When I was at art school perched on a high stool with a pigtail down my back, I was painting a shell, its mother-of-pearl captivating me – the principal of the art school, Byam Shaw, came up behind me and said, 'Oh Roberts', that was my maiden name, 'what colours you are seeing today.' The voice was disapproving. I was seeing colours in the iridescence that he did not see – and I have been seing them ever since, or attempting to, beause colours hide, they will only show themselves under the right conditions, and only to certain eyes at certain times.
As Bridget Riley has said: 'I take something – a colour, say yellow – merely a name, an inert motion – but if you put yellow with other colours in different proportions and positions, it starts to show a certain potential. It may appear lighter or darker, expand, flow into other colours, changing them. It could glow or reced and do on, and none of this behaviour you would know until you try. So right at the beginning I think – well, just see what yellow can do.' Such words are near to my inner eyes. I wrote about 'unknown colour' in an article in Circle, a book written in 1937 by the constructive artists Naum Gabo, Ben Nicholson, Leslie Martin and others of that time of vision and clarity.
As a child, and ever since, I have painted rainbows – the mathematics of colour, their sequence as true in painting as in music or the multiplcation table – their appearing and diappearing as unreal as myth or fairy tale. Who can find the pot of gold at the rainbow's foot, where it touches the earth? Who can see the colour at either end of the rainbow beyond ultraviolet, before infra-red? Some people can, some people can't. Goethe called it 'peach colour'. What a name for anything so magic – except that peaches are not the colour that we are speaking of, and so it is as good a word as any of those others that we use for colours – those sensations that are indescribable in words. We speak of them as canaries, as lemons, as sunflowers, if we are trying to evoke yellow. But where does it go when the crimson flashlight blinds it, or the red car I drive comes into the electric illumination of Carlisle and my car becomes neutral dun?
Flowers and jewels are the only things that express colour fairly constantly. That is why I like them, especially flowers, for flowers know how to accord their flower colour to the colour of their foliage. How do they know? I suppose the same knowledge that tells them that bees like scent – and scent means honey. How do they know those things without brain cells? They are as mysterious to us as the rainbow itself. How do they know when we like them so as to respond to our liking? Even the rainbow cannot do that. I can attract a tendril towards me, but I have never been able to call down a rainbow to my hand. Or is that what a halo is? 'Whiter than any fuller can white them.'
Be that as it may, what I have tried to do is paint pictures that can call down colour, so that a picture can be a lamp in one's home, not merely a window. A window is what landscape painters build into the density of the walls of those rectangles with which we surround ourselves and call our homes. The density of our vision of light is what I would like to pierce. Have I done it at all in any small way?
The first of my pictures was painted when I was a girl before the First World War, and last – well, yesterday; and I will try to do a better one tomorrow. There are so many colours that have not yet been seen. The tyranny of forms and recognized forms – can we not let our eyes free to see, to behold, what has not yet been seen of the spiral river of light?
Perhaps only with a blink or two at a time, out of the dimness into focus. These are the blinks I needed – everyone will have their own. It takes several blinks in the dark to see colour.
The first blink was when Byam Shaw told me that the colour the Pre-Raphaelites used had not held purple and cruel green because they had not seen colour as chiaroscuro – the photographer has taught us that light and shade define the space where things stnd - so does colour.
Then I went to India, and noticed how eastern art uses lilac to create sunlight. After I married my eyes were opened by the Post-Impressionists. The third blink was the remark Gauguin made to Van Gogh when his friend wrote to him to ask how to make blue as blue as the Mediterranean sky. Gaugin wrote back: 'A large space of blue is bluer than a small space.'
The fourth blink was from Van Gogh, when I realized how he used the complimentary colours in contrast – red against green, blue against yellow; the duality of cold and hot which leads to madness, as Van Gogh himself found out.
And the fifth blink was when Mondrian said to me: 'Red, Yellow, Blue – these three are pure. Purple, Ornage, Green are impure, not abstract colours.'
And sixth, I said to myself: 'Why? Why halt the river of light at three stations and not at seven? The sevenfold rhythm of the scale of music, and maybe of the universe – so work with seven colours in mind, either visible or invisible, evoked by their absence, and so discover the colours of delight.'
