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  • John Reid

The Intimate Nature of Colour and Light

Updated: Feb 6, 2021

When everything in a painting works and comes together then it has a life of its own. This life is more than the sum of its parts and it makes the painting glow just as you see the same glow in the healthy spirit of a person. It’s not about any physical light portrayed or about light and dark paint or application. One sees the same aura of light in the dark paintings as well. It’s a felt rather than a seen aspect.

Consider the differences, as an example, between the works of Howard Hodgkin and Edouard Vuillard in which we see a different colour and light dynamic between the two artists’ works.


Howard Hodgkin held in high regard the works that Edouard Vuillard painted around the 1890s. Hodgkin has stated that his large scale brush marks, in his often small paintings, could be taken as enlargements of those seen in Vuillard’s work of this time.

Vuillard’s paintings around this time, and I refer to Mother Opening a Door and Lady of Fashion, both painted in 1892 are highly coloured and constructed with a abstracted sense of composition. The works are designed with a uniformity and almost unexpressive sense of brushwork, however the results in terms of light and colour have a cohesive and singular voice. Although these works show a strong abstract sensibility they are representational, often domestic settings of an intimate nature. If one observes closely the colour and light in these works they seem inseparable and fundamental to the work. The conjunction acts to draw the viewer into the work, beckoning one into the privacy of the subject matter itself. The colour choices here are not the focus of the individual marks but rather a chemistry of the whole painting’s colour palette and application. Suddenly the marks don’t have a colour, rather the painting as a whole does. It’s about cohesion and the painting having a single voice.


In Hodgkin’s work the expression is in the delivery of the gesture and placement of the brush mark and the nature of this brushwork changes at different stages of his artistic career. Although expressive, one cannot help think there is a strong degree of consideration gone into this placement. The other important thing of note regarding Hodgkin’s work is that although any sense of form or environment created with colour attracts the viewer’s eye into the work, the light created by these works is very much released from the surface of the painting. A situation is created here where the painting beckons and the light itself dictates viewing distance.The experience creates a perception in consciousness beyond just colour and brushwork and is in contrast to the intimate effects of the paint language seen in Vuillard’s work. Two works of Hodgkin’s that illustrates this observation are Counting the Days (1979-82) and Asphalt (1985-88).


It’s a different type of visual experience, in Vuillard one is drawn into the painted environment and you become very much apart of the intimacy, while in Hodgkin, even in his early work, one is kept at a distance. Both experiences share an intimacy. However, it is the painting itself which dictates where the viewer finds themselves positioned to accept the experience.


In his Power of Art series about Rothko Simon Schama said that Rothko’s works don’t wait for you to find them, they come out and get you. I am talking about this same concept here. The dynamics of these aspects of the language of painting, just as ones own personality differs from another’s, affects us differently within each artist’s aesthetic. You can see that this chemistry is about the paint itself and not solely about the narrative or any premeditated idea that might have started the process. You paint and you paint until you create something that is more than paint.

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