Friday 8 April 2011

Colour. And Mark Rothko. And a really, really cool witch.

This is a bit of a rambling post about colour.  

Lately, I have been thinking about colour.  Perhaps obsessing is a better word.  Partly because we are turning from the grey-white-beige part of the year to the green-yellow-purple-and every other colour imaginable part; and partly because colour pallet has been a topic with my painting.    

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I'm going in a new direction with this current series of paintings.  As colour is one of the key elements in these paintings, it's been on my mind.   

(Blue 2, 76x102cm. Oil on Canvas.)

Everyone has their own personal colour pallet:  a favourite colour; colours they like to wear; colours they like to paint their walls; colours they like to upholster their sofas.

I first noticed this back in grade school.  Being both shy and myopic, I had a problem:  glasses.  I was loath to wear them to school, and didn’t (until my eyes finally got so bad that I had to).  Until that point, with glasses tucked away in my pocket, the world around me was an impressionistic landscape.  I became good at recognizing people from afar by the colours they wore.  I still remember one girl who always wore yellow: she is forever etched in my memory as an oversized, blurry egg yolk

 I have always adored colour.  As a child, I remember staring at certain colours (usually blues and purples) and feeling as though I could be swallowed up by them -  I wanted to dive into them and enter the mysterious world of sensations unique to each particular shade.  Perhaps I was a bit of an odd child...

(Blue 4, 76x102cm.  Oil on Canvas.)

Later, when I became interested in creating visual art, my pallet would change depending on what I was working on.  For a brief spell, I avoided colour altogether by spending hours creating black and white ink drawings with spider-silk-like lines, and thousands upon thousands of tiny dots.  At some point  my pointillism phase ended.  Perhaps it was the threat of carpal tunnel syndrome, or of going cross-eyed, or simply of going stark raving mad.  Whatever the reason, it did, mercifully, come to an end.       

Then, a few years ago, when I dedicated myself to painting on a close to full-time basis, I started experimenting with colour and form.  My favourite colour is blue, and I played around with blues of all kinds.  It was a disaster.  I was completely unable to use just about any shade of blue in a painting.  What would come out were fiery reds, deep yellows, and lots and lots of burnt sienna.  At one point a fellow who’d purchased a couple of paintings, asked gently if I would be creating any with blue.  I explained my dilemma.  

But now, all of a sudden, blue has been happening.  And it’s been a joy.  Part of my process when painting abstracts in oils, is to allow the colours to interact with the ones next to them: blending, and criss-crossing, and influencing.  I’ve always been very much impressed by the colour blending in the weaving of textiles, and employ a technique which mimics that to some extent.  (One of the pieces which the fellow I mentioned above has is titled “Ancient Weaver” and I have always wanted to revisit that style and create a series based on it.)
This love of colour and how colour resonates with something deep inside the viewer, is what first made me interested in the paintings of Mark Rothko, and which, two summers ago, led me to Hamburg to see an exhibition of his works. 

As I wandered through the rooms, it was impressive to see how much his style of painting changed through the course of his career: from earlier representational works often involving ambiguous subway scenes, or figures from Greek Mythology; to non-representational, amorphous colour blobs; to his later classic Rothko colour fields on huge canvases. 

I entered one of the rooms and came to a painting which I hadn’t seen an image of before.  I froze in front of it.  This is what I wrote in my journal afterwards:

“There was one.  It is large, dark blue and black, from 1960.  I stood in front of it and had to fight off overwhelming emotions.  It was as though he had captured life, time, death, eternity, the mysteries of these things on a huge rectangular canvas.  I’ve never – never – been moved like this by a piece of art.” 

This snapshot of it, which I took from the catalogue, doesn't begin to capture the power of it.  It is huge, which is part of its impact, measuring 205.1 x 193.4 cm.

It is a great shame that so many of his paintings have become “poster art” as these later, huge works have enormous emotional impact which is only fully felt when they are experienced in person. 

Rothko was surprised, and probably more than a little ticked off, when people said that they found his paintings peaceful, since they were born of conflict, and trauma, and struggle.  And he did struggle, until killing himself in 1970, at the age of 66.

Staying with colour, but wanting to move away from the rather heavy topic of suicidal painters, I will segue to cannibalistic witches who prey on small children whose parents have left them alone in the woods to perish.  

Yesterday, my husband brought home some books from the library for our two boys.  One was a copy of Hansel and Gretel.  This version is illustrated by Jane Ray, whose illustrations are magical.  Her witch is fabulous.  The details are just brilliant: tiny toads, snakes, webs, birds, and eyes show up everywhere on and around her.  And the colours are amazing, jewel-like, eerily beautiful, and very, very theatrical.  Perfectly designed to entice any little children with a penchant for diving headfirst into pools of fantastic, devouring colour.   


  1. Interesting, how the witch illustration has a quilted reference.

    And yes, Rothko - His work definitely loses about everything in photos. There's just no way to describe the way the color activates the space around the painting and how much depth can happen.

    I love the second painting - beautiful. Reminds me a bit of De Stael.

  2. Blue 2 is my favourite, I just love how one slub of colour seems to melt into another making you feel like your looking through a window and the image outside is distorted by rainfall. I've never been a great fan of Rothko but maybe that's because I've only ever seen his images in print - I must try and rectify that sometime.

    Kate :-)

  3. I love Rothko! I'm a huge fan of his art and I like that whole era of art, frankly. (Abstract expressionism Wikipedia says.)And I also love blue.

    I've never done art long enough to go through periods. It's something I need to start doing. You're inspiring.

