Friday, March 28, 2008

My painting XIX


Colour Notes I

An inventory of the names on the labels on all the tubes that so far have been squeezed in the service of this picture would read as majestically as Homer’s epic list of ships. You might from that expect the colour orchestration of the work to be as lavish as in the tone poems of Richard Strauss (with the risk of being as lurid as in those of Respighi) and yet the painting on the wall of my studio seen at any distance is in most lights, a relatively sober affair.

Any detail however, will show the variety of pigments present and the relative purity of their mixtures (e.g. almost no use of black with any of the colours).


As is so often the case in art some larger thing than the actual passages and sections that one is concentrating on will eventually dominate the painting’s character. This overall identity might run counter to any plan and be wholly beyond the artist’s powers of prediction. Similar subverting of intentions is the process after all that gives us for example such oxymoronic emblems as the melancholy clown.


Of all the art forms painting is the most like alchemy. It has much in common with that other unsinister alchemical craft, cookery. Who could predict for example that a mixture of potato leftovers and yesterday's gone-cold greens, when mixed and fried up, would produce that magical and uniquely flavoured dish we call bubble and squeak?
An artist’s manual, with its many recipes for grounds and glazes, its guide to the use of arcane implements and its roster of recommended procedures (e.g. “start lean end fat” meaning don’t use too much oil in the underpainting) is very much like a cookery book. Completely to ignore the precepts of handbooks can lead to disaster as with Leonardo’s self-destructing medium for mural painting or Reynolds’s fatal use of bitumen; yet every chef would understand Picasso’s dictum “If I can’t find the red I use green”. They would also be quick to see the truth in Frank Auerbach’s reply to criticism of the dangerous looking thickness of his paint, “What counts is whether you put it on with love”. Give two cooks the same book and they will come up with different results. As with painting, when garniture serves substance and all is unified, spice against spice, the final dish transcends the recipe.

Here in my own picture, partly through ignorance and partly through the invitation of chance, I find myself producing a thing of unexpected mutability. At differing times of day the colour field presented can range from an aura of mossy green to a slightly baleful purple. In the early morning it may have a blue cast (reminding me of old Westerns shot in Eastmancolor), whereas when seen by electric light alone all the acid fire of reds and yellows awake as if from a sleep to illuminate a quite other kind of battlefield.

Every picture of course is changed in some degree by varying light but none (at least of mine) has ever surprised me with such a range of moods.

6 comments:

David R said...

Eat yer heart out Heston Blumenthal. I'd rather eat this picture than his snail porridge.

Anonymous said...

Alchemy or chemistry?

Mike C. said...

I've been increasingly reminded of those amazing German WW1 aircraft "lozenge" camouflage patterns (perhaps an Expressionist countermove to the Vorticist "dazzle" paint on British ships). I wonder if this painting would show up on radar? Perhaps you should anticipate a call from the military...

Plum said...

Re keeping his greens green, Apicius recommended boiling them in cooking soda to retain colour. But i don't think he planned to paint with them...

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Beth said...

I agree that painting is a great form of practical alchemy, but I do have to say, as a painter and as a potter, the ceramic arts are by way and far the closest medium to alchemy.

As a ceramic sculptor and potter, I not only work with a large number of chemical / alchemical substances (including many of the same colorants as painters use) but also have the fun of applying heat to it all, even if I don't happen to use a athanor.

The changes which take place on the molecular level (as well as the visible changes) are wonderfully complex and fascinating.

And yes, cooking is also great alchemical fun! :-D