Organisms of paint

State of the Art (c) Ruprecht von Kaufmann

‘It is impossible,’ says Merleau-Ponty (2012 [1945]: 221), ‘to paint about painting.’ He contrasts painting with the self-reflexivity of speech which can turn in on itself infinitely. And yet Ruprecht von Kaufmann, in his impressive retrospective exhibition in Erfurt, Germany, boldly offers us a kind of modern altarpiece, ‘State of the Art,’ which seems to be precisely a painterly contemplation on what painting is and where it is going. The panels seem to unfold like an altarpiece in an old German church, but in fact they are flat against the wall: the perspective is built into their skewed frames and continues in the lines of the pictures. From the outset the painting toys with our perception and toys with our smug art historical expectations. It raises a physical challenge to our interminable discussions about painting; for language proves, after all, ‘equally uncommunicative of anything other than itself’ (Merleau-Ponty, 2012: 219).

The left wing houses a blazing piano whose narrow side is painted in rough, grainy, horizontal slashes that are cut sharply into a perfect vertical line–a painterly impossibility, unless one makes use of some non-traditional tool, like a stencil. Where the paint meets this stencil it rises to a proud precipice, defiantly thick. The piano seems wedged behind a smoky bar, but the long, thin counter proves to be a hovering canoe, whose subtle modulations of colour would also be impossible to paint save for the long and carefully prepared hooked curve of a stencil that determines its border. Its edges are licked pink, flaming between the sedate purple and indifferent white, giving them a diffuse glow even while they wrap around sharp edges.

State of the art (detail) (c) Ruprecht von Kaufmann

In the boat is a sorry looking figure. His painting-arms–for they end in brushes–hang limp and useless. Beyond him, in the final panel, flat and hasty modernist scribbles recede impatiently around a corner. Von Kaufmann seems to be in a devastating limbo. His works lack the shrewd indifference or even scorn towards narrative expected of the contemporary painter. But perhaps his painting is, in a sense, ‘accidentally narrative,’ in the way Merleau-Ponty (2012: 174) argues that a poem is. Beneath the images conjured up by the words of a poem lies the poem’s real power: its pulsing, rhythmic incantation loosely caresses its story but it leads, he insists, ‘in the reader’s mind, a further existence which makes it a poem’ (2012: 174). The force of its delivery lingers in our minds, not the synopsis, and our memory of that electrifying encounter stays with us long after the plot is lost to us. ‘A novel, poem, picture or musical work,’ ventures Merleau-Ponty (2012: 175) ‘are individuals, that is, beings in which the expression is indistinguishable from the thing expressed.’

Etude (c) Ruprecht von Kaufmann

Floating in this uncertainty, von Kaufmann puts on his painting-arms anyway. He brandishes them with the fury of the piano player in the small gouache study ‘Etude,’ who plays on relentlessly with quivering, bendy arms while the whole thing goes up in smoke. Behind the hovering, inert painter (who is about to be hit with a bucket of paint) hangs other equipment ready to be assumed: his ordinary hands, more brushes, and a cluster of gracefully hooked shapes. It takes me a minute, but then I recognise them: some stencils hang from the wall with a languid drape, curling with the glamour of Nouvelle Vague cigarettes, seductive as a Jugendstil arc across any reputable Viennese Kaffeehaus door. The painter might wearily pull on his brushes, but he might also adapt–

Flucht (c) Ruprecht von Kaufmann

Suddenly the stencils are everywhere. What would be discarded is offered triumphantly to our view, laid at the altar of painting. I see their crisp, cool results in the slick noses of sharks and I see their untiring reiteration of geometric patterns. But I also see them painfully and meticulously describing complex floor tiles in exaggerated perspectives, and I see them as sensually abstracted flat shapes. Von Kaufmann knows their rhythms intimately, he sees them scattered about the landscape of his studio, he eyes them as he dutifully attends to emails and escapes, momentarily, into their undulating forms, flattening them, in his mind, into lusciously rolling shapes, before abandoning his emails to paint them so: abstractions of abstractions, main protagonists formed of discarded remnants, paintings devised out of the very tools of painting, and out of unconventional and disposable tools at that. Von Kaufmann slips into his painting-arms and paints–defiantly, belligerently, compellingly–about painting.

Perfektion (c) Ruprecht von Kaufmann

The inevitable final step is that the stencils break away from the pictures, wearing the residue of the paintings on their smooth skins as they stalk the gallery, looming as embodied thought. I stand, at last, face to face with the unearthly human forms of strangely graceful sculptures that von Kaufmann has fashioned from these remnants, breathing the same air that flows between their fanned rib cages. I cast a quick look about the gallery, shocked at being entrusted with this vivifying secret. But no one else seems to notice. They approach the sculptures–thoughtfully pieced together with astounding anatomical care, with graceful kinks offsetting ribs and pelvis, and swollen calves, with a sturdy turn of the knee and the sure fastening of hamstrings to fibula–with predictable detachment, accustomed to greeting clusters of garbage in galleries. They fail to grasp that all are one: that, intoxicated with the act of creation, possessed by the same sick obsession with galvanism as Mary Shelley, von Kaufmann has animated the very tools of expression, granting them their existence as beings, as individuals.

Tumble (c) Ruprecht von Kaufmann

But the studio remains haunted with doubts and other tiny evils. ‘The Atelier’ towers as a false diptych. It is light and grand and littered with deceptions: benign decapitations, casual self-cannibalism, banal skulls that make up the satin ripple of the wallpaper. But most arresting is the break between the panels. It is not at the dramatic pictorial division, where the studio is propped up like a film-set. This rift between red and white trails off into a wash of strokes that reveal the painterly artifice that it is, while the real division shatters the glass of the mirror. Von Kaufmann, with the head of a rabbit, sits stiff and paralysed. His wife is sturdy and solid and human, uncovered and unshakable, sensible in her house shoes, a woman really seen, something sure among the sham. Her earthiness is grounding. She is a delicate balance between flesh and drapery, like the melting woman of ‘Take off your skin,’ whose legs, painted with ribbon-like delicacy, seem to curl endlessly in on themselves like Möbius strips.

