Blueish yellow

The mirror (c) 2017 Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

The connection between colour and geometry demands some attention. Richard Heinrich (2014: 41) argues that ‘there is always a tension between … colour space and the geometry of colour,’ that conceptualising colour in terms of space is not as simple as unearthing the underlying geometric principles that will take care of everything. He is, of course, correct in this. There are many rich and nuanced ways of conceiving of colour spatially, from Aristotle’s delightfully plain string of colours, which Newton (1672) eventually closed into a circle, which has been expanded both theoretically and experimentally into various three-dimensional schema that are as idealised or roughly-hewn as their methods dictate (Briggs, 2017). A geometric conception of colour space, like that of Philipp Otto Runge (1810), approaches colour from a purely theoretical side, permitting us the sharp analytical divisions of conceptual midpoints and the elegant polish of a sphere as the theoretical limit. The reality of colour, both for the physicist and the painter, is much rougher at the edges, much more irregular, much grittier. But this does not mean that some abstracted principles, deliberately divorced from the messy realities of light and pigment, cannot be united with the practice in an instructive way. Indeed, such conceptual clarity can help the practicing colourist organise her approach to colour, while still allowing the flexibility to adapt those principles to experience.

But this is not really the disjunction that Heinrich is getting at. Rather, he is concerned that a geometric model for colour tries to explain both our perceptual experience and our concept of colour, and that this uneasy compromise tends to destroy our concept of colour (Heinrich, 2014: 41-42). We establish a working web of relations, but relations between possibly infinite coordinates of hue-value-chroma, none of which bear any greater significance over any other such that they attract the familiar and seemingly meaningful titles of ‘red’ or ‘yellow.’ This is true, but it points to the greater underlying problem that our concept of colour is desperately flawed. That we conceive of colour so misguidedly despite our firmer scientific grasp on it has only negative implications for painters. Most pressingly, there is a pervasive and false belief that colour cannot really be taught, which lends it a certain mysticism both in philosophy and in art schools. This mysticism is only compounded by the fact that colour is persistently mistaught on the basis of our flawed conception of it. We need to reconfigure our concept of colour or, if that is too extreme, to at least separate out a working theory of colour that practitioners–painters–can rely on from a more experiential understanding of it. This, I think, is not so outlandish: physicists operate with a different set of primary colours without threatening our habitual perceptual ideas about colour. What needs to be teased out is the psychological conception of colour, dearly-held but quite unrelated to the models most useful to artists and physicists.

From Runge, 1810: Farbenkugel

The primary colours are a good place to start, especially given Heinrich’s justified criticism of Runge’s development of the colour sphere (Farbenkugel). Runge moves deftly from a triangle (picking out red, yellow and blue) to a star which incorporates orange, green and purple, smooths them into a familiar colour-wheel and fleshes the whole thing out into a ball. The dubious move (which Heinrich (2014: 38) does not let him get away with) is that he begins with certain geometric parameters but quietly dissolves them along the way. The triangle is made of points, marking out the primary colours, which are connected by lines, which signify the gradations between them. The triangle says that conceptually, we grasp the idea of a ‘pure’ red–it tends neither towards yellow nor blue, it is not in the least orange or purple, it holds a privileged status as a colour (hue) that every orangish red and purplish red does not. It says that while there are many oranges, there is only one pure red.

We can, however, conceive of a middle-orange, one that appears equally red and yellow, and a green that is no more yellow than it is blue, and likewise a perfectly balanced purple. Runge (1810) thus bisects each line and places each of these so-called secondary colours at the midpoints, forming a small inverted triangle. Perhaps what starts to go awry here is that the lines from green to orange, from orange to purple, from purple to green, do not really signify anything–just a gradation of muddy browns. Runge expands this second triangle without explanation, presenting us with two triangles which we could not, on geometric terms, distinguish, though they represent vastly different ideas: the hierarchy is dissolved. To gloss over this fact, Runge removes the points altogether, and it is this that Heinrich (2014: 40) particularly objects to. The model abandons its initial claims about the significance of some colours above others and drops into a fluid mass of relations.

Runge’s Farbenkugel development

Runge’s move is questionable, but the result is perhaps not so catastrophic. This is not only because in practice, one can navigate colour more nimbly and efficiently when one thinks only in terms of relations rather than absolutes (for example, recognising that this mix should be bluer than that mix, rather than trying to match a particular fixed shade on a colour chip). But also because our attachment to the primary colours might be unjustified. Runge’s initial choice of red, yellow and blue–even as conceptual ideals–could be as arbitrary as his model ultimately suggests.

