The Dynamics Of Colour
The Impressionists were the first group of artists to experiment with and then embrace a method of applying complimentary colours to the canvas in dabs adjacent to each other to achieve an illusory optical effect of a third colour, eg. a blue next to a yellow creates the sensation of a phantom green. Many Impressionist works are essentially experiments in colour and this is important to grasp aside from the fact that they are paintings of "life." Next come the Fauves in the early part of the 20th century with their wild use of colour earning them the nickname "Wild Beasts." The use of colour becomes a bit more scientific with "Orphism" a movement of painters around this same time as Cubism who were interested in the use of colour in abstraction. A key figure is Robert Delaunay and his wife Sonia who painted for the purpose of experimentation. Of course there are other very important figures some of whom often worked independently such as Seurat, Macke, Klee, Kupka, Kandinsky and Leger not to overlook the preceding breakthrough work achieved by Cezanne, Van Gogh and Gauguin.
You're probably wondering where i'm going with this but i'm trying to compress a large period of time in order to get to the present. Simply put, the modern use of colour came by way of experiments by a host of individual artists and scientists over time. The early adoption of a new colour sense formed the modern "way of seeing!" The point i'm trying to make is, we see how we see because of innovations in art; our modern perception has been "formed," it is not incidental! Colour became the critical element in the large scale paintings by Barnett Newman, Clifford Still and Mark Rothko. A few decades later we have Morris Louis, Noland, Frankenthaler and Olitski all taking the use of colour one step further into new territory. For the longest time art informed fashion and culture including advertising and much of this art was innovative and if you will, "avante garde."
Around this time in the early sixties two really key artists appear on the scene, Bridget Riley in the UK and Robert Swain in the USA. These two artists have made colour and its operation essentially the core of their artistic pursuits. Maybe their fantastic dedication to exploring and uncovering the secrets of colour have inspired me the most but it is Robert Swain that i want to look at briefly here. Take a look at the video here produced by James Kalm (Loren Munk) in New York to get a sense of Swains work in an expansive "space."
Check out the Minus Space website here for info on "contemporary abstraction."
Swain has succeeded in creating an extensive suite of visual poems large and small by making "colour" the central theme of his artistic journey. Through a process of experimentation the artist settled on a colour chart in the 70's containing 30 hues as the foundation for his methodology in painting. Settling for a system based on three components, hue, value and saturation, every colour mixed has been assigned to a chart with a corresponding sample colour card. He has also taken the time to document his process painstakingly by amassing a staggering 4896 containers of archived batch colours that have each been assigned an "HSV" number. This approach to work appears to have a clinical or scientific or maybe even mathematical disposition but the artist assures us this isn't the case.
Please take the time to check out this highly informative series of video interviews with Robert Swain by Matthew Deleget of Minus Space.
Part 1: New York & The Early Years
Part 2: Color System
Part 3: The Grid: Harmony & Contrast
Part 4: Technology & Process
Part 5: The Brushstroke & Beyond