Some inspiring notes on colour.

Low tide, Three Cliffs Bay. 16 x 12 inches, oil on canvas board
Late afternoon, Autumn, Three Cliffs Bay. 10 x 10 inches, oil on canvas board
Morning sun, Three Cliffs Bay. 12 x 12 inches, oil on canvas board

To make these three recent paintings, I used a more limited palette than I would usually, retricting myself to cadmium red, alizarin crimson, French ultramarine, cadmium yellow – plus, of course, titanium white. I had read several books where this sort of restricted palette is recommended.

It proved to be a useful exercise in stretching my paint mixing skills which I enjoyed. I tend to spend maybe twenty minutes mixing the colours I intend to use before I start applying paint to canvas. I find this to be a calming down process, a good enjoyable way to start the day, almost meditative. I try to ensure that the colours work together, and, importantly, to mix a sufficiently generous amount of each colour – you always need far more than you think!

There are advantages in a restricted palette, especially for those new to painting. It makes life easier in so far as you can get to know each colour more intimately, discover their individual qualities and how they intermix. It also helps to bring harmony to the work. And for the plein air painter it means fewer tubes of paint to lug around!

However, I read notes on colour by Ken Kewley at last night and it really opened my eyes. He advocates the opposite to my little exercise above – and he does it with such inspiring words! There’s a lot of food for thought here and I recommend those who are interested and who need a little inspiration to read it all. One of the many points he’s making is to forget about colour theory and trust your instinct. He’s saying forget all you know about colour wheels and concepts such as complementary colours, simultaneous contrast, warm/cool colour, etc, and simply paint, “just do it” – to coin a phrase. Play with colours, allow yourself to experience the joy of colour. Don’t think too much, tune into your unconscious mind and feel the excitement of colour. 

I can see what he’s getting at. It ties in with other stuff I’ve read, but it also resonates with those occasions when I’ve been lost in my painting, when my painting hand seems to be plugged into some deep primal part of my brain and goes off in its own sweet way, without referencing the years of accumulated knowledge stored in the frontal lobes. It’s been called ‘being in the zone’ in other contexts, and I suppose it has much in common with meditative practices. 

I could write much more about Ken’s ideas, but I’ll leave it there for now, and allow you to judge for yourself.  

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