As David Briggs (2017) describes, the concept of a primary colour is itself somewhat muddy. We generally bring to it the idea of an ‘unmixed,’ ‘pure,’ or ‘primitive’ colour. But these intuitions bring various assumptions, mostly derived from paint, which are simply nonsensical when we describe colour in terms of light. In light, common colours compound the reflectance: green does not ‘defile’ red, but their shared components yield yellow and their differing components cleanly cancel out. Another enduring sense of ‘primary colour’ is a colour from which all others can be derived. This would already force us to branch colour into two separate realms, one of paint and one of light, which revolve around different base colours: subtractive and additive primaries, respectively. Briggs (2017) assiduously notes that this formulation brings conceptual dangers of its own, particularly that ‘it is a small and slippery step from the observation that all hues can be made from three primary colours, to the assumption that all hues are made of those three colours,’ which would be another paint-oriented bias.

To further complicate the idea of a primary colour, Briggs (2017) rightly points out that in fact we cannot derive all colours from just three. For the painter, purple is notoriously elusive because red pigment is still too yellow, thus the mixture of red and blue tends to result in an unsavoury brown. Painters resort to other pigments such as a rose (suspiciously magenta-like) or to outright purple pigments. Perhaps even more shatteringly, the additive primaries are no more certain, they do not correspond to any specific red or green or blue wavelengths; rather, Briggs describes them as optimal ranges of wavelengths. Defining primary colours at all turns out to be a hazardous and imprecise enterprise; at the very least this should cause us to question what reason we have to insist on points in our geometric model of colour.

Copy after Mestrovic

That reason might have something to do with our perception. Ewald Hering (1878) describes another set of primaries: the four psychological primary colours of red, yellow, green and blue. These four colours are privileged for having a ‘mentally unmixed’ status, while all other colours seem, to our minds, to be gradations between adjacent colours. This is why an orange can satisfactorily be described as a yellowish red, but we feel uncomfortable to describe a green as a yellowish blue. This seems to be the unrelinquishable ‘grammar of colour’ that Heinrich (2014: 41) particularly wants to hold onto: the sense, based in our experience of colour, that these colours are distinct and in this way primitive. This stance seems as arbitrary and as defensible as any: green is rigid and present in our experience in a way that orange is not. Or as Heinrich (2014: 41) puts it, ‘we will have to admit that green lies between blue and yellow in a fundamentally different sense as orange between yellow and red.’ But for the painter, green remains a mixture of yellow and blue, just as red may be a mixture of rose and yellow, depending on her pigments. And for the physicist, green is the absence of blue and red, while orange is a more complex array of light. Our mental divisions–what we project onto the world and how we break it down–do not correspond to the ‘input into our visual system’ and the stimulation of our rods and cones (Briggs, 2017); nor do they correspond to the pigments that happen to be available to painters. And that might be just fine.

What I propose is to keep these three types of colour systems distinct, while acknowledging their intersections. Runge’s colour sphere perfectly captures the fluid conceptual relations between hues and their values and chroma for the painter. Since it is advantageous to think relationally rather than in absolutes when trying to establish a harmonious colour context in a painting, an idealised, geometric model of three-dimensional colour space proves a useful tool for the painter. Such a tool, being relatively simple, yet rich and adaptable to any situation, empowers the painter both to organise her observations and translate them into paint, and to teach a coherent and systematic approach to colour to her students.

Copy after Belvedere Apollo cast

Physicists, meanwhile, may continue to measure wavelengths, discuss energy, and optimise their additive primaries of red, green and blue. Since the physicist is concerned with describing what light information enters the eye, his measurements do not undermine or contradict the relational model of the painter’s pigments. Rather, the two conceptions intersect unexpectedly beautifully: the complementaries of the additive primaries (red, green and blue) are cyan, magenta and yellow. These last three are used in printing to achieve the maximum range of mixed colours, and can be shown to yield a broader gamut of colours in paint than red, yellow and blue. This elegant inversion, identified by Helmholtz (1852a), perhaps gives us a firmer reason to fix cyan, magenta and yellow as the optimal subtractive primaries, if indeed we would rather retain points in our geometric model of colour space. At the very least, we might revise our pedagogical practices and stop teaching painters colour theory based on the psychological primaries rather than on the actual properties of light and pigments.

A painter does not need to understand the physics of light in order to manipulate paint. The systems remain conceptually distinct. But I think it would be correct to say that not only is the painter’s system inversely related to the physicist’s; it is also subordinate to it in the sense that after the pigments are applied, a painting, too, is simply an object reflecting wavelengths of various frequencies into the rods and cones in our eyes. In this sense, as Briggs (2017) argues, the painter works with light. He offers a particularly nice example that bridges the two systems in the practice of painting. A painter can drag paint roughly over dry paint of another colour such that the colour underneath sparkles through the gaps, or lay small strokes of different colours next to each other as the Impressionists did. The eye mixes these physically unmixed colours in an additive manner. Scientifically, it would be called ‘additive averaging mixing;’ painters call it ‘optical mixing’ and use it knowledgeably to great effect. Briggs (2017) further argues that the painter works with perception, and that what the spectator perceives remains largely geared around the four psychological colours, by which he makes sense of the painting.

