The college library had a well-thumbed copy of Itten’s ‘The Elements of Colour’. The students were introduced to this as a ‘bible’ that they should take out and learn from. Sometimes we would start the day in the lecture theatre looking at colour, often using the examples Itten used himself. The advantage was that students could get to see that although we were working with colour using basic abstract shapes, it could be applied to figurative work just as easily. This allowed me to spend some time focused on my own interest, the Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald; there are passages of colour in that image that I have never been able to get over, it contains colour ideas I still use to this day. Looking at pictures of other art with foundation students was rarely about historical fact, (this did depend who was doing the looking, if it was Glynn, this was different, but he was dealing with art history and contextual studies) you could think from the way the images were talked about that they were painted yesterday. This was art appreciation rather than art history. There was no sociological or anthropological unpicking of the images, simply looking at them and talking about form and colour. Meaning was restricted to how ‘life’ and ‘energy’ was given and maintained. These paintings were seen as repositories of visual wonder, their worth being that they were constructed to be seen ‘in the moment of now’, their form being such that it eradicated the past tense. We would look at Georges de La Tour to examine contrast of saturation. De La Tour often had a sharp bright light moment in his work and large passages of dark neutrals. There would be much debate over his work as to whether or not the artist was relying on tone or colour to give energy to the image. Gradually we would work our way through examples of Itten’s seven contrasts, of hue, temperature, saturation, tone, extension as well as complementary and simultaneous contrast. Often finishing with Pontormo’s Visitation, an image of reds and greens being pushed together to create an electric moment of immanence which would of course be spoken of as the artist recreating in colour the moment of immaculate conception.
Back in the studio we returned to mixing chromatic greys. Using the complementary mixing systems from the day before a series of grey surfaces were made and left over dinner to dry so that they could be cut into pieces. In the meantime the bags of colours were re-examined for ranges of colour and sorted in different ways. For instance we might look at saturation or tonal value.
The afternoon was spent making a combination of collaged and painted responses to Itten’s colour structures. These would range from a simple placing of a neutral into a field of a warm and then placing the exact same neutral into a similar sized field of cool colour in order to effect a temperature change, to very painterly approaches, often looking at colour expansion. How much of a particular yellow on a soft pink-white was needed before it said ‘yellow’ and how much of the same yellow was needed when it was pushed up next to a light green? This same yellow would then go up against a dark violet and it might find itself reduced to a very thin line. It was important that these structures were ‘organic’ and ‘found’ because colour needed to breath and needed to be watched carefully. It was seen as a fickle beast that could easily become dormant if you didn’t constantly keep kicking it back into life.
All of the seven contrasts would be played with, but individual students might spend much more time on one than another. There might be reference to different shapes having different energies, such as the square being stable and at rest, the triangle more spiritual or intellectual and the circle being in motion, but it was argued it would be the forms between forms, those shapes that were neither one nor the other that would be the ones to look for, as these had far more chance of maintaining a life energy.
Again at the end of the session there would be a ‘crit’ different staff pointing out various things working in different ways. Colin would be looking for subtle tonal variations, in particular he loved to find students exploring the mustard shades within yellow, or the lilac tints of violet. Gavin was fascinated by proportion and extension and Patrick just seemed to love greens. I was pretty happy with most things, I was like a kid in a toyshop and probably if asked would say my main enjoyment was putting the slide show together. I have always been fascinated by how the same issues come up over and over again. I still have a tingle of recognition when I look at a drawing from 30,000 years ago and know that somehow, ‘I was there!’
(See also the posts ‘Discords at 8 o’clock’ and ‘The hawk and the handsaw’)