The studio, 8 years of my life as Mr Lampe (c) Ruprecht von Kaufmann

Sometimes this firm but fluid drawing softens into something more loose and flat, like the legs in ‘In the house,’ a five-panel painting that traverses some intensely emotional territory across its breadth. These legs revert to gentle outlines with the loving wobble of a Klimt leg, rounded out by two or three subtle tones laid crudely next to one another. A slumped figure is composed entirely of looping outlines filled in banana-yellow, garish against the subdued purples, as if a caricature of himself, of his own maddening powerlessness, shut off from the turmoil behind the door. These softened human imprints constantly vie with the sharpness of stencils and with the exacting slopes of edges of rooms and stairways, whose disconcerting perspective refracts across breaks in the panels. The low-slung moon, thick and pocked with holes through horizontal waves, gleams artificially against a scraped violet-blue sky, cut out by a perfectly circular stencil. The bed escapes this technical tension; its soft ripples wrap expertly around a solid form with a pleasing virtuosity, its pearlescent tones are hushed and close and its strokes are swift and free.

In the House (detail) (c) Ruprecht von Kaufmann

Perhaps the clash between human and tool is most violent in the long series of remembered heads, the ‘Zuschauer’ (‘spectators’). Von Kaufmann seems intent on finding an elegant summary of each person, an understated string of loving lines to cup a face and distill its delightful individuality. But the painting bites back. Von Kaufmann goads it out of submission, gouging its lino surface instead of gently smoothing paint across it, slicing it and swapping its parts around, or overloading it with chunks of paint. Each eruption of paint latches onto something of the painted spectator, who willingly parades themself as they desire to be seen. But each presentation is met with a judgement, and the paint betrays that judgement. Full and dewy lips are rendered in bleeding, streaky paint. Large glasses alluding to intellect perch upon an aloof face, and von Kaufmann carves them in deep, hollow circles. A proud girl with a lovely tilt of chin and charming cheekbones is all but erased by a flat slab of gold paint, and von Kaufmann seems to sneer at her bland anonymity behind her polish, before piling a rough blob of the glitzy substance in the middle of her vacant face. Whether they seem to gaze dreamily at a starry sky, or stew knowingly in their sagging skin, or wear their bright lapels proudly, or leer from gaudy Hawaiian shirts, von Kaufmann teases them with the cruel painterly pleasure he takes in their lopsided ears, their bulbous noses, the undersides of their copious chins as they raise their heads and prattle on endlessly. And he never lets them stare him down: their evasive eyes softly dissolve like sugar sunken into coffee, nothing more than smoky circles in their sockets.

Zuschauer (c) Ruprecht von Kaufmann

The spectators seem to suffer a painterly fate akin to Deleuze’s (2003: 98; 99) ‘diagram’–the controlled chaos that he attributes to the smeared faces painted by Francis Bacon, the part of the painting freed from intention and left to the harsh irreverence of the hand. Indeed, the stencils permit exactly that–they define a limit within which von Kaufmann can enact a mindless physical fury at odds with the rest of the painting process, that would otherwise spill destructively into other regions and swallow up the picture. But von Kaufmann has found more than a clever tool in his stencils, for his rough patches, rather than wreaking disaster on a painting, seem rough in a directly human response to innovations and developments in painting. A stencil could, in the hands of another, be a crutch, an assistant to a lazy painter. Von Kaufmann defies the stencil and pushes its possibilities, he uses it not for ease and perfection but rather to reveal what paint is, its viscosity and willfulness, and to show us how inescapably human painting is. Every frenzied texture that wrestles through a stencil is a declaration about painting. Von Kaufmann does not carelessly disrupt his paintings. Rather, he thrashes painting to life, extracting every last drop of expression from every last part of it–even from the tools and the substrate–awakening it into a being, into an organism of paint.

Whatever von Kaufmann’s private doubts about painting may be, he keeps probing perception, probing existence itself, until the paintings assume their own existence, silently stewing and imposing their alternatives on us. His work always clings to a story, certainly, and prods us to discover one. But in so many ways they are paintings about painting, thought through the act of painting itself; the presence they give to these thoughts is far more deep and honest than this inadequate tribute of words. Every time von Kaufmann puts on his painting arms, he inhabits painting even as it inhabits him, he fuses seamlessly with his tools like bike and rider and surges on relentlessly, and we can no longer say where the brush ends and he begins.

Prometheus (c) Ruprecht von Kaufmann

Deleuze, Gilles. 2003 [1981]. Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation by Gilles Deleuze. Translated by Daniel W. Smith. 1 edition. London: Continuum.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 2012 [1945]. Phenomenology of Perception. Hoboken: Routledge.

Die Evakuierung des Himmels‘ runs until 02 April 2018 at Kunsthalle Erfurt, Germany. Do it!



I was very pleased to contribute an article on Ruprecht von Kaufmann to the Chilean magazine Arte al Limite. Few living painters are working in quite the way von Kaufmann is–with this tight drawing and lavishly experimental paint, and on such a grand scale. Let’s keep the discussion about painting going–philosophically, critically, or otherwise.

This issue is out in print now, and you can also read it online!


Knowledge or experience

Coffee house muses (c) Samantha Groenestyn

Malcolm Budd (2012: 205) is not restrained in his admiration for Richard Wollheim’s (1987) influential book Painting as an Art, but he finds Wollheim’s appeal to a distinctive phenomenology by which we encounter paintings to be rather extravagant. Wollheim’s (1987: 22; 181) account of pictorial representation notoriously avoids language-driven accounts of representation, and turns squarely toward our experience of what it is like to look at a painting. Crucially, finds Wollheim, we exercise a remarkable ability (not exclusive to looking at paintings) to be aware of both the painted surface and of something depicted in it–at the same time. He calls this phenomenologically distinct feat ‘seeing-in.’ Budd (2012: 194) finds seeing-in to be inadequately described and unsupportable. What Wollheim cannot escape, he argues, is that our ability to grasp what a picture represents is inevitably grounded in knowledge. Proposing added visual experiences is a superfluous move when we inevitably need to secure representation by means of knowledge.