And so we return to the ‘concept of colour’ that Heinrich is reluctant to dissolve into the more sophisticated systems. Drawing on Ludwig Wittgenstein, he relates it to a ‘grammar of colour,’ which modestly and openly captures something but not all of our experience of colour (Heinrich, 2014: 41). This is the key: none of the systems of colour we have discussed capture everything of our experience of colour; each operates in its realm without excluding or invalidating the others. An artist might comfortably talk of a ‘blueish yellow’: her vivid cadmium yellow paint is redder than the mental ideal of yellow; she can physically add blue to it to make it more yellow. But for the spectator, who now sees an ideal yellow in the painting, no feat of mental dexterity seems to allow him to imagine a blueish yellow. The slightest introduction of blue slides the colour irrevocably into the lush spectrum of greens. That is simply the mental category of green. And since, mentally, green is opposed to red, our brains cannot grasp a red that leans towards green, or a green that leans towards red. The curious thing is that yellow and blue, though they complement as strikingly as red and green, merge effortlessly into a pleasing colour. This says very little about how light or pigments operate, but it says a great deal about what we project onto what we see. Perhaps a phenomenology of colour would treat of questions like these.

Copy after Mihanovic

In any case, as spectators with firm mental categories for colour, the are things we can say about colour, and things that we cannot. Wittgenstein (LWL, 8) is not so facetious to suggest that certain models of colour–such as his favoured colour octahedron–are ‘really a part of grammar… It tells us what we can do: we can speak of a greenish blue but not of a greenish red etc. … Grammar is not entirely a matter of arbitrary choice.’ Grammar has its role, and need not be threatened by geometrical schema designed to help the painter navigate colour space, any more than it should be threatened by physics. A grammar of colour seems to attempt to describe our intuitions about colour based on how we perceive it, just as the grammar of a natural language attempts to explain how we structure our expressions, even though it may consist more in explaining exceptions than syntactic regularities (Chomsky, 1965: 5). Perhaps the intersection between a geometric colour space and a grammar grounded in a phenomenology of colour would reveal yet more rewarding insights, perhaps as beautifully connected as light and paint have proved to be.

Briggs, David. 2017. The Dimensions of Colour: Modern Colour Theory for Traditional and Digital Painting Media. Accessed November 2017, <>.

Chomsky, Noam. 1965. Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT.

Heinrich, Richard. 2014. ‘Green and Orange – Colour and Space in Wittgenstein.’ In: Frederik Gierlinger, Stefan Riegelnik (Eds), Wittgenstein on Colour. Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter.

Helmholtz, H. 1852a. ‘On the Theory of Compound Colours’. Philosophical Magazine, Fourth Series, 4(4): 519-34.

Hering, Ewald. 1878. Zur Lehre Vom Lichtsinne. Wien: Gerolds Sohn.

Newton, Isaac. 1672. A Letter of Mr Isaac Newton, Professor of the Mathematicks in the University of Cambridge; Containing His New Theory about Light and Colours: Sent by the Author to the Publisher from Cambridge, Febr. 6. 1671/72; In Order to Be Communicated to the R. Society. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 6, 3075,8.

Runge, Philipp Otto. 1810. Farbenkugel: Konstruktion Des Verhältnisses Aller Mischungen Der Farben Zueinander Und Ihrer Vollständigen Affinität. Köln: Tropen.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1980. (LWL) Wittgenstein’s Lectures, Cambridge, 1930-32, from the Notes of John King and Desmond Lee. Lee, Desmond (Ed.). Oxford: Blackwell.



I’m pleased to announce a little Vernissage with Stephanie Rappl at Der Greißler in Vienna in two weeks! Stephanie and I are showing some colourful small pieces among the organic fruit and vegetables in this sweet little shop. Evgenia Pavlova will charm us with her violin while we sip on seasonal drinks. It doesn’t get more wholesome than that.

Our pictures will be there for three months, so you can come and have a coffee and enjoy them at your leisure if you can’t make it to the opening. But come and say servus if you can!

