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Colour swatches

Francis Pound explores Gordon Walters’ experiments in chromatic constraint


<P data-associrn="993490"></P> <P><STRONG>Instructions to the printer</STRONG></P> <P>In Walters’ late style,<SUP><FONT size=2>1</FONT></SUP> restraint, and even a certain abnegation of colour, is preferred to any sort of opulence. One aspect of this renunciation of any too bright or rich a palette is the slight hushing of his colours by means of what painters call - or used to call - ‘greying’, the addition to a colour of a muting touch of umber or grey or black, an addition we may not consciously see, but the presence of which we nevertheless sense. Greying has the effect of faintly clouding a colour, making it more opaque, while at the same time stilling it, as if to slow the dance of its molecules to meet the quiet of a contemplative gaze.</P> <P data-associrn="993494"></P> <P>We may learn from the inscription on Walters’ <EM>Colour swatches for Kura</EM> (1982) something of the care required to create his stilled colour. Walters’ brief text was intended to help Mervyn Williams, a fellow abstract painter, and the skilled printer of Walters’ 1982 screen print <EM>Kura</EM>, to arrive at the colours of four adjoining colour samples - the title’s ‘swatches’. It is the only place I know where Walters explicitly refers to greying, a technique that is nonetheless fundamental to his late-style palette.</P> <P>Here is the inscription in full:</P> <BLOCKQUOTE style="MARGIN-RIGHT: 0px" dir=ltr> <P align=right>NOTE</P> <P align=left>My grey sample is a mix of red oxide, litho blue, yellow oxide and white with a <U>small</U> admixture of burnt umber. A straight mix of black and white is too cold. In other words, the grey is a mix of all the other colours in the print. The red oxide, yellow oxide and blue are in turn greyed slightly with the grey mix. This keeps the whole thing together and stops it jumping round too much. This information may be of use to you in mixing the colours.</P></BLOCKQUOTE> <P align=left>Though Walters offers it rather tentatively (he would not have wanted to seem to be interfering in another’s work), his ‘information’ must surely have been useful to his printer. Who, however skilled, would have guessed that the greying mix was composed of the work’s four basic colours, red oxide, litho blue, yellow oxide (ochre) and white? And this even though it would be evident to the experienced eye that there was some sort of greying mix present throughout.</P> <P align=left>While it must have been helpful to the printer to know the exact colours in the greying mix, nowhere, except with his underscored remark that the amount of the burnt umber is small (and really, not even there), does Walters give the <EM>proportion</EM> required of each given colour.<SUP><FONT size=2>2</FONT></SUP> It is as if the ingredients for a sponge cake were to read plain flour, salt, eggs, sugar, baking powder, and vanilla extract, with no mention of the <EM>quantity</EM> of each, except perhaps that the amount of vanilla should be small. For the inexperienced cook, the result would be a culinary disaster. Which is only to say that Walters’ inscription, instructive though it is, leaves a lot to his printer’s knowledge, skill, and tact.</P> <P data-associrn="1368023"></P> <P><STRONG>Unanimity and harmony</STRONG></P> <P>Unless I am mistaken, only two other studies with colour samples survive: <EM>En abyme study with named colours</EM> (1987) and <EM>Collage study for construction in blue</EM> (1988). </P> <P><EM>En abyme study with named colours</EM> is a work with a particularly beautiful colouration, its crystalline tablet of blue telling against the sobriety of grey, greyed ochre, burnt umber, white, and black. The inscriptions pencilled at its base show that Walters proposed to use exactly the same colours in each painting of a group of six paintings, so assuring unanimity of colour throughout. (The group was never painted. Would that it had been.) </P> <P data-associrn="1368024"></P> <P>What Walters was seeking here, I think, was the chromatic equivalent of the similitude and concordance of <EM>forms</EM> as they recur through a series, or through variants, or through the panels of a multi-panel painting. An example of the latter is <EM>Four part painting</EM> (1992), where exactly the same shapes, differently arranged, appear in each panel, and where, though the colours may differ from one panel to another, all are selected and mixed from a single, pre-chosen set of colours. </P> <P>Doubtless the hope of attaining a harmony between his colours (‘This keeps the whole thing together’), whether in a single painting, a multi-panel painting, or a series of paintings, provided a powerful, and perhaps pre-eminent, motive for all of Walters’ rule-governed colour mixes. </P> <P><STRONG>Instructions to himself</STRONG></P> <P>In the case of <EM>En abyme study with named colours</EM>, Walters’ inscribed instructions are to <EM>himself</EM>. Notably, they are no less onerous than those he gives to his printer. First, he lists the colours he intends to use for all six works.</P> <BLOCKQUOTE style="MARGIN-RIGHT: 0px" dir=ltr> <P><U>Six paintings <BR></U>white greyed ochre <BR>mid grey<BR>blue<BR>dark red / brown<BR>black (Mars)</P></BLOCKQUOTE> <P>Next, he lists the constituents of those colours.