I’ve been thinking a lot in recent days about Art and about my response to the art of other people and also my own attempts to create *Art*. I knew I was going to be an artist one day when I grew up (which I’m still waiting to happen!) from a fairly young age, or at least, when I became aware that this would be my life’s ambition, I was twelve.
As a small child, I’d always enjoyed colouring books and had hundreds of them, which was unusual – most of my pals had a couple that they occasionally scribbled in, when bored perhaps, but I adored all of mine. I recall receiving my dollar-a-week pocket money (this was the Sixties and I am referring to a Bajan (Barbadian) Dollar, which was probably worth about four shillings at the time – 20p in today’s currency) on Saturday mornings as we embarked on the weekly grocery shopping at the supermarket and I spent every cent on the same things, week in, week out. I always bought a cheap colouring book or a small notebook – sometimes lined, sometimes plain – a pencil, a sharpener, an eraser, a wooden ruler and a pack of short colouring pencils. Boy, you could get a lot for your money in those days eh?
Very occasionally I would buy a ‘magic’ colouring book. These were incredibly exciting as you could make colour *magically* appear on the page by the simple application of a little water on a clean paintbrush! The plain, linear image was instantly transformed into brightly coloured-in images and therefore became much, much more attractive (well actually, not really so brightly, maybe on a scale of 1 to 10 where 10 is lurid, pure intense colour and 1 is, frankly, *meh* (grey) these might score a 3 or 4, if I was lucky!). I was, for the longest time, inexplicably entertained by these objects. It was a more innocent time is all I can say!
I did this every week for the three years that I lived in Barbados as a child and then carried on in much the same vein when we returned to the UK at the end of the 60’s, until I became an avid reader of Enid Blyton novels and started blowing my precious pennies on Malory Towers and Famous Five tales. By the time my mother died, when I was thirteen, I had so many colouring books and stationery items as well as paperback copies of Ms Blyton’s entire back catalogue that it was simply impossible to take them with me to my new home. Of all the things I regret in life (actually, there really aren’t that many things) this is definitely one of the most painful regrets – leaving my beloved early attempts at art and my books.
For my twelfth birthday my mother bought me a ‘Reflect-A-Sketch’ contraption that allowed the participant to see the reflection of a quite complex line drawing and trace it onto a blank page opposite. The resulting sketch was startlingly accurate – I tried it and found that I could make really effective drawings and when I showed one to my art teacher she was delighted with me; an Artist was BORN! Whilst of course it’s barely more advanced than simply tracing an image, it did bridge the gap in concept between tracing and using an artists’ eye to accurately judge where a mark should be made on a blank piece of paper. It helped me to make complex spatial judgements and translate those into hand-eye co-ordination effectively to produce desired results. It really inspired me to experiment with all sorts of mark making and that’s when I knew that I wanted to be an artist.
It’s interesting isn’t it that children are drawn to colour like moths to a flame?
I think that’s because, of all the elements in Art (line, shape, form, tone, texture, pattern and colour), colour is the most essentially visual element. Actually, I’d put them into two groups – with colour closely followed by tone (sometimes referred to as ‘value’) in the singularly visual group and the others, line, pattern, shape, form and texture in a more graphically-tactile group.
Those ‘tactile’ elements are important visually, of course, we’d find it pretty difficult to describe artworks without them, but I don’t think of them as only visual elements. A line can be ‘seen’ without open eyes – you can touch a line, such as the seam on your trousers perhaps, following its path from A to B and understand what it’s doing there. A line defines the edges of one space as distinct from another. Likewise shapes – essentially just enclosed lines, and forms – fundamentally three-dimensional shapes, both can be appreciated using other senses. Patterns are simply a series of repeated shapes and texture, particularly ‘actual texture’, is essentially a tactile experience – even visual texture can often be felt through the sense of touch as richly as through the eyes.
But colour is, I would argue, almost entirely visual. Now that’s not to say that colours cannot be seen by people who have limited or no ability to ‘see’ in a conventional sense, because I am aware of extensive research that has led to the development of ‘sensory environment rooms’ to help give visually impaired children (and adults) some intense sensory experiences and we can all ‘see’ colours in our mind’s eye of course, whether or not we have our eyelids open or closed. These developments are wonderful and I’m sure give invaluable experiences to people who might otherwise live their lives without ever seeing colour like the rest of us do. It makes me appreciate my sense of sight even more.
I’m also aware that everyone sees colour and tonal value in slightly different ways – it’s all to do with the science of wavelengths of colours and there’s no way this side of Hell that I could attempt to explain all of that; for the purpose of this essay, I’m simply assuming that most of us know that what one person sees as a bright, intense azure may for someone else be a different experience altogether. I get that.