18 November 2017
Albertgasse 19, 1080 Vienna


Just trying to say it right

The struggle (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

There are few people who can both write about art and produce it. I have been cautioned against attempting the superhuman feat of doing both. Undoubtedly, there is a lot of impassioned but mutilated thought that has been scribbled down, and a lot of cleverly strung together ruminations that entirely miss the point of the artwork in question. Regrettably, frenzied vehemence and smooth yet detached theorising tend to be accepted as legitimate encounters between art and writing, as though art ought to infect words with its garbled passions, and as though crystalline categorisations really said the whole of what is to be said about art. An honest, steady, thoughtful middle ground is difficult to attain, but it is this gravity and lucidity that Susan Sontag manages to achieve in her essays on film, theatre and literature. Against Interpretation and Other Essays thrusts us deep into the works in question, considering them, as it were, from the inside. Sontag is both artist and thinker: author and critic; able to love and to measure, to experience and to judge.

The essay. Perhaps, itself, a dying artform. It is easy to dash off an article, a commentary, a review, some quick thoughts, or a summary. But to engage with ideas–whether they emerge from books or paintings or elsewhere–involves something more. It involves a cohesive train of thought, an argument, an insight, a real willingness to enter a zone of intellectual conflict. In the case of writing about art, the essay is a knife, sharpened for the express purpose of permeating the flesh of the artwork to get at what is inside, to taste it, to judge it, to display its qualities for what they are. Perhaps things were ever as dire as they seem to be now: but writing about art, if at all penetrable, is so often vapid promotional cotton candy; sugary teasers that are little more than loosely-clad advertising, slick and professional, treading lightly so as not to crush any toes.

As for myself: Perhaps you have traced my artistic education, observing my first tentative steps into the world of painting, as I respectfully recounted it online. I kept my eyes open, I exposed myself to many things. I thought fiercely and critically about all of it–all of it–I agonised over the disappointments, the ineptitude, the obtuseness, the deception, the sheer ignorance. I think one does not improve unless one learns to discover faults, and can explain why they are faults, and propose ways of addressing them. As an artist, I kept these considerations to myself and applied them in practice. But in writing about art, I maintained a certain reverence. I made a conscious choice to be just, but positive: to focus on the best things.

Copy after Klinger

A curious but probably predictable thing came from this: I was plagiarised. My thoughts found themselves rehashed, sloppily restitched and dimly cited in monstrous word-spaghetti that no longer conveyed the original idea, if any at all. I went to exhibitions where my own words were read back to me, translated into German. It made me consider who has these jobs, and why they don’t know what to say about art. Certainly, artists don’t always know how to write about their work, and that’s why they paint it. But if people who are otherwise proficient writers can’t produce a faithful and insightful piece on a work of art, the problem seems to be deeper. They cannot think about art. They stand before a painting in a distracted panic.

But not all of us do. Some of us approach an artwork attentively, quietly, patiently. We take our time with it, revisit it, think on it. Sontag (1966: 12) is not at all incorrect to say that ‘attention to form in art’ is urgently needed. The formal properties–how colour is used, how strokes are applied, linear rhythms and the balance of shapes–might not be the entirety of a painting, but taking them in is surely the place to start. The little ripples of paint will soon chase away the anxiety, drawing us into a silent and timeless realm, inviting us to reflect. Our thoughts will scurry around with the worries and agitations that we hug to ourselves every waking minute, but these, too, will slow down. A painting is a shy creature, but approached through its form, it might let us near it.

Copy after Claudel

Sontag’s essays, as a collection, make me consider the art I encounter and what is being said about it. I have known highly trained painters, self-taught painters, casual painters, designers, illustrators and conceptual artists across the world. Sontag looked fiercely at the world around her, she wrote about the time in which she lived, about America, about Europe. Her essays are not lighthearted, not necessarily short, not lazy Sunday supplements. They are the product of an active and alert mind wrestling with works that stimulate it or disappoint it and unleash a response. Goodwill is no vice, but the critic, the thinker, has work to do, and goodwill must not cloud the public discussion about art. We came to be impressed, to be stirred, to greet grand ideas–when art fails us, it is not we who should be ashamed, apologetically carrying home our embarrassment at the artist’s deficiency like a tail between our legs. Our critical faculties have not failed us. The art is rubbish.

Sontag (1966: 12) demands a kind of criticism that genuinely responds to art, rather than one that ‘usurp[s] its place.’ Words continue to threaten to replace the artwork, but the situation has grown considerably worse: the words are disposable, interchangeable, unilluminating and cheap. Barely able to capture a coherent thought, they could hardly hope to upstage an artwork. The real threat is whether such vacuous feel-good writing blinds us to art entirely, dulling our sensibilities, subduing our objections. The remedy has been around for some fifty years. We need:

‘Acts of criticism which would supply a really accurate, sharp, loving description of the appearance of a work of art. This seems even harder to do than formal analysis.’

