Unknown Colour – Winifred Nicholson

Winifred Nicholson (1893-1981) was a British painter fixated with colour and its special power and properties. How we perceive it and interpret it, in life and in art. Its parallels with music and much more.

She loved prisms and would often take these out and about with her, as she investigated colour. In the 1970s she made a series of paintings, like the one above, directly investigating the prismatic properties of light.

More of her work and background to her fascinating life is available on her website. Sadly like many women of her era, the work of her husband, Ben Nicholson, is more well known.

Below are extracts from some of her writings on colour, available on her archive website

From ‘Unknown Colour’

“Naturally colour must have area, space – but let that area be directed by the needs of the colour itself … A large blue square is bluer than a small blue square. A blue pentagon is a different blue from a triangle of the same blue…

…one can have a red with more or less violet in it – and a violet with more or less pink or rose in it. But one cannot have a green with the least bit of either red or violet in it… In the simplicity of the great white light all colour lives.

The same yellow is quite a different colour on a clear grey day than it is on a day of Mediterranean sunshine. So, the scale of colour is held within the fullness of sunlight…

…there is a gap of unknown, unseen colour, which comes in between the violet and the red, and is necessary to their harmony. Violet is the colour of highest tension, the colour only visible in its beauty at moments of high vitality and clearest sunlight. It is the difficult colour to use, and those artists whose primary interest is form always remain within the safe precincts of the lower notes of the scale, vermilion and blue with brown and neutrals.

How has this scale been used? Hardly at all – as such. Colour was used as architecture by the old masters, as melody by the Easterns.

The nature of abstract colour is utter purity – but colours wish to fly, to merge, to change each other by their juxtapositions, to radiate, to shine, to withdraw deep within themselves.

Some people think that other mediums than paint will be discovered for the expression of colour..

We need a violet paint…capable of conveying the tension of sunlight

Into words they cannot be put, and will never be put. They will be colour, and colours alone will state them. But just as in music, the most abstract music, there are abstract states of human emotion which correspond to the music, so there is in colour.

If I should wish to convey an impression of a piece of music to another person there is no way other than music of doing this.

So with colour we can say by analogy with human feeling the type of territory of the human spirit to which we are taken by colour … we know that these will not be intellectual, for colour is not intellectual.”

From “I like to have a Picture in My Room”

“Pictures have played many roles. They have been altar-pieces, fetished, idols, the courtly decorations of palaces, historical records, vain fancies, and vain fables.

For colour is one of the surest means of expressing joy

it must certainly be a picture of truth, not photographic nor realistic, the surfaces of appearances – but measure and rhythm and scale that are its inner essence.. must be an anchor for security, must be a lamp for delight, must be a well of peace … we shall ask it to be a ladder …that have no limit .. upon which translucent thought may travel up and far way and also down and back to the home hearth fire.

From ‘I like Painting Flowers

“Art is the desire to resolve opposites – to find a path in the jungle of phenomena

I wonder whether the measure of the rectangular environment and of human beings, are the true opposites.

Flower hues change and glow and fade and are gone dead like dead leaves, gone but everlasting like the blossoms that Persephone gathered in spite of Pluto, black king of the underworld. High, low, far away, near at hand – what more fundamental opposites can be found

From ‘Blinks

“Flowers and jewels are the only things that express colour fairly constantly

what I have tried to do is paint pictures that can call down colour, so that a picture can be a lamp in one’s home, not merely a window.

The tyranny of forms and recognized forms – can we not let our eyes free to see, to behold, what has not yet been seen of the spiral river of light?

Perhaps only with a blink or two at a time, out of the dimness into focus. These are the blinks I needed –

The first blink was when Byam Shaw told me that the colour the Pre-Raphaelites used had not held purple and cruel green because they had not seen colour as chiaroscuro – the photographer has taught us that light and shade define the space where things stnd – so does colour.
Then I went to India, and noticed how eastern art uses lilac to create sunlight. After I married my eyes were opened by the Post-Impressionists. The third blink was the remark Gauguin made to Van Gogh when his friend wrote to him to ask how to make blue as blue as the Mediterranean sky. Gaugin wrote back: ‘A large space of blue is bluer than a small space.’
The fourth blink was from Van Gogh, when I realised how he used the complimentary colours in contrast – red against green, blue against yellow; the duality of cold and hot which leads to madness, as Van Gogh himself found out.
And the fifth blink was when Mondrian said to me: ‘Red, Yellow, Blue – these three are pure. Purple, Orange, Green are impure, not abstract colours.’
And sixth, I said to myself: ‘Why? Why halt the river of light at three stations and not at seven? The sevenfold rhythm of the scale of music, and maybe of the universe – so work with seven colours in mind, either visible or invisible, evoked by their absence, and so discover the colours of delight.’

From ‘Liberation of Colour

“Yet there is a Music of Colour – an art of colour which is to artists as scientific as the Theory of Musical Harmony… It is abstract and related to no recognizable objects – it is universal as a medium and powerful for the expression of thought and emotion

To begin with there are no words for colours, only a few flower names, a few jewel names

Each colour is unique, but no colour can stand alone. To get the full value of its unique colour it must have other hues by its side

all the most brilliant things of nature are composed of tiny facets or mirrors which reflect and re-reflect each other – kingfisher’s breast, jay’s feather, butterfly’s wing, fish’s scales, flower petals in all their transparency – each may appear one hue, but in reality under a microscope are made up of many varied hues in true harmony, heightening each other’s brilliance.