But as an artist, I present my work to the outside world, to everyone else, with my own perspective of the colours and tonal values that look a certain way, to ME.
I cannot dispute with you (or anyone else) whether or not a line is out of place, or the shape is accurate or the texture and/or use of patterns rich enough to convey what it is that I see – these things are almost entirely absolute. That’s why they are probably the first thing that an art teacher starts with when introducing new students to their programme of study – they are tangible, definable and consequently much easier to understand and therefore to teach. A line is a line and a shape is a shape that either is or isn’t accurate.
My intention may have been to create accurate or approximately accurate lines, shapes or textures OR I might have intended them to be deliberately vague and ‘free ’, THIS I can dispute with you until the cows come home. Often work is judged by how skilled the artist is in mastering these elements, how ‘realistically’ they can represent their subject matter, although many people can and do respond to work that effects a more emotional, abstracted portrayal, where these elements are consciously, intentionally obscured in a more unrestricted manner. J.M. Turner’s magnificent paintings are widely loved by most people who see them largely because they elicit such an emotional response. So I can argue about my intentions, but not my execution of these elements.
However, I am able to manipulate colour and tonal value to depict my subject matter in any manner that I choose, without considering (and therefore being compelled by) the viewers’ understanding of them, precisely because these elements are almost entirely visual. We cannot *feel* what ‘yellow’ is; or ‘blue’, or ‘crimson’ or any other colour for that matter. We cannot touch tonal value to understand how much light or darkness is there. This makes these concepts more challenging to fully understand and to teach.
One of the first tasks I recall undertaking during my college training was to try to create an eight-page booklet for five-year olds, explaining the concept of basic colours. It is surprisingly perplexing to use vocabulary, words and lexicality to explain what colour *IS*! There were varying degrees of success as I remember; generally speaking the most effective were those that used pictures of something that is usually the appropriate colour, such as a red fire-engine, yellow sun or a brown teddy-bear, coupled with a simple label of the appropriate word and this model is usually adopted in professional publications, including posters.
Reception (or kindergarten) class teachers spend much of the first few weeks with their new pupils developing their understanding of the concept of colours and providing standard naming words for them. Everyone who’s ever been in contact with small children will know the thrill of accurately naming colours in these standardised ways. It’s a big deal! In my view, too few (formal) teachers of young children invest the same amount of time in developing their understanding of tonal value, although, of course, I am speaking in general terms – for the most part there’s so much else to learn this doesn’t really seem like any kind of priority. I’m just saying that it would be beneficial if children learned about lightness and darkness, or tonality, as a concept alongside learning about colours. It would make it easier to understand when they’re older and trying to appreciate how to make their marks more meaningful, perhaps making ‘drawing’ a more pleasing and successful learning experience for them. I’ll take my teacher hat off now!
So, time to get back to my own art then. I’ve really be grappling with what I make art for and what it is about, for me. Coming up with a raison d’être for my own *Art*, why it’s important to me, why I should bother to do it at all, has proved challenging indeed. It’s been stimulating, exciting even and definitely thought-provoking. Of course, there are people who will say to me ‘Why? Why do you need a reason? Aren’t you happy just to DO *Art*?’ and I understand that point of view entirely. Art doesn’t have to be complex, filled with symbolic meaning that changes the world. Art just IS.
As a species, humans have been making art for thousands of years, ever since we developed the dexterity to hold tools in our hands and make lasting marks on our surrounding environment. I’m sure that many, many people have done and continue to make art for countless reasons; perhaps they just wanted to, or for decoration, or to make something aesthetically pleasing to them, or to perhaps provide camouflage even, so they could work or rest without fear of being observed by predators. I could go on!
My soul, the one that tells me I need to be an artist, says there is a reason for me to do this. I need a reason for me to make my art. And so here it is.
It’s all about colour for me. It always has been. Like many of the great, inspirational artists of the past – Turner, Picasso, Frida Khalo, Georgia O’Keefe… (I could list a hundred more), but of course I must include my most favourite artist, Vincent Van Gogh – I am drawn to bright, intense saturated colour and it pleases me. It fills my soul with joy to see a bright cerulean sky and the sparkling, brilliant emerald Caribbean Sea, to see exquisite floral displays of every colour, rich and glorious fields of greens and golds, luscious purple-red fruits and berries; deep, inky night skies with intense, billion-years-old-light speckling the Heavens and a thousand other aspects of this unique, magnificent place that we live with – Nature at its very best. Natural light and shade is an essential part of this whole experience of LIFE and so I include tonality in this wider concept of colour. That’s what I’m striving to show the world. That’s what I want you to see when you look at *Art*, made by me.
If I can show how I see this world to others, maybe I can satisfy my searching soul. I have to try.
Yes, colour is my favourite visual element.
Thanks for reading once more, my friends.