(Sontag, 1966: 13)

The conjunction of sharp and loving is surprising but utterly natural. For how can one love a painting without discernment? How can one withhold affection from a painting that satisfies visually and stirs thoughts even in the silent mechanisms of its construction? Sontag (1966: 14) urges us to recover our senses, and that call is no less urgent now. Once we’ve learned to trust our senses, we must also remember to sharpen our judgements of what we perceive: to be fair, incisive and to demonstrate our love for thoughtful, well-crafted art.

Copy after Veronese

Sontag, Susan. 1966. Against Interpretation and Other Essays. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.


Down in the Valley

Cracked (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)


Today you can go have a good look at this little painting, which is on show at the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts in the Valley, in Brisbane. He’s breaking hearts as a finalist in the Brisbane Art Prize which runs until 27 October 2017. The exhibition is open every weekday from 10am-5pm and you can see a whole stack of art from around the world in little old Brisbane!

The awards night is in one week–Thursday 12 October 2017, 6.30pm–and if you want to get involved in all the excitement, you can grab a ticket through the Judith Wright Centre’s website.


Get one

Let’s talk shop. There are several ways you can get your mitts on some art of your very own. One is to swing by Society6. These guys do an amazing job of printing art onto useful stuff, on demand. I’m especially enamoured of their Giclée prints, which are on archival quality matte cotton rag, which is just as fancy as it sounds. I’ve uploaded a few of my favourite paintings, and if your favourite isn’t there, you can always write a comment here at the Duchess and make it happen! From today until 4 September you get 20% off and free shipping to whichever little pocket of the world you live in, which is, as we would say in Vienna, nicht schlecht (not bad).

Something I am a little quiet about is how to buy an original painting. Yes, I do set these little guys free, posting them across the world on all sorts of exciting adventures! The way to adopt one is to write me (have a look on my website) and we can discuss it privately. As a rough idea, a little guy like the peonies above (32x32cm) starts at around 640 EUR.


A full spectrum

Dutch self portrait (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Early Rembrandt: his colours are bold and gleaming, his compositions elaborate and ambitious; the drawing is wobbly in places. But Rembrandt is unmistakably there right from the beginning. His early Historical Scene reminds me of the clumsy vigour of the youthful Velazquez who, in just a few short years, elevated his painting dramatically, adhering to his same vision but finding more and more assured means of expression. Delacroix (2010: 141) exclaims of Rubens: ‘It is very evident that Rubens was no imitator; he was always Rubens.’ One feels seized by the same conviction when one stands before an early Rembrandt, and this is reassuring. Finish and fluency come with time; originality of conviction and sensibility shine through in spite of underdeveloped abilities.

Detail of Rembrandt, Historical scene

The Rembrandthuis is a veritable cavern of treasures, augmented by the practical demonstrations of printing etchings and mixing up paints from pigments. Huddled in Rembrandt’s tight and dim etching studio, privy to etching, drypoint and engraving techniques, peering into pots of ink made of burnt rabbit bones and linseed oil, watching the hasty print come out clouded with too much ink on the clear surface, one emerges with an entirely different understanding of what Rembrandt produced. Encountering prints made by his own hand, and able to compare them with the efforts of others to recreate them from the same plates, or to make copies of them, one is struck by the artistry of the entire process and of the masterful hand and inventive mind behind them.

Rembrandt’s atmospheric prints make use of a full spectrum of techniques, he pushes every method for what it can give him, overlapping and merging and setting them off against each other to maximum effect. Drypoint curves with their fuzzed burrs render hazy leaves blowing in the trees, but crisp, sharp, engraved lines lightly caress figures in blazing light in the foreground. The darks are an absorbing mixture of furious hatching and the controlled rubbing of ink; they transition thickly into light passages, and one appreciates that this transition is supplied deliberately and carefully, it does not take care of itself or lazily blend two unrelated areas.


That thick hatching is never harried or negligent; it alters course because the image takes it there. Rembrandt is unafraid to search around the surface of the object as if actually feeling his way around it, little clumps of hatches rolling this way and then that way, breaking into each other like rippling waves in a canal. His inventiveness with mark-making is astonishing, lively and ever responsive to the subject.