Wollheim introduces seeing-in between the perceptual experiences of ordinary seeing and illusion. Seeing, on its own, is a wonderfully complex process, but what has been traditionally difficult to account for is that a painting presents us with two very different objects of attention in the one object. The same marks may be seen as marks on a surface or as the scene or person they represent. This adds a layer of complexity to seeing that has proved difficult to reconcile. Ernst Gombrich (1959: 5) champions illusion as the solution, arguing that we do not see both surface and image at the same time, but that we are able to flick between the two visual experiences. When we attend to the image we submit to the illusion. Budd (2012: 187) clarifies that this by no means demands that we hold a false belief; rather, we are able to hover between two different perceptual experiences that have the same representational content. But what he finds unsatisfying about Gombrich’s solution is that it excludes the possibility that we can experience both at the same time.

Wohnzimmer (c) Carl Moll (1903)

If we reflect on the experience of looking at paintings (the kind of thing a phenomenologist would do), it would indeed seem that we can attend to both surface and image at once. Gombrich’s insistence that one cannot seems stubbornly at odds with the experience of looking at a painting. Certainly, sometimes we are so caught up in the picture that we concentrate more on its content, but (aside from plausibly-located trompe l’oeils) we are not prone to mistake paintings for the thing that they depict, nor to really forget that they are paintings. Sometimes we are so enamoured of the paint that we neglect the content, but it is difficult to block out the content entirely. Perhaps the best counterargument to Gombrich is the kind of painting that proudly brandishes its physicality, of which countless fine examples abound. Let’s limit our examples to the Viennese painter Carl Moll. His naturalistic portrayals of Viennese interiors and parks and hills are recognisable scenes of breakfast settings and villages among forests. But their dappled marks of all manner of inflection, their tight design and their honest but somehow augmented colours are inescapable reminders that the object of our vision is a painting. The distortion is always just enough that the paint must always be present in our experience, even when contemplating a Wiener Frühstück.

Mutter und Kind am Tisch. (c) Carl Moll (1903)

Wollheim (1987: 46) begins to describe such experiences, echoing Leonardo da Vinci’s (2008: 173) example of the battles and landscapes to be found in textured walls by the daydreaming eye, but his appeal to phenomenology goes little further, argues Budd (2012: 194). By Budd’s estimation, the phenomenon remains under-described, and in any case, it is not clear that the step is at all necessary. At least one feature of the experience must be established: Budd (2012: 193) argues that seeing-in must involve distributed attention, a specifically non-focused attention that roams the picture as we take in the picture as a whole, or an attention rather meditatively shared among the many properties of a picture (a theme Bence Nanay (2016: 13; 21, 22) takes up with great enthusiasm). Without distributed attention, the perceptual experience simply lapses back into seeing (in which we see only paint) or gives way to illusion (in which we see only the image).

Rather than pursue the necessity of distributed attention, Budd recasts Wollheim’s earlier and later accounts of representation in terms of his own favoured emphasis on depiction. The choice is significant: depiction frames representation explicitly in terms of a referential relationship. It says that a picture refers to something else in the world which it depicts, for which it is in some way a substitute, without being equivalent, for the thing in the world does not ever depict the picture. This explanation insists that pictures are dependent on the world. Moreover, it operates in a very linguistic way, treating pictures (or their parts) rather like propositions that refer to objects or ideas. I am not too sympathetic to this attitude and neither is Wollheim. His explicit rejection of language-driven explanations makes his unconventional appeal to phenomenology unsurprising. It is clear that Budd persists in the propositional tradition of representation, but we shall examine his criticism nonetheless.

(c) Carl Moll

Depiction, he begins, demands an awareness of two things: both the marked surface and what is depicted (Budd, 2012: 186). When we are aware of both, we can correctly determine what a painting depicts. Were we not aware of the surface, we would think we were looking at the real thing. Were we not aware of what is depicted, representation would break down and we would be left with an incomprehensible arrangement of paint. Traditionally, work on representation tries to relate these two kinds of awareness, but the real problem, explains Budd (2012: 186), was always a knowledge-based one. The awareness of what is depicted is comprised of two parts: that we can see that x is depicted, and that we know what an x is in order to recognise it. Representation, when it succeeds, hangs on this knowing what before any concern about perceptual experiences. For a spectator to see a representation of snow, he must first know what snow is, then see that there is snow in the picture, and finally see that the picture is on a surface and is hence a picture and not actually snow.

Winter in Preibach (c) Carl Moll (1904)

Wollheim describes his special perceptual capacity, on which seeing-in is based, in two different ways as his theory develops. The early version describes it as two simultaneous experiences; the later version describes it as a single experience with two aspects. Budd treats each version in turn. The early stance states that seeing-in is based on a special perceptual capacity that involves simultaneously seeing two things: one that is present before the eyes and one that is not. The paint (or the rough texture of the wall) is what is directly visually perceived; the snow is also visually perceived but it is not there. Seeing what is not there, by Wollheim’s account, is a ‘cultivated experience,’ and here, argues Budd (2012: 196) lies the gap that Wollheim cannot fill perceptually. Wollheim can see that there is snow, but must bring his knowledge of what snow is to the picture. The what is hidden beneath the that.

Wollheim’s later account simply buries the problem even deeper, Budd (2012: 199) continues. In merging the two experiences into a single perceptual experience, twofoldness, with two aspects, a configurational and a recognitional aspect, Wollheim neglects to explain from whence this recognition arises, if not from some prior knowledge. The gap, the epistemic blank, reemerges in this subordinate part of the unified perceptual experience.