I would like to thank all those people who have helped to open my eyes, all the people who have brought those pictures and taught me by buying them, and to thank all those members of my family who have helped, each in their own way – my grandfather George Howard, friend of the Pre-Raphaelites, of WIlliam Morris and Burne-Jones, with whom we walked hand in hand in the glens of fancy – Ben Nicholson with his eyes of genius, that see reality – our daughter Kate who understands how colours make movement – a grandson who will one day make blackness into a colour. Who else? Many others. But most of all to the wild flowers of Cumberland, of Lugano, of Mycenae, who have blossomed before my eyes and inspired me, whether they knew it or whether they did not.
(Published in Winifred Nicholson; Paintings 1900-1978, Third Eye Centre, Glasgow, 1979, and again in Unknown Colour; Paintings, Letters, Writings, by Winifred Nicholson, ed. Andrew Nicholson, Faber and Faber, London 1987).
Liberation of Colour
What does the man who is not an artist want to know about colour? He likes colour, likes it bright when he is cheerful, sober for work in his office, and new when it is a fresh variety of sweet pea. He knows all about colour and what he likes, and what he dislikes. Music - that is different – he can hum 'God Save the King' and recognize 'The Marseillaise' – if he can't, he leaves music to the musicians.
Yet there is a Music of Colour - an art of colour which is to artists as scientific as the Theory of Musical Harmony. It is so new that few people, except those who are creating it, are aware that it exists. It is abstract and related to no recognizable objects – it is universal as a medium and powerful for the expression of thought and emotion. It is dynamic in that there is a far-reaching future ahead of it – a future of unexplored possibilities. Any reader who wants to know more of it, read on. Those who prefer to use their eyes and trust their eyes alone ( and are they not the wisest?) turn to the pictures, look at them, and read no further. But for those readers who like words, read on – follow me.
To begin with there are no words for colours, only a few flower names, a few jewel names, that is all, and quite inadequate to convey the myriad shades that our eyes perceive each moment. For the colours you must use your inward eye as you read these words in black print, as I call up for you the living, glowing, vibrating tones of the Rainbow Prism that are our medium. I can give you also the key to the structure on which we are working. A structure as scientific, we think, as the octave in music or the ladder of numbers of the number table.
I have set this key out in the diagram and this is how to read it. In the centre column, reading across, you will read the seven names of the colours of the rainbow. Substitute in your mind's eye their bright hues for the written words. Now these colours are to many people, may be to you, isolated phenomena, connected with known objects. Green, that's for grass; red, that's for letter boxes, etc. If one speaks of the rainbow sequence, you have to say a childish rhyme to remember the order in which the colours run – 'Richard Of York Gains Battles In Vain'. If that is your conception of colour, you must change your notions, and accept colours in their relation to one another, each in its own place as part of white light. As this snow-white light is shattered they appear one after the other as a river sequence. Each colour takes it place, and merges into its neighbour, just as each note merges into the next note in the river of sound from bass to treble. Musicians have made halts or stations along this river of sound, and called these halts notes - the notes of the scale. Just in the same way artists have made halts in the river of light and called these halts Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet. There are seen of them just as there are seven notes in the musical scale, and this is not mere coincidence, but a fundamental of the Law of Proportion.
To go back to the diagram. You will see that colour has seven halts below indicating seven degrees of depth or density, descending from the light tones of each particular colour to its darkest hue. Above each rainbow colour you will see seven more names, these rise from the highest transparency or shade of each hue to its neutralization.
These scales are the chart on which colour artists build the conceptions of their painting. They play their melodies and their harmonies to and fro, and up and down on such a chart, very much as the composer uses the keyboard of the piano or a mathematician uses the number table in the science of calculation.
Each colour is unique, but no colour can stand alone. To get the full value of its unique colour it must have other hues by its side, not for mere contrast, as black, say, contrasts with white, or square with circle, but prismatically to break up the rays of colour, as a shuttlecock is tossed, to and from the waves of light. Thus all the most brilliant things of nature are composed of tiny facets or mirrors which reflect and re-reflect each other – kingfisher's breast, jay's feather, butterfly's wing, fish's scales, flower petals in all their transparency – each may appear one hue, but in reality under a microscope are made up of many varied hues in true harmony, heightening each other's brilliance. So we cull our colours here and there, up and down the scale to create the particular colour we have in mind.