Rembrandt, Militia Company of District II Under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq, known as the Night Watch, 1642

Returning to the Rijksmuseum to see his paintings, after emerging from the intricate world of his etchings, his compositional prowess is instantly striking. It migrates directly from his small and tightly-spun etchings to the grand format, bringing its seething dark patches and soulful transitions into the light and its expert contrasts that make the light flash where it really needs to. We are all painting with the same ground up bits of dirt in linseed oil. But Rembrandt knows how to find an impressive range within the mix, how to play tones and textures off against one another for specific effects of light, how to use lightness of touch to convey brilliance, how to deepen space with quickly engulfing shadows. The Night Watch dazzles less for its individual perfections but rather for its pictorial unity. The pictures that flank it, decked with smooth drawing and inventive rendering, ring with even-handed clarity. Each face in them is well-depicted, each pose carefully arranged and interlocking with the next, each figure grouped with others, yet shown in its individuality. Yet in these pictures, composition is conceived much more as a linear arrangement of given subjects. Rembrandt sacrifices much–he gives us stumpy legs and obscured faces–but he has puzzled over how to present us with a picture, not simply a spread of information. The vast stretch of darkness across the top reads just like his etchings–a thick darkness hangs heavily over the militia, certainly unnecessary for the reproduction of their likenesses, but indispensable for a resonant, night-swamped image.


Delacroix (2010: 209) laments that ‘The majority of painters who are so scrupulous in their use of the model spend most of their time putting faithful copies into dull and ill-digested compositions. They believe that they have accomplished everything when they reproduce heads, hands and accessories in slavish imitation of nature without any relationship with one another.’ One is left in no doubt that Rembrandt digests his compositions–that his smaller works, many of them hardly more than thumbnails, give him such a sense for the whole, allow him to extract salient passages and subdue others, or weave them more subtly together, in a way that eludes more faithful painters. His compositions do feel chewed–it feels as though he is intimately acquainted with them, as though he has explored every crevice of them and considered their weight and role with respect to the whole. And seeing etchings in their first, second, sixth, seventh states, seeing the gentle alterations, and the sometimes dramatic revisions, one sees that Rembrandt considered and reconsidered, reworked his images, knew them thoroughly and beat them into the shape he wanted. This is a kind of familiarity and deliberateness that one does not meet with often.



Delacroix, Eugène. 2010. The journal of Eugene Delacroix: a selection. Edited by Hubert Wellington. Translated by Lucy Norton. London; New York: Phaidon Press.


The effect

The drawing class (c) 2017 Samantha Groenestyn

Images seep into language, and in so doing they add colour and liveliness. The metaphor chases after the potency of the image, abandoning the bald precision of description for a surprising visual equivalence painted in words. But Lichtenstein (1993: 204) is eager to persuade us that the image itself is something autonomous and specific. Though it can be imported into language, it does not consist in language. Nor is it simply the flipside of verbal description, an illustration of words. Our encounter with the image should reach beyond the boundaries of language.

Lichtenstein’s (1993 [1989]: 4, 63) incredible book, The Eloquence of Colour, champions the unruly and indispensable element of painting that is colour, the rogue party in painting’s troubled relationship with philosophy. She sees in colour–stubbornly material, emotional and seductive–the very thing that makes painting both distinct and effective. It is the part that Plato could not subdue, when he rightly recognised the seductive and deceptive threat of the image. Plato’s move, Lichtenstein (1993: 142) explains, was swift and decisive: he derailed the theoretical hopes of the image by framing the debate on the territory of language. The image must defend itself by the standards of discourse, and so too must painting if it wishes to emerge from the mechanical arts and prove itself a ‘legitimate form of knowledge’ (Lichtenstein, 1993: 204).

Even Aristotle’s defence of the visual does not challenge this founding assumption, which has plagued the visual and performative arts ever since (Lichtenstein, 1993: 62). He resigns himself to the ontologically deficient status of materiality, to the inferiority of appearances and the Spectacle (Aristotle. Rhet. III.1, 1404a1-4, trans. Roberts; Poet. B.6, 1450b17-19, trans. Bywater; Lichtenstein, 1993: 63). Colour suffers from this prejudice more than drawing–for drawing is crisp and measurable, and able to describe a story, and thus more readily tamed for discursive purposes. Yet in defining the image as something linear and illustrative–as the metaphor–philosophical discourse frames the question for its own advantage, constructing a straw man which it then proceeds to dominate (Lichtenstein, 1993: 44; 82). Painting, resplendent with colour, defies discourse because it does not consist entirely in drawing. The image ought to defend itself precisely on its own non-discursive grounds.

This discursive attack that puts the image on the defensive is precisely the fate suffered by rhetoric, and Lichtenstein thus finds in rhetoric an unexpected ally for painting (Lichtenstein, 1993: 205). Discourse seeks to distance itself from rhetoric, demanding logical rigour in arguments above persuasive delivery of them. The visible, theatrical aspects of speech open the door to all manner of deception. The charge of sophistry is levelled at both rhetoric and painting, Lichtenstein (1993: 68) argues, not simply because they are visual, but because of how persuasive the visual is. Their very charm, their incontestable effectiveness, is exactly what sparks this mistrust.

