What is it that moves a person to paint pictures? And what is it that imbues a good painting with a peculiar, magical life of it own that defies logical, cold-blooded analysis? These are big questions, and men have been asking them for a long time…namely Graham Collier, in his art study book, Form, Space & Vision, published by Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, NJ, in 1963.
By pictorial qualitywe mean, “an expressive and significant combination of shapes and colors.” A painting springs from an urge to give expression to some aspect of experience that is affecting us powerfully, and the painter, through an expressive and significant use of shapes and colors, thus reveals this attitude to experience.
The second question is more difficult to answer—perhaps even defies answer—as the whole human capacity for imagination defies analysis, and paintings are the imagination given tangible form…any expressive and significant combination of shapes and colors has a strange power to affect us.
Shape and color in painting are significant in two ways. They affect our mood and suggest ideas. They strike at both the head and the heart. The painter, perhaps, has an advantage over the poet and the composer, at least initially, for humans seem to respond more immediately to a thing seen than to words or sounds, which take more time to absorb. The painter also has the advantage of color, which can so strongly affect the viewer, imparting joy or gloom, tranquility or restlessness, excitement or passivity. Pictorial quality—color and shapes—exists, irrespective of the subject matter of the painting. And abstract or nonrepresentational painting may be totally without pictorial quality; so may a representational painting. On the other had, both types of painting may possess it. Pictorial quality exists quite independently of the style of the painting, because people can respond to shape and color qua shape and color. We can react to these elements in themselves without having to consider why that has a particular shape or color: we can react to them in the abstract. And this response is largely intuitive; we do not have to stop to reason how we feel about combinations of shapes and colors.
The aim of the following experiment will be to produce a nonobjective painting by free-drawing means. The painting will evolve through a series of mental and concrete images, each stimulating the production of a new image that can be incorporated in the growing pictorial design. The finished painting may have pictorial quality; it may be “an expressive and significant arrangement of shapes and colors,” or it may not. That will depend on how effectively you are able to capture in concrete form the new images that suggest themselves in the exercise, using the unfamiliar mediums of wax and ink. Obviously, your instinctive response to shape and color will determine how significant and expressive are your images.
THE EXPERIMENT…will introduce the three basic colors—red, yellow and blue—and the range of complementary colors that can be derived from them. To exploit this exercise fully, be prepared to learn by experience as you go along. The experiment is deliberately designed to keep you one step ahead in your response to the developing situation and to encourage you to make mental notes as results occur. As in much of the work of the previous sections the value here is not so much in the particular piece of work as in expanding the range of your aesthetic awareness and expression.
To supply the color for this painting, waterproof inks will be used because they are both intense in color and transparent; they are also quick drying and extremely permanent. When red waterproof ink is placed over a yellow one, the resulting color is a pure orange. Since the inks dry very fast and do not mix together their transparency allows them to show through each other and thus produce and orange that is purer than that gained through normal mixing of pigments. For gaining a firsthand, practical knowledge about the basic colors and their derivatives, waterproof inks offer a much more efficient and exciting method than mixing pigments on a palette and then applying the new color to paper. I addition to the colored inks, we will introduce a resistant medium in this experiment—in this case, wax. The wax will resist the ink and thus render areas of the painting impervious to color. It will enable us to build up both shape and color in a way that could not be achieved by direct painting methods.
Two sheets of paper are required, each about (14” x 16”) in size, one a sheet of newsprint and the other a good quality, smooth-surfaced white drawing paper. For the wax-resist, you can use an ordinary white wax candle. The best inks for this are vermillion red or crimson, cyan blue and lemon yellow—the three basic colors from which, theoretically, all the others can be made. It is important to use the clearer reds and blues mentioned, because brown-reds and purple-blues do not work well when overlaying the other inks; they produce secondary hues that are muddy rather than clear and distinct.
To begin, cut or tear from an old newspaper a wide range of assorted shapes—just cut or tear quite freely as the inclination takes you, from long and thin shapes to fat and squat ones. When you have a good collection on hand, take the sheet of newsprint and glue a number of these cut and torn shapes onto it. Do this without too much conscious deliberation or selection, but keep an eye on the contrasting qualities of each shape selected, and place each where it would seem best to complement those around it. Some will overlap each other; some will be partially or completely isolated. When you feel that the sheet of newsprint is reasonably well covered, neither too crowded nor too empty, then stop.
Although you will end up with an apparently meaningless jumble of newspaper shapes, they will finally embody a combination of shapes and colors that will grow through processes of addition and subtraction to an inevitable point of completeness.
