Book review: “Colour: Documents of Contemporary Art”, edited by David Batchelor

Updated on 25 March 2017 (Harvard referencing).

6 February 2017. This review is something I have been planning to write since last summer. My tutor recommended the book “Colour. Documents of Contemporary Art”, edited by David Batchelor. The book contains what the editor calls a broadly chronological collage of texts on colour written by famous artists and thinkers starting in the mid 19th century (Batchelor, 2008, p. 17).
This is no book for casual reading. Whichever text I chose, I noticed how deeply every author felt about colour: Each has their very own personal approach and experience with colour, so no text is like any other. What is shared among most of them, however, and which I did not feel too comfortable about, was most authors’ conviction of being in the possession of some ultimate truth. I was amazed that a seemingly gentle subject like this, colour (!) of all things, could raise such fierce argument, ruthless praising of one’s own position simultaneously with the cruel damnation of others. I suspect that the argument is not about colour at all, but about sailing under different colours, so to speak. The latter is a matter of territory. As in any field which has not yet revealed all its secrets and the contributors have not yet arrived at a common solution, there is a natural tendency for each to put forward and defend their own position, since appearing in the right of course  often comes along with an increase in social rank, influence and material wealth.

7 February 2017. It is futile to try to concoct a summary or essence from the texts contained in this book. They shed light on too many different aspects of colour and its position in art and human life in general. To me it serves as a great source of ad hoc inspiration. It has been lying on my bedside table for most of last year and I keep opening it at random. In order to illustrate the effect, I did just that three times for this review and tried to write short accounts reflecting spontaneously their respective influence on me:

p. 142 Claude Lévi-Strauss (, 2012): The Raw and The Cooked (1964)

The main argument put forward by the author of this essay, famous French structuralist philosopher and anthropologist, is a rejection of the common, but in his eyes inadequate equation of musical sound with colour in painting. Since musical notes have no equivalent in nature, while colour is all around us available for imitation, he rates the achievements of music higher than those of the visual arts.
8 February 2017. While I can follow his idea in principle, any such attempt at placing one field of art above the other for its degree of inventiveness appears to me as deficient in rigour. If just summarizing the most superficial of arguments, I find among them many upon which I could rest a reversal of “hierarchy” between colour and sound: Working with colour is greatly amenable to the resource of simultaneity, which for reasons I have no clear understanding of, has strict limitations in music: There is only a very limited number of sounds you can hear at the same time before you would classify them as noise, but there is no limit to the simultaneous perception of, say, the number of greens present in a landscape. There also, in my eyes, appears to be nothing in colour which would be an equivalent to the perceived effect of dissonance in sound. Graphical arts are also of course developed way beyond the mere copying of colour in nature. Even only for the above reasons I see no point in raising an argument between these two fields of art. They should best be made use of and enjoyed for their respective merits.

p. 194 Stephen Melville (The Ohio State University, n.d.): Colour Has Not Yet Been Named (1993)

Melville is an outstanding American art historian. I have to admit that I had to concentrate hard to be able to even make sense of his sentences and I suspect that he lost me on the way. If I understand correctly he addresses in this account a phenomenon how colour, despite having been extensively researched and quite fully described regarding its physical and psychological qualities, is an entity much larger than what we find within the boundaries (physical and mental frames, so to speak) set by the workings of the human mind. I hope that this is what he means when saying: “[… ] Colour is then no longer simply contained within the painting but is also that which, within the painting, assigns it its frame, even as it conceals itself as the source of that assignment. In so far as colour is and is not the historical bearer of a certain truth of painting that is and is not the truth of the frame in which it is contained, colour bids to pass beyond itself.”
I know why I will never be an art historian.

p. 62 Oswald Spengler (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2010): The Decline of the West (1918)

German historian Spengler wrote at a time, when it apparently was still acceptable and convenient not to question, to split the world into the civilized part (the educated West, where he belonged) and the other, savage and sensuous, historical as well as contemporary rest. In his own world, blue and green are the good, the spiritual, non-sensuous colours, and they rightfully dominate oil-painting. Red and yellow on the other hand reflect the basic elements of the unreflected, raw “point-existence” life of the “crowds, children, women and savages” (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2010), in that order. Spengler even appears to have concluded, from the reintroduction of the colours of the savage, red and yellow, into painting (God forbid!), that “the West had already passed through the creative stage of “culture” into that of reflection and material comfort (“civilization” proper, in his terminology) and that the future could only be a period of irreversible decline.” (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2010). Although I know that the above was by no means thought up by Spengler alone and I have come across several such accounts before, it still makes me feel very uncomfortable to read such preoccupied nonsense, to say the least.

