Monthly Archives: May 2015

Museo Reina Sofia

The horrible thing about my visit to Reina Sofia is that I can hardly remember a single thing in it, although – perhaps because – I tried to look at everything.

This is an article on the subject of visiting galleries.  Tracy Chevalier’s (author of Girl With a Pearl Earring) advice in his TED Talk is to select only one or a couple of pieces of artwork – to look slowly, and to look for a meaningful personal response to it. If you have visited with others, you can then gather to talk about  your observations and perceptions.

This is the basic tenet of the Slow Art Movement and I’m definitely going to try this approach when I next visit a blockbuster gallery.




Raoul Dufy at Thyssen-Bornemisza

What I find so appealing about Raoul Dufy’s paintings is his use of bright, abstract colour, pattern, and the way he uses the brush to draw in his work.  His is a world of imagination and play, an escape from rendering reality literally.  He seems to express visual pleasure, the scene before him merely being his initial point of departure.


His paintings are popular – colourful, decorative, hedonistic – but the exhibition aimed to show a more reflective side of his work, and how his artistic expression gradually developed. He wanted to go further than Impressionism would allow, and so he embraced Fauvism – choosing colour, line and shape as suited his composition, even if unrelated to reality.  He abandoned  the individual brushstroke in favour of large areas of bright, arbitrary colour.


In Provence he painted space and light in landscapes using colours in an abstract way, based on their relationships to each other.  Following his experiments with textile design he made the colour of figures and objects independent of their outline.  He drew with the brush – sometimes blocking out an area with opaque paint, then drawing in or over it.  His work as a result became even more ornamental and colour-saturated than before.


Dufy didn’t render reality literally – he created his own interpretation, blending contemporary subjects with ones from a nostalgic view of the past.  Exterior landscapes and townscapes, often painted from a high bird’s-eye viewpoint, and interior scenes came together in his many views through windows and balconies.


Notes on some of the paintings. 


Detail from Boardwalk, 1906



An early painting, showing his imagination at play in line and colour.  The individual small dabs of the brush in bottom right corner merge in the eye to give an impression of earth colour. Figures, shapes and objects are outlined heavily in black.  Complementary colours are juxtaposed to give an overall brilliance to the scene. Not only that, but high tonal contrasts are everywhere, adding to the sense of strong sunlight. 


Large Bather, 1914



Recalls Cezanne’s bathers.  Use of hatching, also note background scenery reduced to squares, triangles, rectangles.  Warm colours  again the use of white to give the eye respite from the crowded colours.


Open Window, Nice 1928



The colour contrasts here are relatively low key for Dufy. The heavily saturated blue block of sea and sky give way to bright reds and greens modified by pattern and line.  The furniture to the right is left white – giving an airiness to the composition, which is otherwise fairly dark.  Black pen and ink outlines of objects don’t entirely correspond to the objects’ colours. What I see in a real life interior is often drab, dreary and uninspiring – Dufy lets imagination free to create his own colourful and lively interpretation of reality. 


The Wheatfield, 1929



The horses are a good example of Dufy’s colouring being independent of the object’s outline; and also of his colours being independent of reality!  This painting looks as though it was started with large areas of colour, chosen to create depth and light; and then with drawing added (pen and ink?)  to create the objects and textures of the scene, and to support its perspective.


Port With Sailing Ship, Hommage to Claude Lorrain, 1935



Again with drawing (brush) over colour, and use of white areas to give the eye resting space.  The colours in several places are muddy as he uses similar colours (blues with greens, reds with pinks and purples) to create a murky sunset.


Still Life With Violin, Hommage to Bach, 1952



Goya at The Prado

There are more than 140 Goya paintings in the Prado, representing all the stages of his artistic life.  He looked on Velazquez as his Master; his work was was far above his contemporaries in Spain.

