Saturday, October 25, 2014

Colour and emotions

When teaching drawing and painting I am generally quite articulate (or so I hope): I am confident when I explain different  exercises or talk about elements of the painting/drawing process such as mark-making or perceiving with the right side of the brain. It can be more tricky to find adequate verbal descriptions for the non-verbal language that is artmaking, though there exists vocabulary that comes very close, and language stretches and can be wonderfully accommodating. I love reading books on art and the aha moments when a writer manages to convey in words what a certain arrangements of brushstokes or a line evokes.

There naturally has to be a limit to what can be said; visual art speaks for itself, and no amount of verbal description can conjure up what presents itself in lines, shapes, colour and composition.

I encounter that boundary regularly when it comes to colour combinations. This is when words fail me in class - a few weeks ago one of my students had chosen a palette that worked beautifully and that I had a strong emotional response to, but I couldn't say what that elusive quality was.

Of course there are the easier combinations such as 'autumn colours', 'candy colours', 'fresh/springlike', 'berry colours', 'retro', etc. that are familiar and that we immediately recognise. But others, when for example the perfect dusty blue is juxtaposed with a muted pale pink and naples yellow, and the atmosphere this combination creates is sublime, leave me wringing my brain for a verbal match that will do it justice. Colour is endlessly fascinating to me, and even though an intellectual understanding or analysis may well take away from the magic, I want to be able to talk about the ways colours relate to each other and learn more. Our emotional response hinges on our individual make-up, our history and preferences, but we share our humanity, so how we perceive colour is also universal.

Colour combinations are everywhere: In fashion, design, the natural world, the way someone has placed a few books together on a shelf. Created deliberately, intuitively and by accident, unintentionally, just by how and where things are in the world. I tear out corners of magazine pages in which the colours speak to me for whatever reason. While there are certain individual colours I always gravitate towards and I have my favourites (plural; I could not just pick one), the way these work with others and the endless number of combinations possible between all the colours that exist make this an area of interest that will never cease to fascinate, that will never be exhausted.

I read this piece by Andrew Marr on the artist Howard Hodgkin recently (the day after marvelling at my student's colour composition), and it was extremely rewarding, as he talks about the effect colour combinations have on the viewer:

"Layering a vivid orange across an arsenic green, crouched under a line of cobalt, sends messages to the brain; and those messages can be communicated, however inadequately, in language.
...dark greens, particularly dappled with apple greens, and strong verticals may produce a feeling of security in a hominid species that emerged relatively recently from the protection of forests."

He warns against using these ideas as a "handy visual grammar", but says there must be some truth in these colour-coded evolutionary messages. "Hodgkin uses colour in ways that may be at times highly personal and autobiographical but are more often in a long tradition, fully alive today."

Marr's article also captures something of the essence of Hodgkin's art. The first painting of his I saw (only in reproduction, but still powerful) was of a crowded hall (the audience at a concert or in the theatre - I can't find it online). It was almost abstract, but you could make out heads and the venue and how the figures filled the space, and you felt you were there with them. With just a few brushstrokes he had made the atmosphere of a crowded space palpable.

P.S.: The Howard Hodgkin page on is a brilliant resource.

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