The above three accounts are only tiny snippets from an immense field of research, which can serve both as a source of inspiration as well as desperation. For me, however, the reading of theoretical texts about colour, no matter how hot-blooded the argument and fluid the writing, feels like watching colour on a palette dry up. At the risk of being accused of leading a woman’s point-existence I would rather use the paint ;o).


Batchelor, D. ed. (2008) Colour: Documents of Contemporary Art. London: Whitechapel Gallery and Cambrige: The MIT Press. (2012) Claude Levi-Strauss [online]., London. Available at: [Accessed 6 February 2017]

The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica (2010) Oswald Spengler [online]. Encyclopaedia Britannica, London, 13 January. Available at: [Accessed 6 February 2017].

The Ohio State University (n.d.) Department of History of Art. Stephen Melville [online]. The Ohio State University, Columbus. Available at: [Accessed 6 February 2017]

Part 2, project 3, exercise 4: Colour relationships – still life with complementary colours

Updated on 28 February 2017 (Harvard referencing).

21 May 2016. After having spent some time researching colour relationships I became aware of the fact that complementary colours are not just those lying opposite to one another on the colour wheel. There are a number of interesting combinations, each of which creates a very different harmony and thus atmosphere (Tiger Color, n.d., Decker, 2017).

My intention for this exercise is to use it as a first preparation for my choice of colours for Assignment 2. What I want to test in particular is what happens if certain combinations of complementary colours in their simple forms (i.e. those lying opposite) are used for an identical setup using identical techniques. In order to concentrate on colour effects I decided that I would create a very simple arrangement cocktail glasses and accessories and omit 3D by flattening out forms. The finished studies I would like to put on a larger canvas in a grid, just as in Andy Warhol’s (1928-1987) famous Marilyn Monroe prints (Borg, n.d. for an image and explanation). Referring to the latter I found an interactive experiment (WebExhibits, n.d.), which investigates just what I am looking for.

22 May 2016. Today I decided that I would want to carry out the experiments and the finished painting for this exercise with blue and orange, both of which are readily associated with cocktails and are excellent in conveying particular opposite emotions. With my simple setup of cocktail glasses I will try and create a number of identical paintings with the colours distributed in different ways. For this reason I will not need actual cocktails, but will “fill” the glasses with my chosen colours.

27 May 2016. To start with I experimented with the mutual effects the complementary pair have on each other, repeating and extending on the experiments introduced earlier in this part of the course. I put the colours (primary cyan, orange mixed from primary yellow and primary magenta to result in an orange skewed neither towards yellow or orange) through a basic investigation of properties, looking for situations of enhancement and cancelling-out (left image below). Then I went through another mixing experiment, repeating one I had thought I had to end abruptly because of running out of space in row one. I did so, too, this time, but continued by placing the last mix in the first row again as the first mix in the second row so as to allow a more or less continuous flow of information. The choice of colours will not allow a grey to develop halfway through the gradual changes, but rather a full green, which is however much darker in tone than both the starting hues. This effect is something I have not yet fully understood and when there is time I will try and find more information on the physics behind it (top part of right image below).

Next I created three very short sets of mixes containing the following sequences:
original hue -> tint (mix with white) -> shade (mix with black) -> tone (mix with grey)
Following the instructions on p. 69 of the study guide (Open College of the Arts, 2011) a use of black or neutral grey mixed from white and black does not seem to be allowed, so the only chance of a dark hue for this experiment is the use of green. However, it is possible to mix a great number of pleasing tints, so that the medium dark green available as the darkest tone will of course look darker when next to one of the tints (Fig. 1a-b).