Let us examine this knowledge gap. For Wollheim (1987: 44; 89), it is crucial that all the resources that a spectator needs to engage with a painting are contained within that painting. This is because he wants to locate the meaning of a painting within itself, rather than use the painting as a tool for getting at the meaning of the world. The latter kind of position, held by proponents of symbol-driven theories like Nelson Goodman (1977: 241; 260; 265), see the painting and its elements as substitutions for concepts or objects in the world, as something that must always be interpreted in relation to the world. To ascribe a painting this kind of placeholder-status is to treat it propositionally: like language. Wollheim knows that we bring our own preconceptions to a painting, and he does not utterly discredit this type of meaning. But, he argues, it is not the most illuminating nor the primary type of meaning that paintings can have (Wollheim, 1987: 22). Indeed, we can engage meaningfully with a painting in spite of a lack in our knowledge.

At the sideboard (c) Carl Moll 1903

Consider a painter, perhaps from Australia, who has never seen snow. She has, however, seen paintings of snow, and has heard a few things about it. Everything she knows about snow has been gained from second-hand sources. Nevertheless, she may go on to convincingly paint a snowy picture that conveys the unmistakable airy softness of thick, freshly-fallen snow, its icy sparkle in the sun, its mellow blueness in the shade. This knowledge of what snow is seems very mysterious for it was gained through knowledge that certain pictures represent snow. Budd’s knowledge requirement is not as primary as he claims. The same might be argued for mythical creatures, of which we become acquainted through fabricated pictures. Importantly, it seems that this knowledge stems from perception in one way or another: sometimes perception of the world, of snow itself; sometimes perception of other pictures.

Nanay (2016: 51) directs us back to perception for an explanation of this knowledge gap. He adds some nuance to Wollheim’s twofoldness by extending it into ‘threefoldness’ (Nanay, 2016: 48). Not unlike Budd, he distinguishes between three aspects, with the crucial difference that he considers each of them to be accessed by a perceptual experience. He lists them thus:

A: the two-dimensional picture surface
B: the three-dimensional object the picture surface visually encodes
C: the three-dimensional depicted object

Like Budd, Nanay distinguishes between the that and the what: B is the painted snow, and C is snow in the world, or the village of Nußdorf itself, to return to Carl Moll. For representation to succeed, by Nanay’s (2016: 58) account, we only need to perceive A and B, not A and C. The unfortunate Australian painter who has never seen snow, and those unfamiliar with Vienna’s delightful circle of wine-producing hills, can still successfully identify these in pictures. But more than this: without any idea where Nußdorf is or what it looks like, a spectator can still see a well-defined if anonymous village replete with church spire in the picture. The picture is not wholly without meaning simply because the spectator cannot put a name to it or connect it to a referent in the world. Similarly, a picture of a person can be recognised as such and even quite arresting even if that person remains anonymous to us.

Blick über Nußdorf und Heiligenstadt (c) Carl Moll

Nanay (2016: 55) describes this knowledge-deficiency in terms of perception. To the spectator uninitiated in the wine- and wandering-oriented recreation offered by the Viennese hills, C (Nußdorf itself) remains both unperceived and unrepresented. For the Viennese who does recognise those particular hills, Nußdorf is represented, though not immediately before his eyes. The final step, explains Nanay (2016: 55) is this: while gazing upon the hushed horizon of the painting, Nußdorf itself is ‘quasi-perceptually represented.’ The two experiences of seeing (one of what is there: the paint; one of what is not there: Nußdorf) comprise two simultaneous perceptual states and their overlap, says Nanay (2016: 57), is what the distinct phenomenology of recognising what a picture represents amounts to. Recognition is not necessary for representation to succeed, but when it does occur Nanay argues that it is possible to account for it perceptually.

Not so for Budd (2012: 204), who insists that ‘whatever a picture depicts, you would not see it as a depiction of that thing if you were unaware of what that thing looks like from the point of view from which it has been depicted.’ Representation completely falls apart for him when the unlucky spectator has a particular gap in his knowledge. And yet, the hazy scene through Nußdorf and Heiligenstadt and on to the hills retains its representational charm, not dissolving entirely into a completely impenetrable textured abstraction. Representation proves more robust than this.

View on the Nussberg toward Heiligenstadt (c) Carl Moll (1905)

Indeed, should the uninitiated spectator succumb to the lure of the hills that Moll irresistibly conveys and travel to Vienna, he might gaze out at the real thing and note with some amazement that the hills do in fact possess certain qualities that he gathered from the paintings. That sometimes they are a deep, violet-blue with crisp edges, and other times they dissolve, pale and silvery, into a husky purple sky. Something of the sleepy wine-drenched atmosphere soaks the pictures in a way that is more honest than the real thing, and not entirely absent from the real thing.

Budd considers it an unjustifiable extravagance to turn to phenomenology and posit a new species of seeing. As we have considered, his account of representation remains rooted in language, and reexamining the experience of looking at a painting is an attractive alternative if one finds this kind of substitution-based interpretive meaning inadequate when it comes to painting. I would suggest that Wollheim’s move is far from extravagant, and could be extended further. Looking at a painting, at its variegated surface and its carefully conceived relationships, is very different from looking at whatever it ‘depicts,’ and not only because of the mysteriousness of seeing the three-dimensional in the two-dimensional. It is as though one is granted access to the perceptual experience of another, the artist. The artist is able to show far more about her perceptual experience by her deliberate selection, construction, augmentation and handling of the what. She is able to show something of how she experiences the hills, tinged with memory and longing, spiked with intense heat or blistering cold, as a solitary thinker or basking in delightful company. Painting, by its very nature, offers us perceptual experiences far beyond our ordinary visual encounters, specifically by merging it with the horizonal structures encountered by others: painters.