</P> <BLOCKQUOTE style="MARGIN-RIGHT: 0px" dir=ltr> <P>Standard mix for all colours<BR>red oxide<BR>yellow oxide<BR>ultra blue<BR>titanium white<BR>small phthalo <BR>dark red / brown&nbsp;</P></BLOCKQUOTE> <P dir=ltr><EM>Standard mix for all colours</EM>. Does Walters really mean that <EM>all</EM> these colours are to be used to mix every colour in the painting? It seems that he must, improbable though it sounds. Of course, he might well use a dot of red oxide or yellow oxide to take the chill out of a blue, or a touch of blue to take some of the heat out of a red or yellow oxide. Grey, similarly, might be achieved by a mix of red oxide and blue, lightened with white; and, by altering the relative proportions of the red oxide and the blue, it might be made to veer towards cool or warm as required. These are standard painting practices. </P> <P>But what Walters suggests here, the use of all of his listed colours to make <EM>every</EM> colour, is something different, something stranger. Admittedly, that strangeness is sightly diminished if we take into account that the proportions of each constituent might well be varied from one painted colour to another - the painter adding very little white to black, for instance, and a large amount of white to light grey.<SUP><FONT size=2>3</FONT></SUP></P> <P data-associrn="1368022"></P> <P><STRONG>A stimulus to invention</STRONG></P> <P>In the right margin of <EM>Collage study for construction in blue</EM> (1988) there is a listing of colour constituents similar to that of <EM>En abyme study with named colours</EM>, but with the additional convenience of pencil lines connecting each cluster of colour names to the pertinent colours in the collage. Below the study ‘proper’ are four collaged samples of the four colours mixed from the listed constituents. </P> <BLOCKQUOTE style="MARGIN-RIGHT: 0px" dir=ltr> <P>[black]<SUP><FONT size=2>4</FONT></SUP><BR>red oxide<BR>phthalo blue<BR>white<BR>ultra blue?</P> <P>[blue]<BR>ultra blue<BR>white<BR>red oxide<BR>mixed grey</P> <P>[dark grey]<BR>ultra blue<BR>red oxide<BR>white<BR>yellow oxide</P> <P>[light grey] <BR>cobalt blue<BR>ultra blue<BR>red oxide<BR>yellow oxide<BR>chromium oxide green<BR>white</P></BLOCKQUOTE> <P dir=ltr>To judge by this list and by the connecting lines from each of the colours in the study to the names of its colour constituents, each colour in the study is almost a mixture of <EM>all</EM> of the listed ingredients - almost, but not quite. So, for instance, while red oxide, white, and ultra blue appear in all four colours, phthalo blue is used for the black mix but not for the blue or the two greys. The black’s ultra blue is troubled by a query mark - the only colour so marked. And the chromium oxide green and cobalt blue appear in the light grey alone. Walters’ palette inclines towards a total repetition, but it only inclines.</P> <P>Here we may sense the presence of a kind of conceptualism of colour, the artist turning a somewhat arbitrary set of restraints or rules (you may use these colours only, and you must use all of them in every colour you mix) into a stimulus to invention. Such restraints - self-imposed, arbitrary and fertile - are entirely typical of Walters’ mode of painting. Typical, too, is the setting up of rigorous rules, and, in Borges’ phrase, ‘the continual and delicate infraction of those rules’.<SUP><FONT size=2>5</FONT></SUP></P> <P><STRONG>A search for perfection</STRONG></P> <P>Walters’ naming of his colours and their constituents is of interest not only to restorers and painters. It has, I think, a larger implication. It suggests the care Walters devotes to every aspect of his art, a pains taking impelled by standards that are entirely self-invented and entirely inward - which owe nothing, that is to say, to any external demand. Walters seeks perfection, or, at least, in the more modest terms he himself might propose, all the perfection of which he is capable. </P> <P>This is the same artist who spent a decade perfecting the Koru paintings (1956-66) before releasing a solitary and undefended one into the world, where it fell into an unremarked silence.<SUP><FONT size=2>6</FONT></SUP> And this is the artist who destroyed a large proportion of his works,<SUP><FONT size=2>7</FONT></SUP> because they were damaged, he always said, but in reality, I believe, because of a relentless perfectionism. (He did once admit to having destroyed a whole year’s work - the entire labour of 1957 - because he was not satisfied with it.)</P> <P>Only once does Walters speak of his search for perfection. Perhaps he feared it would sound too grandiose if put into words; for he speaks of it somewhat self-deprecatingly, in such a way as to imply that it is merely the product of an unfortunate obsessiveness. I have in mind a letter where he recalls a time of being tortured by doubts about the unappeasable forms of his newly achieved Koru paintings:</P> <BLOCKQUOTE style="MARGIN-RIGHT: 0px" dir=ltr> <P>... often the directness and brutality of my way of painting scared me.<SUP><FONT size=2>8</FONT></SUP> To counter this brutality of method (or so I saw it) I became fanatical in adjusting the relationship between forms, all the time looking for the ultimate in refinement; and so this was what took me so long and why I could hardly bear to show the work even when I had worked it out in the early 1960s.