  4. I'll admit that I have only seen Rothko's paintings second-hand in the form of calendars, postcards, and the like. Also, I do remember watching an episode of 'Mad Men' that featured those ad men from the 60's trying to figure out what to make of a Rothko painting that was hanging in top executive's office. It cracked me up.

    So, I am sad (although not surprised) that Rothko took his life ... since it is poetry month in the US of NA I have been noting how many artist-types go the way of suicide.

    On a more positive note, I too love color/colour! I have been finding myself laying down brilliant hues at the base of many of my paintings, and then softening them with layers of (hopefully) sympathetic color.

    Interesting weaving of themes Lynn ... got my mind whirling ... orange you glad that you shared? :O)

  5. Oh, for the love of color! Isn't it a joy to explore? Thank you for a delightfully thoughtful post. Love the witch :~)

  6. I love both your paintings. Don't know which I like best. They look like reflections in water of something deep and mysterious.

  7. Rothko is a favorite of mine.

    Glad you get to paint in blue. :)

  8. Quite narrative, beautiful post Lynn! Thank you.

  9. She does, Valerianna. The fine elements are almost as though they have been embroidered on, and the overall effect is very quilt-like, in the margins also.

    The depth of a Rothko painting is so surprising when you see one in person. From what you see in a book, the can seem flat or trite.

    Thank you your comment on the painting, and for the artist's name - I didn't know of him (embarrassing to say!) but from what little I saw when I googled him, I'm going to look further.

    If you get the chance, Kate, to see a Rothko in the flesh, it's well worth it. I believe they have a couple in London at the...c'mon brain...Tate Modern. (Coffee hasn't quite kicked in yet this morning.) His earlier work is interesting, but even in person, it didn't really hit me, certainly not in the way that some of his later ones did.

    Thanks for your comment on the painting. I've been having so much fun with these, and the influence of water here is a strong one: with both rain or sea. It's great to hear what other people see in them.

    It is quite shocking how many artists did go that way, Jan. Poets in particular...and in particular female poets? Or is that just what sticks in my mind more.

    I'm glad that the post got things whirling! That's what's so wonderful about this whole blog thing...connecting, and inspiring, and's quite amazing. (Your last line reminded me of one of my favourite knock-knock jokes!)

    You're very welcome, Donna! There are so many ways in which to enjoy and explore colour. It really is a joy. Each time I look at the witch I see new things! She's quite amazing.

    Thank you, Katherine. I've always been fascinated by water and by the depths and what is hidden within and all of that...maybe it's a Scorpio thing...And I always love hearing the associations that people have when looking at my paintings!

    You're very welcome, Debu. Thank you for stopping by.

  10. Lynn, i loved post about how you saw colours as a child and how they inform your work, fascninating. What a different perspective you must have learned at such an early age too. I am afraid to say i am slightly wary of colour, i know the ones i love, but when it comes to my painting, i feel i play it too safe. I have only produced one painting (the hug) i love, where i really let go & it filled me with joy. I have been feeling a real need to let go more & you have inspired me to give it another try. thank you . ruthie x

  11. Thank you for your comment, Ruthie. I was really touched by it.

    I'm all too familiar with playing it safe - and it's taken me a long time to develop the courage to even attempt letting go! (It's something I still struggle with, and probably always will.) But it's wonderful once it happens.

    It's interesting that you say you're a bit wary of colour - as I find your art filled with beautiful, delightful colour!

    I'm so glad you were inspired by this post - we do all need that from time to time, to push us beyond our comfort zones. Wishing you lots of fun with your painting.

  12. What a lovely, informative post. I haven't looked at much of Mark Rothko's work, but I'll certainly make an effort to see some more.

  13. If you can see some of his work in person, caravanartist, it's well worth it.

    (I'm reminded of the time I saw one of Monet's Waterlily paintings. I only knew them from books and posters, but the real thing - the size and the amazing, subdued, deep colours - had a huge impact on me. I'd love to see them again one day...)

  14. I should have wore glasses when I was young, as a result my art was also very impressionistic. I wish I had known what was going on at the time, I would have taken the opportunity to learn from the experience instead of trying to see what I could not see. I like Blue 2, it looks like Spring, Blue 4 reminds me of Winter, I'm so done with that!

  15. Thanks for visiting, Judy. I wonder how many artists had bad vision as kids?

    And I agree - Blue 2 is more Spring-like, while Blue 4 certainly has more of a Winter feel with all the white. Spring is certainly being welcomed with open arms here!

  16. First of all, I LOVE both your paintings. The first one puts me in mind of reflections in a puddle on a dark evening. Wonderful!

    Secondly, I just loved this whole post! I especially loved your description of how you percieved colour when you were younger, and the little tale of your pointalism phase :) Great, great post. Thanks!

  17. Thank you, Roisin! I love it when a post resonates with a reader.

  18. I have decided that there are 2 kinds of artists in the world-- those that love color and those that prefer subdued quiet grayed down colors- browns, grays, black and white-- that is me. I spent many years trying to conquer color-- reading books, doing a lot of color studies- and about 10 years ago I decided I just did not like much color in my work-- but I think it is great that you are loving color right now-- especially the blues which are beautiful.

  19. I absolutely love the muted, subdued colours you use in your collages, Donna. In the past, when I've tried to use them, I can't seem to work with them succesfully.

    It's fascinating, the process that artists go through to find their pallet. Some artists seem to go through phases with different pallets, while others find their pallet and keep playing and experimenting within that.

    Wonderful to hear about your experience finding your colours!