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Colour study part i: white

Updated: Oct 11, 2018

Impressionism 2.0

I am doing an in-depth look into colour based on the plants and animals in my garden over the course of a full season. From the freshness of early Spring, through the hot reds and golden grasses of Summer, Autumn's colours of old age to the neutral tones of Winter, I'll look at nature's colour palette and how there are several ways to get from one colour to another, how light and shadow can change a colour and the importance of colour associations and harmonies.

Colour is so much more complicated than it should be. It was whilst I was studying for my AS Level in Art History, in about 2003, I chose to write an analytical paper on how the Impressionist's studied snow. I chose this theme as white is the hardest colour to accurately understand. In my wool sculptures I never use white, but instead use the lightest greys and lilacs or beige and creams. Looking around the garden, white is difficult because it can easily reflect other colours and become a hint of white. A transparent white will also change colour depending on the background. White is the only colour that changes in shadows around 360 degrees of the whole colour wheel, whereas other colours will change to an adjacent colour on the colour wheel: a shadow on red will initially go dark red then purple or brown, whereas a shadow on white may be grey, lilac, cream, beige, apricot and so on.

Looking at the snowy pictures of the Impressionist's, there is barely a white brush stroke, but instead the snow reflects all the surrounding colour. My favourite painting is Louvre under Snow, Camille Pissaro (1902) which can be seen at The National Gallery in London. Photographs do not do justice to this grey, snowy scene. On close inspection near enough each brush stroke is comprised of several hints of white, as is the Impressionists' way. Another great example is Grainstacks Under Snow, Claude Monet (1891). The whole colour palette is lilac and pink and yet the image is quite clearly of haystacks under snow in a Winter dawn or dusk sunlight. Why is a grain harvest covered in snow?, I asked myself. It turns out it was common in Normandy and the Paris basin to see snow covered haystacks, which were used to shelter harvested wheat whilst it was waiting for the travelling thresher machine.

During this study into colour, it will be impossible not to reference the Impressionists. The whole premise of their theory was spontaneous, on the spot interpretation as apposed to copying from sketches in a studio, though this concept had already been mastered by Constable back in 1813. They would stand all day in one spot, painting quickly and freely, accurately painting the colour as they saw it. They encapsulated how light changed colour and would produce up to 20 canvases a day, each completely different but of the exact same scene. Next time you see a white flower, study to see which direction on the colour wheel the shadows are. Have another look at a different time of day, and that shadow will be a different colour. As the sun moves across the sky, not only would the sunlight strength vary but a different colour may reflect off the white which will change the shadow colour. An interesting experiment would be to set up a camera on a tripod and take hourly photographs of a large, white flower, especially on a sunny day with a few clouds. We'll call the experiment 'Impressionism 2.0'!

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