Discourse may colour itself with metaphors, but rhetoric strides to the edge of logical argument, sets its words aside and simply shows us. We hear the image in discourse; we simply see it in rhetoric (Lichtenstein, 1993: 129). Action is no metaphor. A forceful gesture is forceful; a proud bearing is proud; a wavering voice does waver; a heavy silence bears down on us heavily. ‘Persuasion is clearly a sort of demonstration,’ says Aristotle (Rhet. I.1, 1355a4-5). These actual, active demonstrations threaten language–they suggest a deficiency in language, and they hint at their own independence from language, their escape from the carefully defined terms of language (Lichtenstein, 1993: 92, 111). The hierarchy of language above the image might be overturned, the image might prove stronger.

But neither Lichtenstein nor Aristotle attempt to invert the traditional hierarchy. Lichtenstein (1993: 75, 111) would rather abandon hierarchies altogether, and clarify instead how the visible and the discursive complement one another. Aristotle (Rhet. I.1, 1355a20-25, 1356a20-25) still requires that the orator ‘be able to reason logically,’ and thus considers rhetoric ‘an offshoot of dialectic’ rather than a rival; the orator cannot afford to let truth itself go unnoticed merely because his audience pays too little heed to his intricate arguments. Platonism urges us to look for hierarchies and homogeneity in theories of representation, Lichtenstein (1993: 55) suggests; Aristotelianism tends to permit more heterogeneous theories of representation, the kinds that embrace logically elusive concepts like desire and pleasure.

The sign itself represents the attempt to ‘master the image logically’ (Lichtenstein, 1993: 51). The sign models representation on language: it assumes that representation, too, must be discursive. It implies that every visual, like a word, stands in for what it represents, and that this is how it acquires meaning. There is a referential relationship between the sign and what it signifies (Lichtenstein, 1993: 179). Lichtenstein counters that meaning exists in the image as a unity, it permeates its materiality; even without precise contours a painting can persuade us through a haze of convincing colours–the part that Descartes (2008 [1641]: 15) says remains true when all else is fictitious. Wherever we try to interpret, we seek a referent for a sign; whenever we speak of resemblance, we are making a comparison between two disconnected things, we are approaching the painting with a discursive attitude (Lichtenstein, 1993: 51). Representation is much simpler if we take rhetoric as our model: the painting, like the orator, simply re-presents the very object or emotion before our eyes (Lichtenstein, 1993: 123). It does not tell, it shows.

The most pressing thing, then, is not how much a painting resembles its referent, how accurately it embodies this information, but rather how captivating it is. The painting must, like the orator, hold our attention, capture our fancy, and move us. Lichtenstein (1993: 180) argues that ‘truth in painting lies in the effect of the representation on those who see it’–that representation consists in perception, which takes place in the viewer, not reference, a relation between the painting and its referent.

Insisting on the effect rather than the internal cohesiveness of the painting itself, and on what the artist intended to embed in it, seems problematic at first glance. But this emphasis on perception has less to do with private, subjective interpretations of a painting by scattered viewers, and more to do with an immediate sensory encounter with it. For interpretations, you will recall, are discursive decodings of images. In placing perception at the centre of our theory of representation, we are exchanging the cerebral encounter with the painting for a sensory one: we are approaching it on material grounds, responding to its material presence with our bodily awareness. We let our eyes apprehend the painting, we let them roam where it urges them, we let its mood wash over us, we trust its silent proddings rather than searching for intellectual substitutions we might make.

Unlike the discordant diversity of subjective interpretations, I would argue that this immediate sensory apprehension brings us much nearer to the intention of the artist. It is the way a painting seems to ‘come across directly onto the nervous system,’ as Bacon (1975: 18) strives after; it reflects Wollheim’s (1987: 43) observation that the artist assumes the dual role of artist and spectator in one, constantly testing and retesting the painting’s effect on herself, in order to know whether it will have the same effect on other spectators. ‘The painter’s pleasure is also that of the viewer’ (Lichtenstein, 1993: 182). The spectator comes nearer the painter’s intention if he simply perceives the painting and lets its silent visual elements work on him.

Yet even the path of perception is fraught with philosophical difficulties. Descartes has long since challenged the ontological status of sensory perceptions, finding a way to convert them into intellectual ideas independent of the body. For if we experience sensations in our dreams, they must, reasons Descartes (2008 [1641]: 14; 20-1), have very little to do with physical experience. Scoring points on the side of discourse, he (2008 [1641]: 23) concludes that ‘perception … is an inspection by the mind alone.’ Kant (2009 [1783]: §1; §10) is clear to point out that we are dealing with metaphysics, not physics; whatever a physical thing is, he argues, all we can measure is our own idea of it. Materiality has suffered heavily under our discursive tradition of metaphysics. Arguing for the significance of the material and our perception of it is no small task within this enduring theoretical domain.