In the room showing some of his portraits were a couple of preparation sketches for portraits in oil on canvas.  They seemed to be at a half finished stage, and I was able to see how Goya approached painting a portrait  in both of them he started with an all-over orangey-burnt sienna undercoat; over some of that he painted a black or dark brown shape roughly outlining the sitter’s head and shoulders. He would then fill in the details of face and clothes in a more finished style.  I made a rough sketch as a reminder  

Special exhibition – Goya in Madrid – The Tapestry Cartoons

Some of the most important works in the collection are the tapestry cartoons, and when I visited there was a special exhibition bringing them together.  Goya began work on the cartoons, in the form of full size coloured paintings, for tapestries for the Spanish royalty in 1775. He made several series, the first on hunting subjects.  After the Hunting series came themes like Games, Social Classes, Music and Dancing, Children, Dreams, The Four Seasons and Air.  In them he portrays a timeless depiction of humanity, expressing  love, desire, lies and seduction through a wide range of characters, unusually including ordinary people. He drew on the creations of earlier artists such as Titian and Rubens to create his compositions, and influences as wide ranging as the Medici Chapel, Pieter Breugel the Elder and Hellenistic sculpture have been discovered in the cartoons.

So these were fundamentally intended for decorative design.  They are mostly attractively coloured, their characters are beguiling, cute, or humorous, idealised or deliciously grotesque, engaged in narrative scenes which are often entertaining to the viewer.  They are placed in a landscape which is rather generalised, or near some grand Madrid monument.  Some comment on social issues of the time – I liked Disparate Alegre, and The Wedding, scathing paintings commenting on unusual and unsuitable marriages with disastrous social consequences.

The subject matter provides obvious themes for the paintings, but I noticed that the palette of colours Goya chose also provides cohesion not only within series, but across the whole collection.  Firstly, the colouring is gentle on the eye and harmonious – no arresting juxtapositions of bright complementaries here; no extensive dark passages, but lots of light in the glowing blue, pink and lemon yellow skies throughout; for the figures and their clothes, more pretty blues, pinks and yellows, or occasionally reds harmonised with earth colours; for the scenery a subdued palette of tertiaries – tans, greys and muted greens. 

The Second and Third of May

The French were taking over Spain by stealth.  On 2nd May 1808 the Spanish rebelled. On 3rd May the freedom fighters were rounded up and massacred by the French, and the slaughter made a deep impression on Goya, who commemorated both events with paintings.  The 3rd of May has been called the world’s first modern painting and one of the great paintings of all time.

The image of the man about to be killed like an animal on the side of the road, stretching up his hands, is unforgettable. To his right, the line of rebels awaiting their fate disappears into the distance..the city and civilisation are far away.  Christian iconography is used by Goya – the poor man takes the place of crucified Christ, sacrificing himself for his country..he is lit by a lamp.. or spiritual light; his face is sad..’forgive them..’  And looking very closely, he has stigmata.  The French soldiers act as one, an inhuman, unstoppable, never-ending machine. It is one of the most chilling images of the atrocities of war – a far cry from the usual glorious, bloodless, unemotional depictions.

That the horrors of war made a profound impression on Goya is shown clearly also in his Disasters of War series of drawings, in which he depicts terrible suffering and cruelty.  Whether he actually visited the battlefields and witnessed the scenes himself I don’t know, but presumably both imagination and first hand observation come into play as they do also in his macabre drawings of witches,  crones and other grotesques.

The Black Paintings

Goya had a lot more to say on dark themes, and one room in the permanent collection of the Prado was devoted to his ‘black’ paintings, so called because he used mainly dark pigments and blacks in them, and also because of the sombe subject matter.  Individually and together they had a pretty strong impact.  They were done in the last period of his career working directly on the walls of his own house, not commissioned, and he felt able to express himself freely in them.  As a group of fourteen collectively they seem to express fear, panic, terror, hopelessness and perhaps embitterment 

One is the mysterious Drowning Dog, which appears to show a dog half submerged in the waves, swimming towards safety perhaps.  Apart from the dog’s head the picture is empty of detail, but the background surface is full of subtle layers and textures, as enigmatic as a Rothko colour field painting.


Another depicts Saturn Devouring his Son, as macabre as any of Goya’s drawings I looked at during my Drawing 1 course.  The negative spaces in the composition, the Chiaroscuro, all add to the extreme drama.



An article in The Guardian here, published 4 October 2015 explores Goya’s work and its historical background.


Chevreul’s colour theories

Chevreul ‘s work on colour covered many aspects of the subject.  To explain relationships between colou─▒rs he designed a 72 part colour wheel, which I’ve attempted to copy in my exercise on complimentary colours It shows the transition of colours between primaries, and demonstrates how complementary colours are opposites.