Budd, Malcolm. 2012. Aesthetic Essays. Oxford University: Oxford.

Gombrich, Ernst. 1959. Art and Illusion: A study in the psychology of pictorial representation. Phaidon: London.

Goodman, Nelson. 1976. Languages of Art: An approach to a theory of symbols. Hackett: Indianapolis.

Nanay, Bence. 2016. Aesthetics as Philosophy of Perception. Oxford University: Oxford.

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

Da Vinci, Leonardo. 2008 [1952]. Notebooks. Oxford: Oxford.


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.


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.


Geometry & painting

Adèle (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Importing mathematics into painting has some potentially grand implications. The idea makes me flush with uncontainable excitement; it smacks of Descartes (2006 [1637]: 9) and his methodical approach to knowledge, and I would echo his rationalist sentiment: ‘I was most keen on mathematics, because of its certainty and the incontrovertibility of its proofs.’ This unlikely marriage between mathematics and painting is especially dear to me because it offers something steady and dependable in terms of colour and not merely in terms of drawing; it promises to embrace the entirety of painting with its sober orderliness. This systematisation hardly destroys the poetry of painting. Rather, it allows us to sharpen our technical methods, which equips the genius (of the Kantian flavour) to paint something deeply insightful and moving. And it promises a double elegance: the sight of the painting itself, just like the sounds in music, may please us, and at the same time be grounded in delightfully crisp mathematical relationships, just like the improbable mathematical elegance of harmony in music.

These longings for order and systematisation sound rather like seventeenth-century aspirations to elevate painting to a science, or at least to a liberal art, which has much to do with shedding its humble craft status, as a trade practiced by illiterates. Painting has certainly made many efforts in this direction; it may boast of its academic status now that it is so commonly taught in universities rather than in ateliers, now that it defends itself verbally and indeed often consists more in its verbal conception and explanation than in its visual execution. But perhaps these victories are no victories at all: they strip painting of the very things that distinguish it as painting. Painting might have done better to have sought an intellectual ally in mathematics rather than in language, for there it would have found ways to describe its visual concepts succinctly and precisely.

Copy after Rodin, Burgher of Calais

This camaraderie is most apparent when it comes to colour. Colour is the rogue that has been seized by painters who want to defy philosophical discourse, and it is the uncontainable element that philosophy has used to subordinate painting. It seems to defy principles, thus it eludes philosophers, and it seems to operate largely by inspiration, superstition and magic, which seems to be attractive to painters. Across both disciplines, there is general agreement that colour is definitively not rule-amenable, while drawing is. Jacqueline Lichtenstein (1993 [1989]: 4; 62-3), in The Eloquence of Colour, traces this long-standing tension back to Plato and Aristotle, observing that ‘being material, colour has always been seen as belonging to the ontologically deficient categories of the ephemeral and the random.’ Philosophy has, she writes, thus favoured the more conceptually manageable element of painting: drawing (Lichtenstein, 1989 [1993]: 4).

If colour does not lend itself to principles, this has another, more practical, result. Philosophy aside, it means that colour cannot be taught. This lends itself to all varieties of unwelcome mysticism, that I personally would like to see chased out of the discipline of painting. It suggests that painters are ‘gifted,’ that they are conduits for ‘inspiration,’ or that they must operate by chance–all of which deny that painting is a disciplined skill that can be developed and improved and harnessed for aesthetic purposes. This is an unhappy state for painting to be in, for it grants artists license to all sorts of nonsense and self-indulgence, and abuses the viewer with all manner of ineptly executed work. In short, it encourages carelessness and invites decadence. Painting is visibly decaying before our eyes.

Copy after Rodin, Burgher of Calais

In the face of these two apparent deficiencies, I want to argue that the emphasis on drawing–both as philosophically acceptable and as practically teachable–is misplaced. Drawing certainly does lend itself to principles which can indeed be taught, and perhaps this fact is even overplayed. There are elements to drawing that cannot be taught, because each draughtswoman will adapt the learned principles to her own sensibility; she will interpret them, introducing a quality of line that no one else has. And, more broadly, the principles that are discussed and taught are not incontestable facts of existence. This is very clearly described by Panofsky’s (1991 [1927]: 37) contrast of spherical and linear perspective. Lastly, I want to raise a surprisingly little-grasped fact, one that is also popularly rejected by painters: colour is indeed amenable to principles, and there are painters who work with these principles and succeed in teaching them. Colour is very acutely described by geometry. In our infatuation with language, this straightforward ordering of colour has persisted largely unnoticed for at least two hundred years.

Lichtenstein (1993 [1989]: 142) notes that ‘ever since society has set a hierarchy among human activities, their relation to language has been the ultimate criterion for the establishment of a division, both social and philosophical, between the noble arts and the servile trades.’ Because of this, she explains, painting has sought to prove itself by ‘literary credentials;’ in order to do this, it has been expected to ‘satisfy both theoretical and pedagogical objectives,’ as we have already considered (Lichtenstein 1993 [1989]: 142; 151). Since she accepts that colour defies principles, she looks to rhetoric to redeem the intellectual status of painting, a fascinating move that demands more attention elsewhere, but we may here respond with our geometry of colour.

