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  • Writer's pictureAnna Curston

Colour in painting – what I do, what I like, and what I want to do more!

I’m working on, and thinking a lot about, colour at the moment. What I have been doing with it, what I like about it/ about what other artists and painters do with it, and what I want to do more of in my work. Colour has always been something I enjoy and thus care a lot about in my work, but I do think it is also something I neglect a bit, despite it being so important to the work I create.

I began thinking about colour again simply as one of the ‘basics’ of painting that I wanted to refresh my memory on, but working on my, recently resolved, newest painting, I realised how lazy I have become with colour over the last year or so. This I can partly put down to my gradual disenchantment with art as a whole, but also just some bad practices and the constant looming threat of money. Why money? Mixing colours can be a very trial and error process. First you have to actually get the exact colour you want – however much paint that may use – then you have to constantly, not only re-mix the colour, but also make sure it is exactly the same as the version you made the other day. This can sometimes use a fair amount of paint and sometimes you don’t end up needing all of the colour that you end up mixing. WASTE. It feels awful to waste good paint, and less colour mixing means less paint waste and thus less paint that I must then purchase once said paint runs out. With the cost of existing so high currently, sometimes you have to face the uncomfortable facts that maybe buying more paint can’t be top of the financial priority list (even if you want it to be).

As well as the threat of wasting paint, paint mixing also takes a very large amount of time. When I have limited time to paint, I maybe don’t want to spend quite so much of it just mixing paint together on a palette and more on the actual painting itself… This is actually a very silly concept if colour is important to your work. If the colours themselves are part of the painting (and I’m not sure how they could not be, especially in an abstract painting) then the making of the colours is just as much part of the creating process as putting those colours on the canvas/board. For the last year and a bit, I have barely mixed one colour for the works I’ve been producing; the colours have just been straight out of the tubes! It is frankly laughable for someone who claims to care so much about colour and whose favourite artists all use colour in really exciting and fairly non-traditional ways. So, this is me stating, on the record, I’m not going to do this anymore. I’m going to mix colours more!

A breakdown of two artist's paintings into a simple grid containing their colour palettes.
sketchbook page

Colour is one of things I love about art. I love beautiful things. I love art that I want to look at for more than 5 seconds, and I love art that gives you something new every time you look at it. Colour can be a huge part of an image's apparent ‘beauty’ and its intrigue. I remember looking at Pierre Bonnard during my degree; his colours were never flat, and what would ‘read’ as, say, dark grey, would on closer inspection turn out to be a combination of orange, blue, yellow, red, purple, etc. A colour can be interesting on its own, but also become part of a different colour that mixes in your very eyes.

In a painting by Beatriz Milhazes, stripes of red and green read quite neutrally as a brown as you step back from the image. As you move closer, the colours reveal themselves to be bright saturated colours. In this way, colour is not a ‘basic’ at all, but very complex; people devote entire careers to trying to understand colour and it has fascinated artists for centuries. A huge number of art movements have been concerned with colour, and if you follow them forward in history, you start to see a correlation between this obsession with colour and the movement towards abstraction. I also see it mentioned time and time again as a key interest of contemporary abstract painters. I myself can attest to it being an influence in my own move towards abstraction. For me personally, the colours in a work (as well as the composition and textures) can be more exciting than the actual subject. As an example, in a gallery in Dundee (I sadly cannot remember the name of the painting or the artist) there was one wall that had three portraits on it by three different artists. They all were accomplished images, all recognisable as portraits, etc., but the centre image rendered the other two invisible to me. The way the paint had been applied, and the way the colour of the skin and the light touching it had been rendered, was stunning. But you see, it wasn’t the subject, the paintings next to it were, in subject and composition, very similar, but it was the brush marks and use of colour that made the image so wonderful to look at.

To summarise: colour can be a powerful tool if you can look past the time it takes to use ‘properly’. I wish to no longer be lazy with colour, and from this day forward be far more explorative with it both in my sketchbooks and on the canvas. I want to think more about what colours and colour combinations speak to me of and how I can use that in my work. I want to stop being afraid of it (in terms money, yes, but also the fear of creating disjointed and confused colour palettes and unsuccessful paintings). Failure is a natural part of creating good art! I love the simplicity of the more limited palettes I used over the last few months of my degree, but I want to explore more complex ones now, if nothing else, to find out whether I wish to stick purely with simplicity or if complexity is what calls more to me now. I can’t know if I don’t try!

I may write more about colour in the future (in fact I’d say it is likely inevitable) but for now this is all I have to say on the matter. I will hopefully pop in again with a Studio Summary post before the end of March (or very early April), but until then… Stay curious and creative!


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