His book ‘Chevreul on Colours’, published in 1839,  is a practical course of study on colour, with some simple experiments that demonstrate his discoveries, and some strategies that enable artists to clarify, intensify and harmonise their colours.

He starts by explaining that objects don’t possess colour of themselves, but that colour is perceived through light reflected to the viewer’s eye. And that this perception could be altered by the reflection of light from objects nearby. He describes the effects of juxtaposed colours, or contrasts, of which he defined three types; simultaneous, mixed and successive.

Simultaneous Contrast

C states that where the eye sees two juxtaposed colours, they will appear as different as possible, both in colour intensity and tone, above all on the borders where the colours are juxtaposed. 

When observed adjacently, colours (particularly bold colours) and tones influence each other, creating an optical illusion that appears to lighten or darken the hue or tone.

The eye perceives a slight halo of a complementary colour around a coloured object. Eg a red object has a green halo & vs, so if red is actually placed next to its complementary, green, each colour will appear more vivid. But while complementary colours clarify and purify each other, by the same token non-complementary juxtapositions muddy each other.  There is similarly a phenomenon of the simultaneous contrasts of tone.  A light colour imparts a darkening to a darker neighbour, and itself appears lighter.

The phenomenon of simultaneous contrast only exists where the two colours are of sufficient size. If the areas of juxtaposed colours are small, they tend to fuse, giving an impression of a third colour – C called this a mixture of colours. (Pointillists, impressionists).

Mixed contrast

This is sometimes called colour fatigue – if we look at any colour long enough it eventually appears duller. But, the initial vibrancy is restored quickly if we just look for a moment at a spot of its complementary colour. Painters, said Chevreul, should rest their eyes periodically so their work doesn’t become drab. 

Successive contrast

This is analogous to the notion of an afterimage – if we look at a colour for a long time then glance away we see its complement for a moment – in fact we see a flash of colour that corresponds to the whole object. 


Chevreul’s influence on artists

Chevreul didn’t actually recommend the painting of simultaneous contrasts of colours, nor did he advocate using dots of colour designed to enhance brightness, but he did discuss the application of his theories to all fields of art and crafts , and so he provoked an interest among artists, many of whom adopted his theories on these subjects into their work.

He had good advice to give to artists on the effects of light on colour;  To summarise – Light falls on objects from several sources, all of which alter colour perception (tone and hue) –

  • Direct light eg the sun
  • Diffuse light eg daylight
  • Reflected light

He explained different ways to use colour and tone to harmonise a painting.  In a monochrome painting, for instance, tones could be deployed either in a scale of small increments, or in only dark to light contrasting tones. In a coloured painting one could use all bright, high key colours; or all closely grouped, dark colours. Both these would possess harmony of tone. Alternatively a contrast of tone balancing, say, bright colours through darker passages of muted shadows. Another suggestion Chevreul made was that a composition with many disparate colours could be unified by imposing an overall coloured light – this could be achieved by a coloured glaze

As a director of Dyeing and senior chemist at Gobelins, the famous tapestry manufacturer, he was more than anything interested in the influence that two colours placed side by side have on each other, which is the situation painters are constantly confronting.

Many painters at the time were searching for ways to enhance their colours, and popular interpretations of C’s law provided them with a technique – they found a recipe for this in the juxtaposition of complementary colours.  Painters were also anxious about colour harmony, and C provided them with rules on this too.

Delacroix was one who was interested in enhancing his colours through juxtaposition of complements – The Crusaders Entry into Constantinople demonstrates Chevreul’s theories – see the juxtaposed red and green flags on the floor – although it’s colours are deteriorated and hard to make out now. He made a mnemonic drawing of the complementary colours which he used for harmonising colours in his painting. 

The impressionists adopted the law of simultaneous contrast in their paintings extensively, possibly by natural instinct. Pisarro was the most interested in colour theory. He often used simultaneous contrast by careful selection of the colours of clothes – in the painting below he draws attention to the head of the figure by giving her a red headscarf, the complement of the adjacent green. 

I also noticed the optical mixing of colours to produce a third color in this painting – spots of blue and yellow in the foreground mix to give an impression of green; of red and yellow in the middle ground mix to produce an orange hue. 