For the second stage, you will need the sheet of good quality drawing paper. Make a pencil drawing of the design of the glued newspaper shapes. Do not draw merely the outline of the large figure, but include the overlapping lines of each individual paper piece. Once this is done, the first sheet is no longer required and can be thrown away. It has served its purpose by providing the free and nonobjective arrangement of shapes that you now have as a drawing. Now take the white wax candle and sharpen it down to a good drawing point so that it can do some intricate work. Approximately one-third of the total paper area has to be waxed over with the candle in this first step; and when you are considering where to wax, the spaces as well as the shapes should be considered. Distribute the wax regions fairly evenly over the whole paper area, applying the wax quite firmly, to close the grain of the paper. It is not necessary to follow closely the pencil outlines of the shapes or spaces; and if you want to, wax only a part of a shape or space. Since it is easier to develop secondary and tertiary colors by this overlay method, if we work from light hues to more intense hues, we will start with the yellow ink.
Using a large watercolor brush loaded with ink, lay a rapid wash of yellow over the whole of the paper. Do this in a few quick actions and avoid the temptation to go back with the brush to touch up areas. Notice what happens with this first lay-in of color. The waxed portions, being resistant to the color, remain white although parts take on a certain speckled quality where the wax did not completely close up the grain of the paper. The result is a yellow sheet of paper, with some white or speckled shapes, and it already suggests some emerging concrete images. It is at this stage that the basic character of the painting can be discerned. You are now in a position to sense the pictorial quality of the painting, as well as to deliberate on what should happen in the next stage of development.
The following steps become more complicated. New areas have to be protected by the wax-resist, and some of the areas first protected have to be scraped clear of wax. The reasons for these steps are fairly obvious. The wax that must be now applied over parts of the yellow area will protect the yellow shapes from the second color to be applied, namely, red. Areas of yellow that are not waxed will become orange; areas that are protected will remain yellow r yellow speckled with red. Scraping off some of the wax from the white or speckled parts will allow certain areas to become pure red. If all these whitish areas that were first protected were to remain waxed, then the red ink could not show up as its own pure color. Which parts of the yellow areas you protect and which areas you scrape off must be your decision. Only when the yellow ink is thoroughly dry and these second two operations are complete should the red ink be flooded over the whole of the paper. On no account should any attempt be made to ‘paint in’ specific areas or shapes; each color as it is applied must cover all the paper.
After the application of the red ink, examine the design again to see what has happened. Where the red has gone over the yellow, there will be rich and luminous orange shapes. Where the yellow was waxed, pure yellow or yellow-speckled red will remain. The areas of white that were de-waxed will be pure red or red speckled with white. Where the white was left waxed from the beginning, white will remain, although by now it ay be speckled with color. A great change has come over the painting with this application of the second color. The process of waxing and de-waxing has created secondary shapes that emerge only as the new inks, brushed over the surface produce color changes. In fact, it is becoming obvious that you are really drawing with was, although the results of the drawing appear only as the ink is brushed on. A coherent design is beginning to emerge, a design that has little in common with our first page of newspaper shapes.
Before applying the blue, study the painting closely, for the third color has the power to eliminate all the subtle colors and textures that are now present in the work. Since this color, too, is applied over the whole paper, you should try to imagine what effect it will produce. The orange will become brown, the red will become a rich violet, the yellow will be green, and the white will be blue. Blue is a potent colorizer; and of the three basic colors, it should be handled with the greatest care. If applied hastily, the blue can destroy much of the quality that has already been achieved. Therefore, the final layers of wax that repel the blue must be carefully applied; and any wax that is to be removed should be thoughtfully considered, so that when the blue is finally brushed over the whole painting, the colors change only where change is desired. Try to work in all the possible color changes somewhere on the painting, but remember that too many white areas are not desirable because they tend to break up the design.
After the blue ink is applied, a complete series of colors should appear: yellow, orange, red, brown, violet, green and blue. Some of the areas will be speckled, and a few hybrid hues will probably show up. Not that only brown is a tertiary color, this is, a color produced from three sources.
To see the true value of the colors (particularly any white regions,) the subtlety of their gradations, ad the more distinct outlines of the shapes, scrape the picture clean of wax with a razor blade. With the removal of the opaque film of wax, the whole painting should begin to glow. If you want to continue working on it, you can repeat the procedure with each color, or use other colored inks to produce a considerable range of new hues.
Conclusions: Only the combination of wax and transparent inks produces these special textures and distinctive color harmonies. In other words, some of the pictorial quality results from the natural properties of the materials uses; a fact that is always true in painting, and one that makes it important to know you medium thoroughly.