was more of a life than many writers I know enjoy. He communed with the creatures of the air and with God. Now and then he slipped, spent the night in a ditch with the bottle. What matter? ‘Je suis comme je suis. Je suis faite comme ça’, Juliette Greco chants. He was true to himself, to the cobbled streets of the suburbs, to their milk white walls, and the strange hoydenish figures whom he encountered in his imaginary walks. We do not have to read his biography to know that he lived intensely, that he wrestled with the demons, John Barleycorn* above all, that he learned to love even such inanimate things as walls, windows, paving stones, iron bars.

By contrast, I think of our Nathaniel Hawthorne, a typical isolated figure in the world of men and letters. I think of his encounters with Melville, particularly of the imaginary ones described by Giono in ‘Pour saluer Melville’. No matter how sad and dreary Utrillo’s life may have been, it was a garden of roses compared to the desert in which Hawthorne moved.

Yes, to paint is to love again. Live again. See again.

* In the US, John Barleycorn is used as a euphemism for alcohol (barleycorns, i.e. grains of barley, are a key ingredient in malt liquor), but Austin Hackney wrote a very interesting blog post about the origins of the Barleycorn persona which is a fascinating journey into myth, folklore and ancient past, highly recommended.

Click here to read Henry Miller’s “To Paint is to Love Again”, Part 4: To Paint Like a Child

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