I found many other examples of the harmonic use of complementary colours in the works of Impressionists; a good example is Monet’s Poppies at Argenteuil.  At the same time in the U.S., water colourist Winslow Homer carefully studied Chevreul for most of his career. Chevreul’s book was WH’S bible. There is evidence he studied the theories extensively and put them into practise sometimes designing a complete composition with the specific aim of demonstrating one of C’s observations.  He exploited the concept of simultaneous contrast in many of his paintings  eg the  blue and orange in On the Sands 

WH also employed the simultaneous contrast of tone, juxtaposing light and dark to successfully give the impression of an ocean swell, for instance, in his watercolour Hound and Hunter – the effect of the alternating light and dark slashes of tone give the effect of three dimensional wavelets supporting the craft on the surface.



Later in the 19th century artists gradually became less interested in reproducing nature exactly and more in organizing pure colour in their work.  Seurat and Signac acknowledged C’s influence.  Both used small dots of complementary colour to enhance the luminosity of their paintings.  For example in a detail from Seurat’s Young Woman Powdering Herself we can see the juxtaposition of small dots of blue and orange to create luminous flesh tones, and the shining tones of the gold bracelet; these are fuse in the eye when seen from a distance and mix optically, producing a third, different colour. 

Note – this only works to increase luminosity if the dots are big enough to be perceived at a normal viewing distance;  if they are too small, the colours simply mix to produce grey

Van Gogh was very enthusiastic about Chevreul’s theories and systematically used complementary colours in his search for colour harmony and to convey mood, as he explained in several letters to his brother Theo.  Here is his painting Bedroom at Arles, and his explanation of the colours he used;

(Van Gogh, Letter to Theo no 554 in The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, pp 416-418)

The violet of the walls against the yellow of the bed and chair; the red blanket against the green pillows and curtains; and the blue basin against the orange washstand; form simultaneous contrasts of complementary colours.

 C’s theories still proved useful to later artists, in helping them organise pure colour on near-abstract canvases .  The Fauves moved away from attempting to replicate nature through colour, and started to use colour in an intense way, expressing mood and emotion over representation.  Andre Derain’s  experiments with colour at Collioure are full of hot contrasts of complementaries  

 Red and green are juxtaposed by Matusse too, in Odalisque With Grey Culottes.


Later still, abstract artists were able to use C’s law as a sort of a grammar, to help them construct canvases of pure colour relationships  Robert Delauney was an enthusiastic disciple, using the contrast of complementary colours as a starting point for his paintings, and focussing on the sensations produced in the viewer’s eye.  Nowadays C’s influence is less directly acknowledged, but still the basis of teaching on colour.



2.1.1 mixing greys – an achromatic scale




After a few poor attempts at producing a smoothly graded anachronistic scale in black and white, I started to get a better outcome, finally ending with quite a reasonable scale.  Mixing the tones, I realised that with care a great deal of accuracy is achievable. Too often in the heat of making a painting, I mix my colours quickly and I usually make do with a result more or less far away from the colour I really want. 

The midtone scraps of paper placed at either end of the Middle scale above, are exactly the same tone. However, the one on the left placed next to white looks noticeably darker than the one placed next to black, on the right hand end.  In fact I’ve noticed before that my phone camera actually records a tone as darker and a colour as more intense when placed next to a light tone / complementary colour. 

It’s good to be aware of this optical illusion when choosing tones and colours to place next to each other – if I want a big impact, for example to give the impression of an extremely bright tone, I should place a very dark tone next to it rather than a less bright tone – this is what I was looking for in my Part 1 assignment piece, and could now go back to try it out on the leaves which should have been ‘glowing’ with light.  Similarly, if we want a colour to look extremely intense, place it next to its complementary to make it sing out. 

2.1.2 primary & secondary colour mixing

In my acrylic paintbox I have a small range of colours but in several different makes, so as well as learning about the colours I was looking forward to learning about the differences between make and quality of paint.

Having completed the exercise using the paint neat (ie no water added), my conclusion was that the more expensive paints were more intense and more heavily loaded with pigment – a little went a long way. By contrast the cheaper paints (System 3) seemed ‘thinner’ and to have poorer covering ability, needing two or three coats to get a pure, flat swatch. My Pebeo colours, although inexpensive, seemed quite reasonable quality, definitely worth continuing with for now. 