Red is always an assault, an insult, a danger cry, shouting Revolution! Robbery! and paradoxically, ‘Homage to the King’. It is the taunting flame out of the primal volcano. It is the easiest colour to see. Man saw it first. Orange is an open colour expressing prosperity and plenty, sunbaked universe, and laughter under the sun. Yellow is the atmosphere of wisdom, reflection and calm. Green is quieter still, rest and content, the emerald ripple of wave and flow. Blue is the colour we love most, its suggestion is the lark’s song, hope that soars into the stratosphere. Indigo is tragedy, like red it can stand almost alone, crying to Pluto’s intense blackness, to death, and to Faith.

This conjures violet, whose magic is perceived only by keen-eyed men, but it is known by song birds and honey bees. . Its wish can only be used by the great colour masters, and it is a safe indication of their mastery. It has been caught best by the Eastern painters, seeing in psychic sunlight, and it is being sought by painters such as Christopher Wood, for it calls to a colour beyond itself on the sale, a colour that our eyes cannot see, although we know that it is there by the power of its ultraviolet rays. Maybe we shall see this colour some day when we have trained our eyes more precisely. Some eyes even now, looking at a rainbow or prism, can see beyond the violet, a faint trace of fuchsia pink, the indication of the red, the first colour of the rainbow into which the colours flow in their completed cycle. For past the gap we cannot see, the violet flows back into red again. Look at the double rainbow in the stormy sky. Can your eyes see a hint of this unknown colour between the outer bright rainbow and its echo?

In music we can hear the full circle of the octave, but the colour scale differs in that there is this ultraviolet we cannot see, and in that lies the poignancy of violet

It is strange that our ears detached sounds from objects so long ago, and made the art of music; while it is so recent that our eyes have detached colour from objects and made the abstract art of colour – painting. True there have always been great colourists, but the old masters used colour to denote objects.

I remember reading a letter of Gauguin’s which said that you could paint the sky much bluer if you painted a larger area of blue, that the blueness depended on the the proportion of the area to the other colours. I felt my eyes beginning to open. Then I read a letter of Van Gogh’s which said that the blueness of the sky depended on the contrast of the blue to its complimentary colour, orange, .. It was not only the quantity of the area of the blueness which told, but the quality of the complementary colour.

Matisse still works representationally, but in full chromatic scale. He uses objects to denote colours. I should think of a pink Matisse or a jade Matisse, not of a girl or a basket of fruit.

Kandinsky and Miró have given up recognizable objects and use their colour free as experiment. Matthew Smith and Graham Sutherland explore transparent intensities, Frances Hodgkins the dusky, honeyed sequences, and Paul Nash the pastel scale that closely relates itself to line. Ben Nicholson touches the duns and greys and oatmeals, the mid-tones of the neutral scales

Colour is free to use. You can paint ‘Bluer Than The Sky’. Blueness is your aim, the sky falls below. Use the scales travelling from red to violet and the simultaneous ones from brilliance to neutral and thence to dusk. Use their sevenfold brilliance, their sevenfold depths, their sevenfold rhythm in space as geometry, not in time as in music. There is unlimited scope here. The colour will call shapes, forms and masses, recognizable if you wish, abstract if you prefer. Think in terms of intervals – wide intervals for clarion calls – red to green of vermillion to dun, close intervals for lullaby music – sea-blue to sea-green, or pearl to opal. Conjure for yourself such a picture, you will find it sheer delight, and within the range and possibility of anyone without training at an art school. Art schools teach one how to copy nature, but the joy of colour is inborn within each one of us from the child

colour is the vital power out of which forms, objects, images, thoughts themselves, can be created.

I have built for you the scaffolding of the artist’s science upon which the new colour art is being built everywhere … Such art is search, and he wants nourishment. Nourishment of Truth, and art that answers his own inward rhythm. Such rhythm as he knows to be the rhythm of space – the heart beat of the universe.

In a letter to Ben Nicholson, recounting words from Li Yuan-Chia

“You must know what you do not like and what you cannot do – and think, not only feel, “how can one do that?” by painting very slowly. When you are painting what you feel, you can and must paint very fast as you do, when you are painting after that with your thoughts you must paint very very very slowly.”

In a letter to Kathleen Raine

The only thing one has to do is not to block up the channels through which the supply comes, and not to think, ‘l must make some money. My genius must support me. I must. That is like going up into the high heavens to bring down a special pocketful of sunlight for oneself

In a letter to Jake Nicholson, her son

I should have said that you should not work along the lines of making your things more ‘correct’ to visual appearance, but should work along the line on which you have travelled a good way already, of getting the relationship of one shape to another as an organic living whole, whether it be – ear to forehead – shoulder to foot – chair to table – or chair to thigh. In a picture there is every bit as much relationship between the chair and the hand, as there is between the elbow and the wrist – or between the sky and the flower – or between the curve and the angle,

But the realistic teaching with regard to heads and figures bothers you? Does it? It certainly bothered me so much that I still can very seldom find that relationship of abstract space shapes in a person – I can find it in the relationship of cloud to flower pot, or mountain peak to nearby shadow, when one does find it, it is the point where painting touches ‘spiritual reality’ – the fundamental essence of things, beneath, behind, beyond, and before, visual experience. You don’t find ‘spiritual reality’ in the visual appearance of things which is always a ‘surface’ appearance – you don’t find it in anatomical correctness – you don’t even find it in facial expression or gesture – although that may be pleasing (or unpleasing). If you can find the true juxtaposition or relationship of anything to anything else – it’s there at once