When I think of colour, a myriad of things come to mind, a plethora of people who have inspired me, a menagerie of memories in my own stages of creative development. I find it hard to bring any order to these thoughts as they don’t seem to be linked by any traditional taxonomic rules, they’re ethereally connected like an aurora of the mind. They dance through my visual cortex in a Mandelbrot waltz, like a wild beast.
Around 300 years ago Isaac Newton published his second major book, titled ‘Opticks‘. It is considered one of the greatest scientific publications in history, and you can read the full book on Google for free. Around 200 years prior to this, Leonardo Da Vinci was among the first to theorise the principles of colour and give terms to the behaviour of light and colour in art.
These two chaps are mountains… but when I think of colour, the first person to pop into my mind is Edwin Babbitt. I’m not sure why? He didn’t think much of Newtons theories. I’ve read large portions of a book he published in 1878 with the glorious title “Principles of Light and Color”. The book as more of a poetic diary of personal thoughts, rather than a scientific document, and perhaps that is the appeal.
“LIGHT reveals the glories of the external world and yet is the most glorious of them all. It gives beauty, reveals beauty and is itself most beautiful.” Edwin D. Babbitt
The Psycho-Magnetic Curves from Edwin Babbit’s Principles of Light and Color
Babbitt believed everyone emitted a field of colour. He believed sickness was an imbalance of the natural harmony of the colour field and that psychics could see this. He invented several medical devices that used colour and light to heal. The Chromo-lens was a coloured, lens shaped bottle that would charge contained water into a healing medicine. Chromatherapy became very fashionable and was dubbed by the media “Blue Glass Mania”.
Theosophist’s Annie Besant and Leadbetter described eminating auras as “Thought forms” believing that thoughts are radiating vibrations and floating forms. These ideas were presented in their treatise, Thought Forms, 1901.
Thought Forms Colour Chart – Annie Besant, 1901
Another chap of the time, Colonel Dinshah P. Ghadiali turned colour into a whole medical practice, suggesting diabetics stop using insulin and and “irradiate yourself with Yellow Systemic alternated with Magenta on Areas 4 or 18”. Ghandiali was imprisoned for 3 years for endangering lives by delaying the appropriate treatment of serious diseases with a machine that was proven to be medically ineffective.
Dinshah Ghadialih’s Spectro-Chrome, 1920
Although chromatherapy is considered an alternative medicine, colour has always had a profound effect on artists. Kandinsky remarks, “Colour directly influences the soul,” and was not only inspired by Gauguin’s brilliant colours but also the writings of chromotherapy; “Anyone who has heard of colour therapy knows that coloured light can have a particular effect upon the entire body”. Kandinski was a synesthete, a condition where cognitive or sensory pathways can cross over causing involuntary reactions in others. In Kandinski’s case, he could hear colours.
“Sometimes I could hear the hiss of colours as they mingled” Wassily Kandinski
Kandinsky intended to reproduce the effects of synesthesia within his paintings. He wanted to create musical effects with alternating colour combinations in order to prove the unseen power of colour. He wanted to create physical reactions within the viewer of his work.
“Colour which, like music, is a matter of vibrations, reaches what is most general and therefore most indefinable in nature: its inner power” Paul Gauguin
Wassily Kandinsky – Squares with Concentric Circles 1913
I first discovered Franz Marc at the age of 12. I painted a blue version of his ‘Yellow Cow’, perhaps influenced by Sonic the Hedgehog. He wasn’t my first experience with colour in art but he was certainly the first artist that opened up the world of colour to me. Previous to this I had only thought of colour as a true representation of reality, probably not in those words though.
Yellow Cow – Franz Marc
Franz Marc and Wassily Kandinsky were both key figures in the movement ‘Der Blaue Reiter‘.
White on White – Kasimir Malevich, 1917
Kazmir Malevich’s more famous works don’t necessarily jump to mind when most people think of colour, as these are mostly black or white. It can be just as powerful to use little or no colour as it is to use highly saturated, vivid colours. His best known works are ‘Black Square’ and ‘White on White’, both having very little colour. But both incredibly important works of colour. They do actually contain a slight hue, ‘White on White’ consists of a slightly nicotine stained off-white square within another slightly different slightly off-white square. For Malevich, ‘Black Square’ represented “the supremecy of pure feeling”. Moving away from representation and subject matter, his work focused on the purity of geometry and colour. He described the square oxymoronically as a “full void”, showing how powerful, very little could be.
“Color is the essence of painting, which the subject always killed” Kasimir Malevich
Black Square – Kasimir Malevich, 1913
I have always felt a strong connection between Malevich’s ‘White on White’ and John Cage’s 4’33”. Both of them conceptual pieces defined by a lack of form, and defined more by the context of which they are experienced. It can be said that in a similar way to Cage’s 4’33”, Malevich’s ‘White on White’ is defined by the ambient light that falls upon the canvas from the environment it is in. Perhaps beyond that, it is further defined by the reaction of the viewer, that aren’t influenced by the usual cultural associations of form and subject matter.