 Here are my exercises, notes, thoughts and reflections:-



It was immediately noticeable how transparent the Cadmiums were. Azo Yellow (W&N Finity Artists ) was easily the most intense. The Rowney Cryla was extremely thick and could hardly be used without dilution. I put a second coat on all – B and C were still transparent, even with a little white added, and needed 3 coats to cover the grey ground. 

Hue – Process Y and Lemon Y were similar – quite cool. Cad Y were warmer, while Azo Y is between the two

Chroma (intensity) – the Cads were the least intense, most intense were Process and especially Azo. (but Process needed a couple of coats to build up to the same intensity).

Tone (light or dark) – the Cads are darkest in tone – especially Cad Yellow Hue, but this is because of the grey ground showing through. Azo is the lightest. 

Changing the order of the colours –

Putting Cad Y Hue between Process and Azo revealed a big contrast between hue and intensity, with the Cad warmer and the other two much more intense by comparison. 

Cad next to Lemon also revealed quite a big difference in colour temperature.  


Reds – contrary to the course manual the Reds seemed more opaque than the yellows.  I did make a second set of colour swatches with a speck of white (DR S3 Tit White) added but it almost seemed to have the effect of making the colours more transparent. The Finity Artists white (bottom row) performed better than the S3. 


Hue – magenta and Aliz Crimson are fairly bluish-red. The Alizarin Crimson is almost purple. Napthol is more akin to the Cadmiums, warm with hint of orange. Crimson looked slightly bluish but not the rich colour I associate with Crimson. The colour most altered with the addition of white was the Crimson, which became a cool pink colour. 

Chroma – the Cryla Cad Red is easily the most intense, and Aliz Crimson also intense. Least intense is Cad Red Hue. 

Tone – Aliz Crim is very deep in tone, followed by Process Magenta. Lightest  are Cad Red Hue and Napthol Red Lt. 

Changing places –


I tried to compare opposites and thereby produce strong contrasts   Intersetingly, Magenta is light when applied as a single coat as above – the tone is the same as the Cad Red Hue its next to. 


Blues – 

Initial observation when I put the first row of swatches down was the very poor covering quality of the S3 ultramarine compared to the Finity Ultramarine next to it. Laying down the next row, mixed with white as suggested, I was amazed at how the colour of the Process Cyan was suddenly revealed. The S3 Ultramarine was a very poor colour still, tempted to throw it away seeing it here. 

Hue – Process, Indigo and Prussian are greenish. Ultramarine and Cobalt are warmer blues. The pure hue of Process Cyan is brought out when white is added. Indigo with white is quite a murky hue. Cobalt with white is a sky blue, ultramarine is a much richer, deeper colour. 

Chroma – most intense is ultramarine. Cyan is also very intense, but needs white to bring out the colour. Cobalt and Prussian are less intense. 

Tone – indigo, Prussian and Cyan are very dark. Cobalt is lightest. 

Changing places – 



Cyan with white contrasted highly in tone with Prussian (AF).  A good colour temperature contrast would be Cyan with Ultramarine. 

 A lot depends on whether white is added and if so how much – tone can be infinitely adjusted. 


Best primaries – I identified the best, purest primary colours, two of them made by mixing with a speck of another colour to correct the balance – 


Scales –  

With my primary colours I carefully made some scales aiming to transition smoothly from left to right. 

At the beginning of the scales I only had to add a speck of the second colour to yellow to get the next hue. As I drew nearer the pure second colour I had to add increasing amounts of it to make a visible difference. 

The first two scales produced clear secondaries – orange and green – in the middle. The colour in the middle of the red-blue scale is murky brown, not purple or violet. I made mixes with cobalt and alizarin Crimson, and with magenta and ultramarine and compared these to my pure cobalt violet. 


Scales, maintaining tone

This was difficult, even with the aid of a monochrome view on my phone camera, checking at each stage. 


The photos show that on the yellow to red scale I got slightly dark in the middle, but overall it was quite accurate. Yellow to blue got more noticeably dark in he middle, but I corrected this towards the end

Red to blue was the most difficult, and I can see by squinting at the original that the last three positions are too light. The photos don’t show accurately all the nuances of tone though – it’s important to realise the camera itself sees in a particular way.