Copy after Rodin, Burgher of Calais

A fascinating little tract by Philipp Otto Runge appeared in the early 1800s. His Farbenkugel, or ‘colour sphere,’ is a mathematically pure way of conceptualising colour. It conceives of the relations between all colours three-dimensionally. He begins with a flat triangle that represents the three unmixed colours of red, yellow and blue. Each line is bisected to indicate that, mathematically, the secondary colours are the halfway points between each of these: orange, green and purple. These six points are extended out to the edges of a circle, which is then pierced by a perpendicular axis at whose poles stand white and black. The mid-point of this pole is, mathematically, a mid-tone grey. As colours move directly across the horizontal axis, they are neutralised by their mathematical opposite, entirely cancelling each other out as grey at the mid-point–yellow becomes, not more purplish, but more grey, as it moves towards purple, its opposite. Green and red exist in the same relation, and orange and blue. The knowledge of these relationships means a painter in fact need not use a black paint to recreate these relationships in paint: grey is not the absence of colour, but the annihilation of one colour in its mathematical opposite–‘alle einander auf derselben Gerade gegenüberliegenden Farben [sind] als Kräfte anzunehmen, welche einander entgegenstehen und sich durch ihre Vermischung zerstören in Grau’ (‘all colours that lay across from each other on the same line are to be assumed opposing forces that, upon mixing, annihilate each other in grey’) (Runge, 1810: 28). The rest of the sphere is filled out by every conceivable mixed colour and in every level of lightness and darkness, vividness and neutrality. The whole thing is most easily grasped visually, and this is the advantage of geometry.

(After Philipp Otto Runge)

It is a very beautiful model, one developed concomitantly with discussions with Goethe, and a living idea still used and taught by artists who appreciate the more rugged borders of three-dimensional colour-space. But more than this, the emphasis on relationships allows a shift in thinking: rather than considering colours as absolutes, bound to precise recipes of two-parts cadmium yellow to one-part prussian blue, they may instead be managed and manipulated as a complex but entirely rational web of relationships. This means, in fact, an emancipation from the types of dogmas that more mystically-inclined painters tend to bark at other painters: it means a shift from objectively defining colours to subjectively experiencing them. It allows a painter to recreate her perceptual experience of seeing colours; it allows for the fact that a certain mixture can appear pink or green, depending on the context it is set in. It marks a dramatic difference between painters who ask ‘what colour this really is,’ and those who ask how they perceive it. The second mindset affords far greater flexibility and dexterity with colour. And it can be taught.

(From Philipp Otto Runge, Farbenkugel)

This kind of dexterity is important because ultimately, while we might define our concept of colour in a pure mathematical way, paint itself does not respond to such precise geometrical divisions, and does not correspond so precisely to light. The painter must cope with two additional overlays to her mathematical concept of colour: the chemistry of paint and how the mixtures are achieved by actual pigments of vastly different physical properties, and the physics of light and the fact that her eyes take in a much broader gamut of colours than her paint is capable of mixing. A swift and nimble understanding of the relationships as geometric proportions is a solid conceptual ground that can be modified empirically as the painter’s experience with using paint and approximating it to what she sees grows. Runge (1810: 62) notes this as an aside to Goethe in one of his letters: ‘Ich kann mich hier nicht über die Praktik ausbreiten, weil es erstlich zu weitläufig wäre,’ (‘I cannot expand upon the practice here, firstly because it would ramble on too long,’) but he mentions that the artist requires ‘den nötigen chemischen wie mathematischen Kenntnissen’ (‘the necessary chemical alongside the mathematical knowledge.’)

Such systems equip us with knowledge, and thus confidence, and in the case of colour, adequately describe and organise the material reality of paint and at the same time accommodate our subjective, perceptual experience of it. Runge (1810: 42; 61) hopes that these pure insights will permit more definite expression; he thinks that being secure in the mental connections of the elements is the only means of setting a painter’s mind at ease, in the face of such superstition and chance. It would be well at this point to remind ourselves not to take the implications of these principles too far, and thus to return to Panofsky.

Copy after Claudel, Vertumne et Pomone

For the principles of vanishing-point perspective, the mainstay of principled drawing, are, indeed, a construction devised during the Renaissance, as Panofsky (1991 [1927]: 27) notes early on. It provides us with a mathematical space that is actually at odds with our perceptual experience of space, but that does not undermine its usefulness to us. Panofsky (1991 [1927]: 29-30) contrasts the visibly rigid ‘structure of an infinite, unchanging and homogenous space–in short, a purely mathematical space’ with ‘the structure of psychophysiological space.’ Our working concept of perspective demands that space conforms entirely to reason, that it is ‘infinite, unchanging and homogeneous’ (Panofsky (1991 [1927]: 28-9); but that demands certain assumptions that deny our experience of it: firstly, ‘that we see with a single and immobile eye,’ and secondly, that a flat plane adequately reproduces our curved optical image–two ‘rather bold abstractions’ from our perceptual experience.

‘In a sense,’ write Panofsky (1991 [1927]: 31), ‘perspective transforms psychophysiological space into mathematical space.’ And there is indeed nothing wrong with that if we recognise it as such, and do not take our theoretical underpinnings too far, thus over-emphasising the theoretical validity of drawing over colour.

Copy after Claudel, Vertumne et Pomone

Beginning with (helpfully visual) geometric principles, we can thus devise rigorous and teachable theoretical systems for both of the equally important parts of painting, for drawing and for colour, describing them in pure, abstracted, mathematical terms, whose constancy is beautiful in and of itself. We can reclaim the liberal art of painting, award it some intellectual prestige, and even ground it in scientific principles that draw on chemistry and physics as well. Descartes’ project might not prove so alien in the murky and superstitious realm of painting.

Copy after Rodin, The sculptor and his muse

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.


Technical things

It is remarkable how Deleuze has forged the impassioned ramblings of Francis Bacon into a deep and cohesive philosophy. I find there is nothing particularly incoherent about Bacon’s convictions about painting, only that in themselves they are almost banal, and Deleuze has elevated them to a surprisingly intellectual status. Nevertheless, Bacon’s mundane observations, perhaps cryptic to a non-painter, are at least refreshingly down-to-earth and as such offer fertile soil for the creator of concepts—the philosopher. The meta-reading of these interviews, then, is that a philosopher may not need to dig so deep, but to simply meditate on the relations between things, and his own philosophy will emerge organically, firmly rooted in ordinary experience (Deleuze and Guattari, 1994: 90).

