Some people say that sex is ‘visceral’. Colour and paint can be visceral too. Colour is raw emotion, it is evidence of the life force. Absence of colour means absence or less of the apparent life force. Biologically speaking, men see less colour than women because human females have a larger fovea or yellow spot within the retina. Females have more cone cells than rods – these interpret colour in the visible spectrum – rods pick up different light levels. They also detect movement, affirming the time honoured notion that men exist for the purpose of hunting whilst women are well suited to decorate the home (and themselves).
Perhaps this explains why there has been a predominance of tonal painting in the British tradition. Maintained by male exponents such as Peter Greenham, who with his cohort of teaching staff at the Royal Academy Schools, also had a predilection for tonal music. Greenham and Barrett were fond of the orderliness to be found in Bach, both men liked to play the pianoforte.
However, if we look at the results for a Google search based on the terms ‘Peter Greenham’, we find images which are not so resonant with colour. Similar to the results we get for Sir William Coldstream – there is a misty greyness to the appearance of these two British artist’s work – bearing in mind it is digitally mediated. Perhaps the atmospheric conditions over the British Isles have more to do with it than we think. In this country we rarely see colours constantly illuminated by brilliant sunlight. Matisse however, uses colour in a more strident and masterful way – celebrating sensual joy. No rain sodden British reserve holding him back.
Using colour at the outset
Using paint to express and communicate emotions means using colour. Avoiding colour in painting should only be endured at the outset, to gain confidence handling a medium. Matisse’s early studies of the nude belie later chromatic developments in his work. It is here that he learned the Classical value of restraint. But if painting can be likened to the pleasures of the flesh, there has to be a point when the Classically trained artist lets go. Cathartic, Dionysian energies must be entertained and in their midst, the balancing act required of the artist is strenuous.
Scroll down past the social media buttons if you wish to contact Alan Dedman via the comments form on this blog.