Yesterday I set out to pick a yellow bunch to place as a lamp on my table in dull, rainy weather. I picked Iceland poppies, marigolds, yellow iris; my bunch would not tell yellow. I added sunflowers, canary pansies, buttercups, dandelions; no yellower. I added to my butter-like mass, two everlasting peas, magenta pink, and all my yellows broke into luminosity. Orange and gold and lemon and primrose each singing its note. Pleased with my success I added more sweet peas and drowned my yellow completely. Another colour emerged, not yellow. Each colour thus created by a supremacy over the other colours it finds itself among, has its own message, and this message is sufficient for the gamut of human thought, and corresponds to it; as music can correspond to it. The same science of intervals plays upon human emotion.
Red is always an assault, an insult, a danger cry, shouting Revolution! Robbery! and paradoxically, 'Homage to the King'. It is the taunting flame out of the primal volcano. It is the easiest colour to see. Man saw it first. Orange is an open colour expressing prosperity and plenty, sunbaked universe, and laughter under the sun. Yellow is the atmosphere of wisdom, reflection and calm. Green is quieter still, rest and content, the emerald ripple of wave and flow. Blue is the colour we love most, its suggestion is the lark's song, hope that soars into the stratosphere. Indigo is tragedy, like red it can stand almost alone, crying to Pluto's intense blackness, to death, and to Faith.
This conjures violet, whose magic is perceived only by keen-eyed men, but it is known by song birds and honey bees. Its wish can only be used by the great colour masters, and it is a safe indication of their mastery. It has been caught best by the Eastern painters, seeing in psychic sunlight, and it is being sought by painters such as Christopher Wood, for it calls to a colour beyond itself on the sale, a colour that our eyes cannot see, although we know that it is there by the power of its ultraviolet rays. Maybe we shall see this colour some day when we have trained our eyes more precisely. Some eyes even now, looking at a rainbow or prism, can see beyond the violet, a faint trace of fuchsia pink, the indication of the red, the first colour of the rainbow into which the colours flow in their completed cycle. For past the gap we cannot see, the violet flows back into red again. Look at the double rainbow in the stormy sky. Can your eyes see a hint of this unknown colour between the outer bright rainbow and its echo?
In music we can hear the full circle of the octave, but the colour scale differs in that there is this ultraviolet we cannot see, and in that lies the poignancy of violet. We have said that each colour is unique under the sun, and so it is, but the rhythm of the scale of them is not unique, it is on the contrary the universal beat of life; the sevenfold rhythmic breaks, rests, pauses, and beats on the current of sound in music corresponding to the current of time through space on the river of rainbow in light. All that we can see, all that we can feel, if our feelings are in rhythmic harmony, falls into this sevenfold rhythm, the rhythm of our universe.
It is strange that our ears detached sounds from objects so long ago, and made the art of music; while it is so recent that our eyes have detached colour from objects and made the abstract art of colour – painting. True there have always been great colourists, but the old masters used colour to denote objects. Look at Duccio's The Annunciation, how marvelously its blues tell the story of the Annunciation. It is the tale of the Annunciation that is being told, not the tale of the blueness. The angel blue – heaven's message-bringer – coming to earth blue, reception – in the world of browns and russets. Marcoussis tells me nothing of guitars, his picture is charged with the full variety of hyacinth sky contrasted with the cloistered blueness of interior blue. If I think of the great colourists, of the Italian Primitives, Vermeer, El Greco, Rubens, I think of the subjects of their pictures, I cannot forget their subjects. But I can recall the acid green of a Picasso I saw many years ago, a green as swift as the sting of a viper, while I cannot recall what form the green took, or whether the picture was representational, abstract, cubist or surrealist.
The old masters used colours as servants to express form and the colours were limited by this. I was told when I was a student that it was not possible to paint the blue of the sky. I remember reading a letter of Gauguin's which said that you could paint the sky much bluer if you painted a larger area of blue, that the blueness depended on the the proportion of the area to the other colours. I felt my eyes beginning to open. Then I read a letter of Van Gogh's which said that the blueness of the sky depended on the contrast of the blue to its complimentary colour, orange, and that colours could be made brilliant by contrasting each colour to its complimentary, red to green, orange to blue, yellow to violet. It was not only the quantity of the area of the blueness which told, but the quality of the complementary colour. So as to get his Provence sky blue he concentrated on golden-orange, cornfields, and orange-red soil. He painted in couples, in duality, and produced great masterpieces of colour, its furnace, and its fury, but he found no sanity, for colour is not a duality, and art cannot be based on two contrasting opposites, any more than life can. Duality is no solution. But he was the first of the new colour seekers who sought colour for its own sake.