For any painter will laugh upon reading Bacon’s solemn answer to David Sylvester’s (1975: 18) inquiry about his decision to stop a painting: ‘the canvas becomes completely clogged, and there’s too much paint on it—just a technical thing, too much paint, and one just can’t go on.’ Is this a technical thing? Indeed, sometimes one piles on so much paint that the thing gets out of control, edges mash that should not, would-be layers collapse into each other; it is better to let the thing dry than to go on today—a thoroughly non-philosophical answer, disappointing to thinkers, entirely obvious to painters, and thus despite its lack of claim to being an active ‘technique,’ possibly something that can indeed be cast into the fearful ‘technical’ category.

In this sense, ‘technical things’ are all those unspeakable, messy processes that happen in secret behind the closed studio door, generally barred from aesthetic discussions that would rather poke at the dry, finished result (preferably from behind glass, and with a very long stick). They could even include preliminary decisions, perhaps in the art shop, about the size and shape of brushes to buy, whether to select natural or synthetic fibres, preferences for the ‘springiness’ of the bristles (tested by an expert hand, but verbally inexplicable). They might encompass having to cope with stiff, old brushes out of sheer poverty. They could include unforeseeable and uncontrollable lighting conditions afforded by uncooperative weather, shifting the hue of the work without the conscious knowledge of the painter.

In any case, before we even come to talk about intentional use of colour or tone, there are many inputs and decisions that steer the course of a painting and directly influence what we like to think of as the aesthetic qualities of the work. Deleuze (2003: 86; 93) would include them in his ‘givens,’ the ‘clichés’ that pollute the canvas before a painting is started. But in Bacon’s (1975: 82) rugged simplicity, he speculates that he is ‘probably much more concerned with the aesthetic qualities of a work’—the technical, as opposed to the psychological, aspects of his painted screams. This is a particularly nice observation. Many artists simply care more for the visual qualities of their work than for conveying something to some audience. These visual qualities, coaxed into existence by a perceptive painter, may finally move some unsuspecting viewer and stir all sorts of lofty thoughts in his contemplative mind. But as the genesis of these thoughts, possibly inextricable from these thoughts, might not these mere ‘technical things’ themselves comprise a very important part of aesthetics? Are they not precisely what we want to talk about?

For a humble painter is one of the few willing to simply confront a work on its own physical terms. She surveys the array of technical choices and chances, the resulting relationships between elements, and considers their degree of success. She is willing to consider what the paint itself may say, not merely what it may allude to or denote or represent. Bacon (in Sylvester, 1975: 61) shrewdly notes ‘that most people enter a painting by the theory that has been formed around it and not by what it is.’ They prefer to approach a painting through an indirect, non-visual route. They could shut their eyes and listen to information instead.

It is in abstract painting that people might find the courage to let mere colours and shapes touch them, rather than to search for ideas outside of the painting. What is clear to non-abstract painters is that the sensory force of colours and shapes is available and able to be manipulated even in very naturalistic painting. Abstract painting ‘can convey very watered-down lyrical feelings,’ scoffs Bacon (in Sylvester, 1975: 60), ‘because I think any shapes can.’ And timid observers can project themselves and most anything they like onto the distilled forms of abstract painting. The point is so plain it is hardly raised among painters. It is simply part of our job to actively design an image, to exert control over it, even if we hide our tracks and make it feel inevitable.

And so Bacon (in Sylvester, 1975: 58) repeatedly explains that he is seeking just such direct contact between the painting and the nervous system—the immediate impact of colours and shapes (and every other technical thing), without the mediation of the brain. His phrasing seems oblique and troubling to Sylvester and deep and insightful to Deleuze. One senses that Bacon has finally thought of some words that best approximate this very ordinary painterly experience that might finally get across to these wordy people, that they swirl around in his head until they take the form of some mystical mantra. His words are exceptionally nice, and give the painter a little jolt: because she, too, knows that the best painting works without intellectualisation, that the body itself responds to an exquisite harmony of colours or a pulsing, rhythmic line. Good painting feels immediate, it does not require deciphering, though it may entice one to look longer, to dwell upon the picture and soak up its sensations.

Bacon (in Sylvester, 1975: 120) is firmly convinced that this immediacy, this freshness, must come about through chance. That the coveted deftness of touch, effortless finish, virtuoso resolution, can only be captured unawares, never intentionally. Though he seeks order in painting, he fears that it will look laboured, and prefers that the work look as though ‘it hasn’t been interfered with’ (Bacon, in Sylvester, 1975: 120). This exposes the naïveté of a painter who does not know how to set himself technical problems and to set about solving them. For while he is right that freshness is compelling, such fluency can most certainly come about through knowledge and disciplined application. More adept painters than Bacon have used their knowledge to produce lucid and nervous-system-gripping works, still driven by their own personal sensibilities.

And this is another nice observation of Bacon’s, painfully unnoticed by too many painters. The inventiveness of an artist lies not in the originality of her techniques, but in the pursuit and cultivation of her own sensibility. ‘I’ve never felt it at all necessary to try and create an absolutely specialised technique,’ Bacon (in Sylvester, 1975: 107) declares, and one must not reflect long to call to mind the futile manner in which artists—now more than ever—try to distinguish themselves, dreaming up novelties external to themselves: watercolours fabricated out of dissected felt-tip pens, drawing in crayon onto torn pieces of cloth, tearing old posters from the street, growing seeds inside a pyramid of fluorescent lights. The novelty of our technique may win us some attention, but it will never remedy a weak sensibility.