In the next step I had another session on the computer to find out more about still lifes using blue and orange only, and I came up with one (“Still Life with Blue Orange 2” by James Bland (*1979, UK) see Fig. 2 below) I wanted to use as a source of information regarding the available mixed and distribution of colours on the canvas. Besides, I like the brushstrokes, which seem to be rather dry at the edges of colour areas, letting layers of colour shine through. It appears that here also there are no colours other than the ones I chose, while I am not sure whether I would be allowed to use a pink or light yellow mixed from white and the respective primary colours used in mixing orange. I decided that I would not take the risk and stayed with the above mixes.

Figure 2. James Bland (*1979) “Still Life with Blue Orange 2”, n.d., n.k. Source: James Bland (*1979) via Lilford Gallery

Next I prepared an A2 acrylic paper with a neutral grey ground. While I left this to dry I tried some setups with four different glasses used in mixing cocktails. My intention was to create some movement conveying an indication of a story told. The setup fitting my idea best was the one top right in Fig. 3 below:

Figure 3. Testing setups

The prepared grey ground I split in four squares and filled them with the following grounds: primary cyan, orange, the darkest achievable green and a bluish green (Fig. 4):

Figure 4. Prepared split background

On this I drew with a lighter and a darker mix of my complementary colours, then quickly filled the spaces with imaginary “cocktails” (Fig. 5-7):

Figure 5: Sketches using line and setup with viewfinder
Figure 6. Intermediate stage
Figure 7. Filled sketches

I quite like I the overall effect of this study and there is an endless number of lessons to be learned from it. Since I did not refer to my setup closely, but allowed imagination to play a role, these sketch paintings seem loose and full of movement. It was difficult to make a choice for the final painting of this exercise, but in the end to me the top left combination of colours seemed  suitable for the purpose.

After having prepared another A2 ground, this time with primary blue only – so as to avoid mistakes regarding instructions – I made another loose painting in the style of the above (see Fig. 8 below, for which, for some reason, I had to place the painting in a floor area in my workshop fully lit by the evening sun in order to get the colours more or less right):

Figure 8. First layer of complementary colour painting, ball-like object on the right is an imaginary belladonna cherry to play a major role as an ingredient to Assignment 2
Figure 9. Tonal contrast

There are some quite nice effects in this first layer of colours (Fig. 9 above) and I want to keep them for later reference, in case I destroy them when continuing to work on the painting. I noticed, in particular, how a lighter layer of a light greenish orange on top of the primary blue, except for the shadows thrown by the glasses, will help to deepen the shadows. With the glass “filled with a white liquid” the effect is particularly noticeable, because both the white and the light blue next to the shadow further heighten the tonal contrast.
Since this way of painting is very new to me I can see that my use of the above effects is still more accidental than deliberate, but I want to know where this road will lead me and I want to work hard to master it.

28 May 2016. Today I finished my painting for this exercise. Here is the result (Fig. 10-13):

Figure 10. Finished painting, A2 acrylic paper

And here come some details:

Figure 11. Finished painting – detail of reflections on glass and table
Figure 12. Finished painting – detail of reflections on stem of tall glass
Figure 13. Finished painting – detail of blue shadow

It took some getting acquainted with applying the laws governing the use of complementary colours only in a painting. Blue and orange may not be the most convenient pair because of the non-availability of grey or near black tones, but I liked the necessity of having to make parts of the painting lighter instead of darker to bring out the darker tones. It was a totally different experience for me and while I know that my technique is still in its infancy, I want to pursue it further throughout the course.


Bland, J. (n.d.) Still Life with Blue Orange 2 [n.k.] [online]. Lilford Gallery, Canterbury. Available at: [Accessed 21 May 2016]

Borg, E. (n.d.) Andy Warhol and Colour [blog] [online]. Discovering design. Available at: [Accessed 21 May 2016]

Decker, K. (2017) The Fundamentals of Understanding Color Theory [online]. 99designs, Oakland. Available at: [Accessed 28 February 2017]

Open College of the Arts (2011) Painting 1. The Practice of Painting. The Bridgeman Art Library, London, New York, Paris, p. 69.

Tiger Color (n.d.) Color Harmonies: Basic Techniques for Combining Colours [online]. Tiger Colors, Oppegard. Available at: [Accessed 28 February 2017]

WebExhibits (n.d.) Color Vision and Art: Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Prints [online]. WebExhibits. Available at: [Accessed 21 May 2016]