Perhaps the best route out is that suggested by Lichtenstein (1993: 182): to prove that illusion is no deception, for the simple reason that it shows itself. The illusion never asks us to believe in its truth, it never attempts to stand in for reality. It shows us something of the world, all the while admitting its own artifice, and we indulge ourselves momentarily in the illusion because it is pleasurable (Lichtenstein, 1993: 179). Painting is comparable to cosmetics: it seeks to delight us, to captivate us, to seduce us, but not to trick us into believing in a false reality. This playful artifice does not deserve the accusation of sophistry, argues Lichtenstein (1993: 187); rather, the kind of persuasion that promises truth by airtight feats of logic but quietly leads us astray is sophistry. ‘What makes a man a ‘sophist’ is not his faculty, but his moral purpose,’ retorts Aristotle (Rhet. I.1, 1355b15-20). The key, Lichtenstein (1993: 181) insists, lies in realising that truth in painting, like in rhetoric, is measured by its effectiveness in the spectator, not by its relation to reality or our idea of it.

To establish painting’s theoretical validity, then, on the grounds of its rhetorical persuasiveness rather than on discursive grounds, we need to show how this effectiveness can be deliberately achieved. Generally, a discipline has had to prove itself on both theoretical and pedagogical grounds to be recognised as a liberal art: Lichtenstein (1993: 139) describes the rocky emergence of the Royal French Academy in 1635 and painting’s troubles in both domains, particularly the reluctance of the newfound professors to verbalise their practice. Lichtenstein (1993: 152) surmises that ‘drawing is the only thing in painting that can really be subjected to rules’–and thus the only part of painting which can truly be taught, and systematically theorised about. Here we will raise a resounding objection: colour can indeed be taught, and thus we can put forward an alternate way of theorising about painting, one that suits colour and drawing equally, and that accommodates a perceptual theory of representation.

First we need to be clear what we mean by ‘rules.’ I am not endorsing binding, homogeneous laws of painting. Rather, I am arguing for systematic, orderly but adaptive principles that approximate our perception and work in conjunction with it. They explicitly avoid the strict recipes and dogmas of the studio; they permit great but knowledgeable flexibility in technique. They require each artist to develop her own sensibility, to order her perceptions according to her own aesthetic preferences–they demand great facility and understanding but also offer the greatest liberation from rules and haphazard fortuitousness alike. They are not rules at all.

They are the kinds of systems described by Panofsky (1991 [1927]: 28-30) in his book on perspective, which emphasises the difference between the rigid mathematical space that our linear perspective imposes upon space as we actually perceive it through two spherical eyes, but which we adapt to our aesthetic purposes nonetheless, and the kind of systems described by Runge (1810) and more lately by David Briggs (2017) which describe colour space three dimensionally, either strictly geometrically like Runge, or in conjunction with light indices like Briggs. These systems deny absolutes; they acknowledge that what we perceive is difficult to describe, but they find relational ways to do so that encourage the active participation of the artist.

And, being able to be taught, these systems meet both the theoretical and the pedagogical requirements of a liberal art (Lichtenstein, 1993: 151). They achieve all this far from the narrow demands of language and discourse, holding fast to a rhetorical conception of representation, embracing what is explicitly visual in painting, preserving and promoting its characteristic and autonomous effectiveness.

Aristotle. 1984. The Rhetoric and the Poetics. Edited by Edward P. J. Corbett. Translated by W. Rhys Roberts and Ingram Bywater. New York: The Modern Library.

Briggs, David. 2017. The Dimensions of Colour.

Descartes, René. 2008 [1641]. Meditations on First Philosophy: With Selections from the Objections and Replies. Translated by Michael Moriarty. Oxford: Oxford University.

Kant, Immanuel. 2009 [1783] Prolegomena zu einer jeden künftigen Metaphysik, die als Wissenschaft wird auftreten können. Edited by Rudolf Malter. Reclams Universal-Bibliothek, Nr. 2468. Stuttgart: Reclam.

Lichtenstein, Jacqueline. 1993 [1989] The Eloquence of Colour: Rhetoric and Painting in the French Classical Age. Translated by Emily McVarish. Berkeley: University of California.

Panofsky, Erwin. 1991 [1927]. Perspective as Symbolic Form. Translated by Christopher S. Wood. New York: Zone.

Runge, Philipp Otto. 1810. Farbenkugel: Konstruktion Des Verhältnisses Aller Mischungen Der Farben Zueinander Und Ihrer Vollständigen Affinität. Köln: Tropen.

Sylvester, David, and Francis Bacon. 1975. Francis Bacon. 1st American ed. New York: Pantheon.

Wollheim, Richard. 1987. Painting as an Art. London: Thames and Hudson.