Next amongst the seekers came the abstract painters. They were the men, who, having been chased out of their comfortable lodgings of Academic Representation by the camera, sought out new fields and hunting grounds where no camera could follow them. They gave up representing objects, and sought for proportion, balance, poise. They abstracted from the scale the three primary colours, red, yellow, blue, and though a Mondrian may only contain one red or one yellow and a blue, the other one or two of the three are always in mind, evoked by their very absence, if not by their presence. To these new pioneers all other colours except the three primaries were taboo. They said to me in Paris, 'You must not use green – green is not an abstract colour,' and as for using violet, that was anathema. Colour was used by then abstractly, apart from objects, but it was used to denote form, to denote the extent of their geometry. Their form and geometry were not used to denote colour as an end in itself. That remaind to be done, but they did liberate colour from objects and colour as a living art sprang out, and artists realized its potentialities.
See how a Mondrian expresses the open-hearted sunlight of the brave new thought – basing its beauty on reality and proportion. Discarding the old mystic beauty of the past, where the great visionaries like El Greco glimpsed with ecstatic eyes the dread and awesome unseen – Mondrian's gaze is quiet and confident. He does not blink. The Old Masters nailed colour, like a carpet, tight down over forms. The abstract thought released it, and its inherent power for expression became apparent. The full power of that art is still to be made visible, and the colour artists of today are working along these tones, each in his or her own vision. Matisse still works representationally, but in full chromatic scale. He uses objects to denote colours. I should think of a pink Matisse or a jade Matisse, not of a girl or a basket of fruit. Kandinsky and Miró have given up recognizable objects and use their colour free as experiment. Matthew Smith and Graham Sutherland explore transparent intensities, Frances Hodgkins the dusky, honeyed sequences, and Paul Nash the pastel scale that closely relates itself to line. Ben Nicholson touches the duns and greys and oatmeals, the mid-tones of the neutral scales.
The present generation is not working in duality nor in triplicate, but in the sevenfold harmony of the rainbow scale, and as yet they have only ventured a little way along the road to the use of the full vitality of colour. But the way is open. Colour is free to use. You can paint 'Bluer Than The Sky'. Blueness is your aim, the sky falls below. Use the scales travelling from red to violet and the simultaneous ones from brilliance to neutral and thence to dusk. Use their sevenfold brilliance, their sevenfold depths, their sevenfold rhythm in space as geometry, not in time as in music. There is unlimited scope here. The colour will call shapes, forms and masses, recognizable if you wish, abstract if you prefer. Think in terms of intervals - wide intervals for clarion calls – red to green of vermillion to dun, close intervals for lullaby music – sea-blue to sea-green, or pearl to opal. Conjure for yourself such a picture, you will find it sheer delight, and within the range and possibility of anyone without training at an art school. Art schools teach one how to copy nature, but the joy of colour is inborn within each one of us from the child with its silver scarlet toy to the old man in his rose garden.
There is a great deal waiting to be painted, and many roads to voyage. I will leave it to you to paint new colour pictures for yourself. I hope I have obliterated for you for ever the old conception that colour must be a slave to form and must be tacked down on to objects. I hope I have shown you that colour is the vital power out of which forms, objects, images, thoughts themselves, can be created.
I have built for you the scaffolding of the artist's science upon which the new colour art is being built everywhere, even in the fiery crucible of war, because colour is as much a need for man as freedom. The savage puts a parrot's feather in his hair, the modern man paints a colour harmony, and because he is a free man of unlimited possibilities he needs a free art whose range is neither limited nor hampered in scope and yet one that meets his needs as scientifically true. He wants no nightmare nor dream fancy. Such art is search, and he wants nourishment. Nourishment of Truth, and art that answers his own inward rhythm. Such rhythm as he knows to be the rhythm of space – the heart beat of the universe.
Pictures reproduced with the original article:
Cover; Joan Miró, Painting, Red; Graham Sutherland, Part of a Row of Solicitors' Offices, Swansea, Orange; Van Gogh, Sunflowers, Yellow, Mondrian, Composition with Red, Blue, Yellow, Green; El Greco, Toledo in a Storm, Blue; Duccio, The Annunciation, Indigo; Marcoussis, Painting, Violet; Christopher Wood, The Plage, Hotel Ty-Mad, Tréboul