Unknown Colour


Colour has been used chiefly in the past as a means to display form – form being thought of as its obvious master.

The freedom of abstract thought has come, and shows us a future lying ahead of colour as one of the three great abstract arts.

Mathematics – music – colour. To those artists whose inspiration comes in the form of shape and shape relationships, colour may continue to be the means of expressing those shapes, unless it be that they find that light and shade is a more suitable means for their purpose.

But to those artists whose inspiration comes in the form of colour, of colour alone, without reference to object or object sense, it is no longer necessary to set about seeking some form into which the colour may be tagged to give it being. Naturally colour must have area, space – but let that area be directed by the needs of the colour itself and not by some consideration of form. A large blue square is bluer than a small blue square. A blue pentagon is a different blue from a triangle of the same blue. Let the blueness itself evolve the form which gives its fullest expression. This, the starting-point within secret artistic creation.

From thence, the breadth of the field of colour comes into view – its importance as yet little explored by abstract research. For abstract research a scale is invaluable upon which to base discoveries, and from which to measure them. Mathematics, with its number scale from one to infinity, has been up till now the medium of man's intellectual abstract thought. There is no scale of number discernible in nature. This was born within the intellect of man – not within his emotions, for there is no emotional quality in Mathematics. Music, with its scale from base to treble, has been the medium for abstract emotion. Its scale of sound is not audible in nature and was discovered by the Spirit of man and has been carried to a high pitch of development. It is strange that its sister art of colour has been left in its primitive state. It is only in the last fifty years that its potency has begun to stir in the minds of artists. The scale of colour is visible in nature in the Rainbow and the Prism. Light is one, and can be seen and thought of as one. By prismatic action it can be broken into its component rays, each one a distinct colour. Red, orange, green, blue, violet – a scale line ascending and descending from red hot to violet cold.

But as well as being a line it has a quality also of being a circle of rhythmic change. One can see if one looks intently enough below the hot red a cerise which merges into harmony with the violet, and next to that violet with an almost imperceptible glow of magenta pink which echoes that cerise. This affinity is perceived when one considers that one can have a red with more or less violet in it – and a violet with more or less pink or rose in it. But one cannot have a green with the least bit of either red or violet in it. It can also be seen in nature in the wave-like sequence of double and treble rainbows, following the bright arc of the first rainbow. Music differs from colour in this: you cannot have a sound in which all musical notes are contained. In the simplicity of the great white light all colour lives.

Any true colour picture gives out light like a lamp. In twilight it looks like a luminosity in a better light the difference in the colours begins to tell, and they grow more and more distinct, markedly individual, as the light intensifies, to fall back again into a luminosity, a glow if the light wanes. It is only in the clearest, most unclouded light of the sun that you can see the greatest attenuation and differences of hue. The same yellow is quite a different colour on a clear grey day than it is on a day of Mediterranean sunshine. So, the scale of colour is held within the fullness of sunlight, which is forever breaking apart, revealing its diverse hues, contrasts and affinities and then closing again upon this scale in the oneness of white light.

Further, the colour depends not only upon the quality and quantity of the source of light, but upon the capacity of our human eyes to receive that colour. We do not know whether the eyes of one individual see the same colour as the eyes of another individual, and we have no means of ever knowing this. It has been thought that the eyes of primitive man saw only the bright colours at the base of the spectrum, red and oranges, and that only as our civilization advanced our eyes came to see the range of colour we now see. Whether this be so or not it is certain that at moments of low vitality, however bright the sunlight may be, one sees only dimly the differentiation of colour, one sees light and its degrees but not colour. At moments of high vitality and keen perception the differentiation deepens with intensive power.

We know that there are many rays in light whose chemical action is powerful, but which are not visible as colour to our eyes as they are tuned at present. It may be that in the future our eyes will develop to see ultraviolet and infra-red, but in the meantime we have to take them into account in our scale without seeing them. That is to say, that in thinking of the circle of colours, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet, we must not think of it as a finite circle, but as one where there is a gap of unknown, unseen colour, which comes in between the violet and the red, and is necessary to their harmony. Violet is the colour of highest tension, the colour only visible in its beauty at moments of high vitality and clearest sunlight. It is the difficult colour to use, and those artists whose primary interest is form always remain within the safe precincts of the lower notes of the scale, vermilion and blue with brown and neutrals. These artists who have been interested in the potency of colour have always investigated violet – though they have rarely used more than a little of its suspicious magic. We have not yet learnt to correlate it to its unseen neighbour and beyond that to fire past the gap in the circle of our scale. We have then somewhat felt our scale situated somewhere between the orb of the sun and the retina within our eyes, closing and opening - closed it is white light, open it is the prismatic play of pristine colours.

How has this scale been used? Hardly at all – as such. Colour was used as architecture by the old masters, as melody by the Easterns.

The Post-Impressionists started to think scientifically. They separated colour into two halves as with a knife, and taking the two complementaries, red and green, or orange and blue, or yellow and violet, and contrasting them one against the other, thereby very simply made light and darkness.

