Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Orange Reflections

One of the things I love about Wester Ross is the subtlety of colour in the hills and how the colours of the landscape change so much over the seasons. I particularly love the winter shades – from monochromes to the intensely bright colours when the late low sun picks out the orange hues in the hills. I think the bright orange is from the deer grass and the dying bracken. But whatever the root cause, the shades of orange have lodged into my visual memory. I realised this recently when I painted a series of orange hills, sparked by an evening sketch I did of Ben Luskentyre on Harris in October last year.

Orange Hill I (Ben Luskentyre)

So much for striving for realism. When Van Gogh made the trip from the Netherlands to the south of France, he had to revise his palette to cope with the different colours he saw in the landscape. Here's a lovely quote from him. “Nature in the South cannot be painted with the palette of mauve, for instance, [which] belongs to the North and [which] is and will remain a master of the grey. But at present the palette is distinctly colourful, sky blue, orange, pink, vermilion, bright yellow, bright green, bright wine-red, violet. But by intensifying all the colours one arrives once again at a quietude and harmony. There occurs in nature something similar to what happens in Wagner's music which, though played by a big orchestra, is nonetheless intimate”.

Orange Hill II (Beinn a Chearcaill)

When you think about orange paintings, one of Van Gogh's most popular paintings comes to mind - his 'Sunflowers'. He famously did several versions and revelled in the brightness of the colours: ”I am thinking of decorating my studio with half a dozen pictures of 'Sunflowers', a decoration in which the raw or broken chrome yellows will blaze forth on various backgrounds.”

The reference to chrome is worth exploring. With ready-made paint, we usually combine the colours red and yellow to make orange, but if you start with pure pigments, chrome yellow gives a beautiful pure deep orangey-yellow. This pigment is made commercally by adding a soluble lead salt (nitrate or acetate) to a solution of alkali chromate or dichromate. When chrome yellow was first introduced as a pigment in the early part of the nineteenth century, it provided a bright, opaque yellow on the artists’ palette. However, it suffered a flaw in its original form—it darkened upon exposure to light. It was widely used by artists such as Turner, Manet, Cézanne, Monet, and Pissarro. Cézanne, like Pissarro and Monet, used the neutralising effect of combining three primary colours—ultramarine, vermilion and chrome yellow—to make coloured grays. But there were concerns about its light-fastness, and cadmium yellow, a more stable pigment, was introduced by the middle of the century. However, chrome yellow still has advantages as an artist's oil paint because it makes dense, opaque paints that brush out long and flowing, yet the brush marks hold their shape. Here's a little egg tempera painting I did using a gold colour (a 'middle yellow' pigment) - such a vibrant colour!

Cornfield with Red Hills

Feeling Orange
Orange tends to be associated with joy, sunshine, and warmth – a combination of red which is a colour of energy, and yellow which is considered to signify happiness. As an autumnal colour, it signifies the 'mellow fruitfulness', that last flourish of life before the death of winter. Although orange doesn't have quite the same impact as red (which is considered to be a more emotionally intense colour), it is a highly visible colour, good for warning signs. It's also used for children's toys and in promoting food-related products – apparently it's associated with colours of healthy food and stimulates appetite.

The artist Kandinsky thought a lot about colour. He talked about the “purely physicial effect, i.e., the eye itself is charmed by the beauty and other qualities of the colour. The spectator experiences a feeling of satisfaction, of pleasure, like a gourmet who has a tasty morsel in his mouth.” He also described hearing colours and smelling them! He thought that yellows and oranges would be light higher-pitched notes, unlike the deeper bass of the dark madder colours. Looking at the colour orange apparently increases the oxygen supply to the brain, is invigorating and stimulates mental activity.

Of course there is another aspect to colour – cultural considerations. Different societies have different perceptions of colour – e.g. we associate the colour orange with Protestantism. For the Chinese, oranges are like gold – both an aid to digestion and a symbol of money. In India, the Hindus consider orange or rather saffron as the colour of fire, symbolic of the burning away of ignorance by knowledge. Buddhism sees orange as the colour of illumination, the highest state of perfection – hence the saffron robes.

Autumn Day By The Upper Loch
So many dimensions to colour. In May 2017, the Torridon Gallery is holding an exhibition entitled 'Wild for Colour'. I've decided to submit this painting. But there's plenty of scope for artistic interpretation and it will be well worth a look.

The text of this blog will appear in an amended form in An Carrannach in May 2017. 

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