<SUP><FONT size=2>9</FONT></SUP> </P></BLOCKQUOTE> <P>Though Walters does not mention colour here, our colour sample studies surely prove that he is just as ‘fanatical in adjusting the relationship’ between colours as he is in adjusting the relations between forms, and that with his colour too he is ‘all the time looking for the ultimate in refinement’. I cannot help but think here of what Proust wrote of a small rectangle of impasto, the little ‘patch of yellow wall’ in Vermeer’s <EM>View of Delft</EM>:</P> <BLOCKQUOTE style="MARGIN-RIGHT: 0px" dir=ltr> <P>. . . there is no reason inherent in the condition of life on this earth to make us obliged to do good, to be kind and thoughtful, even to be polite, nor for an atheist artist to consider himself obliged to begin over again a score of times a piece of work the admiration for which will matter little to his worm-eaten body, like the patch of yellow wall painted with so much skill and refinement … All these obligations which have no sanction in our present life seem to belong to a different world, a world based on kindness, scrupulousness, self-sacrifice, a world entirely different from this. . .’<SUP><FONT size=2>10</FONT></SUP></P></BLOCKQUOTE> <P>Kindness and artistic care, the ethical and the aesthetic, sometimes seem to be of the same order, both of them so gratuitous and inexplicable as to partake of the miraculous. </P> <P><BR><FONT size=2><STRONG>Notes</STRONG></FONT></P> <OL> <LI><FONT size=2>By Walters’ late style, I mean the style of the 1980s and the first half of the 1990s. (The artist died in 1995.)</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>And why should Walters so particularly stress that the amount of burnt umber should be small? This is perhaps explained by an ever-present risk with greying: it can lead to a muddying rather than to a softening of the colour it modifies - something presumably more likely to occur when there is an excess in the greying tone of an intrinsically dark colour such as burnt umber.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>Seurat is the one painter who comes to mind who does something similar, scattering flecks all of his colours over the entirety of his paintings, though increasing the number of, for instance, green, blue, and yellow dots when he depicts sunlit grass, and black, blue, and purple when he depicts a black top hat.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>For the reader’s convenience, I have headed each colour cluster with the name of the colour it constitutes. These interpolations are marked by square brackets.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>Jorge Luis Borges, ‘Richard Hull, <EM>Excellent Intentions’</EM>, in Eliot Weinberger (ed), <EM>Selected Non Fictions</EM>, translated by Esther Allen, Suzanne Jill Levine and Eliot Weinberger, Penguin Books, London, 1999, p. 184.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>It was, however, bought - not by a New Zealander, naturally, but by a German businessman living in Wellington, the admirable Baron Rolf von Kohorn.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>The proportion of destroyed to undestroyed works is unknown, but it is likely that fewer than half survive of the paintings in his first solo exhibition of his Koru paintings (New Vision Gallery, Auckland, 1966).</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>Perhaps the best account in print of the fear felt by an avant-garde artist that he/she may have gone too far in breaking with artistic convention is that of the anxiety and insomnia-racked Matisse in Hilary Spurling, <EM>The Unknown Matisse: A life of Henri Matisse: the early years, 1869-1900,</EM> Alfred A Knopf, New York, 2005.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>Gordon Walters, letter to Michael Dunn, 1 May 1978, p. 3, cited in Michael Dunn, 'The Art of Gordon Walters', PhD thesis, University of Auckland, 1984, vol. 1, p. 130.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>Marcel Proust, <EM>In Search of Lost Time</EM>, translated by CK Scott Moncrieff and Terence Martin, revised by DJ Enright, Everyman Library, New York, 2003, vol. v, pp. 245-6.</FONT></LI></OL>
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Gordon Walters, Half-size colour study for Kura, 1982, acrylic on paper on card,
Purchased 2010.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

Gordon Walters, Collage study for construction in blue, 1988, acrylic on paper collage. Walters Estate

Gordon Walters, Collage study for construction in blue, 1988, acrylic on paper collage. Walters Estate

Gordon Walters, En abyme study with named colours, 1987, acrylic on paper collage. Walters Estate

Gordon Walters, En abyme study with named colours, 1987, acrylic on paper collage. Walters Estate

Gordon Walters, Four part painting, 1992, acrylic on four canvas panels, 500 x 400 mm each. Jennifer Gibbs Trust Collection, Auckland

Gordon Walters, Four part painting, 1992, acrylic on four canvas panels, 500 x 400 mm each. Jennifer Gibbs Trust Collection, Auckland

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Gordon Walters, Colour swatches for Kura, circa 1982, acrylic on card,
Purchased 2010.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz