On Viewing Colour

When a Whisper speaks louder than a Shout   –  a short essay

A personal experience: In the Prado Museum, Madrid so packed with treasures. I had saved the Goya rooms till last and among them all was totally arrested by one brush mark on a small canvas. Mostly grey – of three soldiers? I don’t remember the subject. What had leapt into my consciousness was a small stroke of yellow, a sash on a uniform and the world stopped turning for a moment. That mark summed up the genius of the artist for me. Had anyone else noticed it? Goya had the ability to turn a portrait or a scene into an image with colour details that burrow deep.

When we view colour are we always tapping into the well of memory? Or is that small slash of pale yellow a jolt into another way of looking? I was once in a train moving through an empty rural snowy landscape when into my line of vision came a woman walking, wearing a red coat, both as outstanding and perfectly fitting as Goya’s “Duchess of Alba” with her dog with the narrow red ribbon tied around one leg. Her sash and ribbon, the soldier’s bandolier, the woman in the snow – these all lead me to wanting to reduce the size of a painting until it can call the viewer with an intensity not present in the large scale.

In their immediacy these primary colours do not speak of the psychology of the secret and yet they hold one. That of the whisper that is heard above any clamour. It arrests the attention and calls the viewer to examine the detail, maybe overlooked by many but seen by some. The yellow was pale, the brushstroke less than a centimetre long and yet it informs so much of what I hope to achieve as a painter. Of course it was also about it’s perfect relationship to the greys in the painting, just as Matisse’s goldfish find themselves placed in a blue room. And these colour relationships too are part of the learning to look. When I got back to England I searched through every means possible to find a reproduction of that Goya painting, but have yet to do so. But maybe what is important is the place it holds for me as an artist, safely stored in my memory bank.

Anna Gahlin 2013