Shades of expression: six artists on colour

From ancient painting materials like crushed insects, mineral cinnabars and ash, to their contemporary alternatives, artists have made and used colour throughout history in myriad ways.

In the past, colours were prohibitively expensive due to trade restrictions and limited availability. Sometimes the production of paints even involved apprentices and artists risking their lives using dangerous ingredients. Thankfully this is no longer the case: science and skilled manufacturers provide a wide selection of easily available colours of the highest quality.

To mark our own ongoing love affair with all things colour, we asked six contemporary artists about their experiences working with colour. Read on for their answers, which span how they as artists are inspired by various colours and how they use them as expressive tools.

Ashputtle's Sister III, Iain Andrews
Ashputtle’s Sister III, Iain Andrews

 

Iain Andrews

What are your mediums of choice?

I mainly use acrylic on linen, but have recently begun to work in oils. Acrylic can provide immediacy and facilitate a speed of working that oils don’t have, so I’m having to reassess the way that I do things. That process in itself is challenging and forcing me to abandon older and safer ways of working.

What are your three favourite colours?

Cobalt turquoise, olive green and potter’s pink.

Name a famous artwork that inspired you through colour.

Anything by Bonnard, but also, more recently, Ken Kiff.

How important is colour in your work?

There is a fine balance between the use of good, strong, punchy colour and a garish and sickly palette. Often it’s a case of what you put next to a colour that is as important as the choice of initial colour itself. For instance a patch of potter’s pink against an area of earthy colour such as olive green or raw sienna, I find, really draws me in. But against an area of something like phthalocyanine blue or cadmium yellow it would have a very different effect.

How do colours relate to your chosen mediums?

Oils have a very different feel to acrylics, since they tend to dry slower and so blend and mix more easily with underlying colours. This has slowed down the way that I work, and in terms of the use of colour, allows for finer blending to take place over a series of days rather than hours.

Paradise II, Fran Giffard
Paradise II, Fran Giffard

 

Fran Giffard

What are your mediums of choice?

I use watercolour, gouache, ink and graphite pencil.

What are your three favourite colours?

Choosing my three favourite colours is tricky. I favour bright, saturated or pastel colours, and I dislike and avoid browns. As birds are so diverse, I use a variety of colours and it is difficult to pick just three. My Green Peafowl contains most of the colours I like.

Name a famous artwork that inspired you through colour.

I visited New York last year, so Monet’s Water Lilies triptych at MoMA is my favourite at the moment. It is so beautiful and absorbing.

How important is colour in your work?

Colour is obviously very important. I love drawing bright and tropical birds, as you can really develop the colour and patterns as you go.

I also draw birds of prey, but using graphite pencil. As these birds are usually varying degrees of brown, I feel I can get far more strength in a drawing by focusing on black and white.

Yellow Rain, Ewa Czarniecka
Yellow Rain, Ewa Czarniecka

 

Ewa Czarniecka

What are your mediums of choice?

I do not follow traditional conventions and I call myself a mixed media artist. Most recently I have been working on abstract paintings using acrylic paint in combination with a variety of textural materials.

What are your three favourite colours?

I love all colours… all are my favourite. If I have to choose [they] would be yellow, red and black.

Name a famous artwork that inspired you through colour.

I admire Monet, who has had a major impact on my work, but my favourite is Paul Cezanne’s Fruit Bowl, Pitcher And Fruit. The colours in this painting are amazing. Cezanne’s work demonstrates a mastery of design, colour, composition and draftsmanship.

How important is colour in your work?

Colour is important. I like to work at different times of the day (and night). The polarities of morning light, evening dark and strong colour of the day challenge my perceptions of the developing image.

Gayday Braket Lines (rear view), Jonathan Gabb
Gayday: Bracket Lines (rear view), Jonathan Gabb

 

Jonathan Gabb

What are your mediums of choice?

I use a combination of “fine art” materials and more prosaic materials – mixing acrylic paints with varying proportions of PVA glue and mastic to thicken and plasticise the paint.

What are your three favourite colours?

I like to try and maintain the intensity of the pure original colour of the paint in my work. I tend to favour bright, vibrant colours: cadmium red, for example, or opera rose. I enjoy colours and combinations of colour many would consider too bright or even “jarring”.

Name a famous artwork that inspired you through colour.

Matisse’s The Snail.

How important is colour in your work?

My work is about painting and our understanding of it. I do not imitate form or life, but I create forms and find an equivalent to life. My works integrate the colour as a subject matter in the work, so that the viewer can integrate their experience of colour (whatever that may be) in an overall abstract language of form.

How do colours relate to your chosen mediums?

I like to think that a painter cannot have a practice unrelated to colour. When you start to paint, you are a colourist whether that was your intention or not. For my practice, colours and colour compositions guide the work, from the conception of the ideas, to the processes I engage with, through to their realisation within the final form within the gallery space.

WEB, Sikelela 'Ziggy' Owen
WEB, Sikelela ‘Ziggy’ Owen

 

Sikelela ‘Ziggy’ Owen

What are your mediums of choice?

Oil colour.

What are your three favourite colours?

Cobalt green, burnt sienna and titanium white.

Name a famous artwork that inspired you through colour.

Alex Katz’s Blach Hat (Bettina).

How important is colour in your work?

Colour is very important in the work. Often the paintings have a dominant colour working across the spectrum – for example, from yellow ochre to raw umber. The quiet colours help to heighten the image’s intimacy and contrast with the richer applications.

How do colours relate to your chosen mediums?

Oil paint requires one to consider how colour is applied. The medium allows an artist to mix on the surface, placing wet paint on wet paint, or create layers on dry painted surfaces. For my work, it’s the spectrum that each colour possesses when diluted, or mediums are added, that makes the colour and medium so enjoyable and unexpected.

ama I, Anke Gruss
Ama I, Anke Gruss

 

Anke Gruss

What are your mediums of choice?

I paint with watercolour, oil, water mixable oil colour and acrylic. It always depends on the subject.

What are your three favourite colours?

I couldn’t pick an absolute favourite but I do love the colours found in Winsor & Newton’s Professional Watercolour, Professional Acrylic Colour and Artisan Water Mixable Oil Colour ranges.

Name a famous artwork that inspired you through colour.

The paintings of William Turner, Georg Gudni and Edward Hopper.

How important is colour in your work?

Colour, light and atmosphere are my favourite topics.

How do colours relate to your chosen mediums?

For my flower paintings I always use Winsor & Newton watercolour because I think it is a wonderful way to express the play and dance [of] light and atmosphere. To make the atmosphere of the dramatic northern landscape visible, oil colour is the best choice. For my music and city paintings I mostly use acrylic because this is a modern and “artificial” colour and this fits, in my opinion, the subjects of speed, rhythm and noise.