Sensibility, of course, being a well-chosen word: it draws our attention to an artist’s sensory intersection with the world. The point warrants attention, because I think a non-painter is content to let most of the visual world wash over him, hardly taking it in. A non-painter uses his senses for gathering relevant information; a painter stops to drink in the pink and blue ferment of the sky and shouts, ‘Look at the clouds!’ while the helpful and oblivious non-painter replies, ‘Don’t worry, the storm is moving away from us.’ A painter, one worthy of the name, is genuinely attentive to visual stimuli, is acutely perceptive, is besotted with sight. She hardly has to invent visually interesting things—she is overcome by the sensory cornucopia of existence and is struggling to survive such abundance by her feeble attempt to instate order through her brush. A painter’s sensibility will most certainly emerge if she works with technique rather than against it, as she comes nearer to her sensory reality as her facility with her techniques grows. Perhaps a furious linear energy drives through the human form; perhaps muscles swell according to certain rhythms. Though she ‘may use what’s called the techniques that have been handed down,’ like Bacon (in Sylvester, 1975: 107), she may use them to create powerful work that has never yet been made, declaring with Bacon: ‘my sensibility is radically different.’

Copy after Steinl, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

I am not defending the type of fluency that produces indistinguishably polished works. Rather, the painter should use her hard-won ability to investigate, to explore, to forge connections that others might not see. One way to stay alert is to make things harder for oneself. Bacon (in Sylvester, 1975: 91) explains: ‘Half my painting activity is disrupting what I can do with ease.’ His insight has always been made by the kind of painters who prefer to test their abilities and extend them more than they care to show off. David Paulson is the kind of painter who works with stubs of pencils, works with his left hand, intercepting his habits with stumbling blocks that force him to work hard to regain control, or, more accurately, to gain a different kind of control.

Under this kind of self-sabotaging lies a desire to find and apprehend new problems. Bacon (in Sylvester, 1975: 37) discusses the difference between working from photographs of paintings, such as the Velazquez popes he had about his studio, and working from photographs of people, explaining that the paintings present problems that are already solved. An artist makes copies of old masters because there is something to be learned by tracing the solutions of someone more advanced. She recognises the problem she would like to confront, and follows the thought processes of another by mimicking their actions. ‘The problem that you’re setting up, of course,’ says Bacon (in Sylvester, 1975: 37) ‘is another problem.’ It is when we apprehend the physical world through our own senses that we discover problems demanding fresh solutions. And when we find ourselves turning again and again to the same reliable solutions, we must interrupt the process manually, thwarting our usual responses such that we not only respond in a new way, but set up the problem in entirely different terms.

And Bacon rightly recognises that few are sympathetic to this personal struggle. Each new painting, each portrait sitting, offers the opportunity to probe some quietly festering problem. It demands untested approaches, not guaranteed to succeed. The sitter expects an exquisite rendering of their face; the painter relishes the opportunity to wrestle with bold new ideas. The sitter grows apprehensive, gradually becomes alarmed. ‘In what sense do you conceive it,’ what you are doing to their face, ‘as an injury?’ asks the moderate Sylvester (1975: 41). The painter can hear Bacon scowl. ‘Because people believe—simple people at least—that the distortions are an injury to them’ (in Sylvester, 1975: 41). And distortions they must be, in the tussle with the problem, in the trial of new responses. Because of this, it can become unpleasant to work with a model. We must pretend that we are immortalising their appearance, to placate their doubts; we would rather shut them out entirely, except for the bundle of gripping visual problems they represent, and ‘practice the injury in private by which [we] think [we] can record the fact of them more clearly’ (Bacon, in Sylvester, 1975: 41). Sylvester (1975: 43) tries to extract something psychological out of the discomfort: Perhaps ‘what you are making may be both a caress and an assault?’ Bacon assures him he need not make so much of the matter. It is hardly a deep psychological tension, but simply that ‘they inhibit me’ (Bacon, in Sylvester, 1975: 41).

Copies after Titian, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

The thrust of Bacon’s discussion of painting, however, might be reduced to the omnipresent frustration that paint does what it wants. When he trusts everything to chance, he is giving himself over to the fact that paint is disobedient, that the most controlled stroke defies control. He almost boasts that ‘in my case all painting … is accidental,’ because ‘it transforms itself by the actual paint’ (Bacon, in Sylvester, 1975: 16). All of Bacon’s (in Sylvester, 1975: 97) language about paint—‘such a fluid and curious medium’—suggests the near superstitious reverence of paint familiar to the painter. Paint seems to have agency—perhaps painters secretly believe it. ‘I don’t in fact know very often what the paint will do,’ admits Bacon (in Sylvester, 1975: 16; 54), or ‘how [these marks] will behave,’ as though the paint is another active participant, responding to his choice of a large brush with an unexpected manoeuver. Paint is so deliciously malleable but it does not bend to our every intention; paint is ever the volatile element in a painting (Bacon, in Sylvester, 1975: 93). He fears to invite a story into the painting, in case it should ‘talk louder than the paint’—which, we might presume, is talking too, if softly (Bacon, in Sylvester, 1975: 22). Perhaps it sounds mystical to speak in hushed tones about this silent back-and-forth between painter and paint, to attribute the uncontrollable features of paint to its own will. But Bacon describes something very real to the most experienced of painters, something which lies at the heart of the attractiveness of painting. Painting will always be a challenging and thus deeply demanding and rewarding medium, because of paint.

‘I don’t think that generally people really understand how mysterious, in a way, the actual manipulation of oil paint is,’ Bacon (in Sylvester, 1975: 121) comments, and perhaps here he gives the most profound insight of all. To an outsider, a painter must simply master those tricky technical things, master paint, and put this mastery to good use. But the pleasure and the satisfaction of painting derive from paint’s continual defiance of the painter’s every attempt to constrain it, to impose order, to systematise, to achieve fluency. It is paint itself that is profoundly and infinitely interesting—those mere technical things that scamper at the edges of aesthetics. The non-painter need not dig so deep for profound insights, for they are not so intellectual as might be supposed.


Deleuze, Gilles. 2003. Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation. Trans. Daniel W. Smith. 1 edition. Continuum: London.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Guattari, Félix. 1994 [1991]. What is Philosophy? Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell. Columbia: New York.

Sylvester, David. 1975. Francis Bacon, Interviewed by David Sylvester. Pantheon: New York.