Since then the development has been towards clarity of colour.

The Neoplastic artists have taken the simplest colours that they could, the three primaries, red, blue, yellow – used them as fixing points and only them. Used their treble accord in counterpoint against the pairs of opposites in the art of shape – horizontal against vertical – mass against line – elevation against plan, etc, etc. The colours wait to be used further. The nature of abstract colour is utter purity – but colours wish to fly, to merge, to change each other by their juxtapositions, to radiate, to shine, to withdraw deep within themselves.

For a long time they have been nailed down like carpets.

Some people think that other mediums than paint will be discovered for the expression of colour – and this is probable – but the one that is offered of artificial light is not sufficient – for artificial light is transitory, and we seek something free, but stable, calculated in clearness.

Meanwhile, as the eyes of man have seen more colour, more precise paint pigments have been invented. After the Impressionists had seen gold glory the cadmiums were invented. After abstract freedom was seen the celestial Monastral Blue was invented. We need a violet paint. But if we had that we should have a range of pigments capable of conveying the tension of sunlight and could go ahead with our investigations. What else will be is the secret of the living present.

Into words they cannot be put, and will never be put. They will be colour, and colours alone will state them. But just as in music, the most abstract music, there are abstract states of human emotion which correspond to the music, so there is in colour.

If I should wish to convey an impression of a piece of music to another person there is no way other than music of doing this – but I can give some slight indication of the kind of music it is by giving an emotional analogy. I can say that the music was solemn – or it expressed joy.

So with colour we can say by analogy with human feeling the type of territory of the human spirit to which we are taken by colour – and very roughly, for we are at the very beginning of our investigations – we know that these will not be intellectual, for colour is not intellectual.

We know also that they will not be dramatic, for colour is not concerned with the clash of opposites and their movements. Very, very tentatively one may speculate that the research of colour may investigate into the territory of the abstract quality of our emotions, that quality of which we know hardly anything, and in the direction of states of being – and being itself. What makes one suggest this to oneself is that those words which evoke colour out of blindness are such words as freedom, wonder, deep content.

(First published under the name Winifred Dacre in Circle – International Survey of Constructive Art, Faber and Faber, London 1937, (reprinted 1971). Also published in Unknown Colour; Paintings, Letters, Writings by Winifred Nicholson, ed. Andrew Nicholson, Faber and Faber, London 1987).


King Pellinore's Wife


When King Pellinore found his castle rocking and tossing and falling down whenever he built it up, none of the magicians or wise men or astrologers could tell him why – until Merlin, god-inspired, told him that there were two dragons in the ground deep down under his castle, unseen by anyone, who fought – and when they fought the castle rocked and he had to use up all his wealth to build it up again.

Very few have recognized the twin dragons of art and life – art in the sense of music, writing, painting here and now, life in the sense of living, home, children, relationships.

Any and every musician, however little distance they have gone, has a potential... They one day will have that complete fulfillment of expression, and the musician inside them is a dragon that knows it. If he be a musician (or artist) as close to completion as Johann Sebastian Bach or Cézanne, he lies still and listens to the sons of the morning singing for joy. If he is not as old and wise as that, he may kick up a fight and knock over the conscious castle.

But the other dragon – the perfect, home-loving dragon, the unique, special, family relationship, different from any other, the mother-child relationship that is perfect and allows no intrusion, fights too, and says – "My perfect home is a holy place, and a sanctuary, and don't you come enticing me out into the forest of adventure, unknown, unheard – marvel of music (or art) that takes time away from my perfect home-making work." So the perfect home-making, bringing up children, makes one tired because, heard or unheard, the other dragon is calling...

No life practice is wrought out without effort and courage and patience and forbearance and love – and plenty of other graces as well, as many as one can muster – and the work is done in the secret closet of one's own consciousness...

The expressing of perfect home, perfect wife, perfect mother is very close to the expressing of perfect musical harmony – and when one reaches that point the two dragons become friends and helpmates. Very few human beings have found that out, and any that have, have taken time over it – and have been supported and 'understood' by those, or by someone, near them.

A man has a creative artist demon beneath him too – but a man in his life-working dragon is often doing a highly disciplined professional job, and the expression of that keeps that dragon in harness. A woman's life is less disciplined and it has no time schedule and is far harder to resolve – especially on the human plane of emotional human love. Which woman up till now has been a creative artist of the first category?

(Published in Unknown Colour; Paintings, Letters, Writings by Winifred Nicholson, ed. Andrew Nicholson, Faber and Faber, London 1987).


I Like To Have A Picture In My Room


I like to have a picture in my room. Why? Without one, my room feels bare however much furniture I may have; and I will tell you the part that a true picture plays, and that nothing else can play, in my room.

Pictures have played many roles. They have been altar-pieces, fetished, idols, the courtly decorations of palaces, historical records, vain fancies, and vain fables. My dwelling room has too much going on in it for such extravagant luxuries. In the morning it is a sanctuary, in the daytime a factory, in the evening a place of festivity, and through the night a place of rest. I want a window in it, I want a telephone, a radio and a television set. All these are contacts and doors in the the outer world, But besides these, and more than all these, I want a focal point, something alive and silent. A bunch of flowers on the window sill? Yes, but they will wither. A cat curled up on the hearth? Yes, but it will go away and prowl upon the rooftops.

A picture will always be there. It will make no sound. It will not expect me to look at it while I am tapping at the type written while I am cleaning the floor with the vacuum cleaner. It will wait. It will always be there. If it is a true picture I shall never grow tired of it. It will have the quality of tirelessness. I shall see something fresh in it when I glance at it tomorrow. However familiar I have grown with it, I shall not come to the end of its friendship. It does not matter in what style it is painted. When I was a child I had a reproduction of a Dutch picture – a girl in a red jacket, reading a book in a shaded interior. I watched her read for long peaceful hours.

I now have a Mondrian on my wall – merely a contrast of horizontal against vertical lines crossing white spaces, and one poised yellow square. I have known busy politicians who cared nothing for art, come and write their speeches in the room where the Mondrian lives. That small canvas expresses the still order behind the turmoil.

For that is the quality that the picture for my room must have. In the ebb and flow of the outer world, I must have a place where the harmony of space is giving its verdict. I like harmony to be expressed in colour. For colour is one of the surest means of expressing joy – the joy that resides in a happy home. If the colours be welded scientifically, they can glow – even make luminosity in the even light of an interior; and added to this light my picture must have recesses within itself, a flower bud or a distinct prospect, expressing the secret within all that is true. For it must certainly be a picture of truth, not photographic nor realistic, the surfaces of appearances – but measure and rhythm and scale that are its inner essence.

So the picture for today's dwelling-house must be an anchor for security, must be a lamp for delight, must be a well of peace, and when it has attained all that – and we are asking much of it – we shall ask something more, we shall ask it to be a ladder – not one of those realistic ladders made of wood, that reach as far as the ceiling, but one of those upheld in places of stones, that have no limit, not even the sky; and upon which translucent thought may travel up and far way and also down and back to the home hearth fire.

That is what I want of a picture in my home. Is it the same as yours?

(Published in the Christian Science Monitor 1954, and Unknown Colour; Paintings, Letters, Writings by Winifred Nicholson, ed. Andrew Nicholson, Faber and Faber, London 1987).


I Like Painting Flowers


I like painting flowers – I have tried to paint many things in many different ways, but my paint brush always gives a tremor of pleasure when I let it paint a flower – and I think I know why this is so.

Flowers mean different things to different people – to some they are trophies to decorate their dwellings (for this plastic flowers will do as well as real ones) – to some they are buttonholes for their conceit – to botanists they are species and tabulated categories – to bees of course they are honey – to me they are the secret of the cosmos.

This secret cannot be put into image, far less into the smallness of words – but I try to. Their silence says to me – 'My rootlets are moving in the dark, in the wet, cold, damp mud – My leaflets are moving in the brightness of the sky – My flowerface has seen the darkness which cannot be seen, and the brightness that is too bright to see – has seen earth to sun and sun to earth.' 

Art is the desire to resolve opposites - to find a path in the jungle of phenomena - so artists choose those things that are furthest removed from one another – Mondrian, for instance, chose the Horizontal against the Vertical – and sought the logic between them. But I have seen his eyes when he looked at fields out of the train window. We were travelling between Paris and Calais. He had been 'long in city pent'. He said that it was passing of the verticals of telegraph poles across that horizontal of the horizon that he was watching with such eagerness. But was it? Something below the intellectual vision of abstract constructions was reflected in the eyes of the master artist. Was it the sunset radiance over the spring green meadows?

Some artists find their ultimate opposites in the contrast of the circle against the square – but I wonder whether the measure of the rectangular environment and of human beings, are the true opposites.

The flower world thinks they are not. You never circumscribe within the prison of a square bed even the tamest of flowers. They struggle, they sprawl – and if curtailed, they invite the worst weeds to come and join in the fray with them. They know more geometry than Pythagoras – and all sunflowers practice mathematical law in the spiral arrangement of their seeds. For resolving the ultimate of the universe is not all that they can tell – listen, they will show how to turn light into rainbows. They know even better than Bridget Riley. What would we do for Rose without roses? for violet, for cyclamen, for primrose, without their flowers? Flower hues change and glow and fade and are gone dead like dead leaves, gone but everlasting like the blossoms that Persephone gathered in spite of Pluto, black king of the underworld. High, low, far away, near at hand – what more fundamental opposites can be found – 'Tis my faith that every flower enjoys the air it breathes' – of course it does, for what greater enjoyment than to turn common air into perfume, light into rainbows and the irreconcilable opposites into neighbourliness of brush strokes.

(From The Flowers of Winifred Nicholson, Crane Kalman Gallery, London 1969 and reprinted in Unknown Colour: Paintings, Letters, Writings, by Winifred Nicholson, ed. Andrew Nicholson, Faber and Faber, London, 1987, as 'The Flower's Response').