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On Viewing Colour

I visited the Prado Museum, Madrid, on a trip once and was looking at all the wonders in awe. There was too much for the limited one day we had, and afater dutifully looking at Velazquez I headed for the Goya rooms. I have no recollection of anything after them.

Gazing at the Goyas, both large and small, early, middle, late, I was totally arrested by one brush mark on one of the small canvases; it was mostly grey – of three soldiers? I don’t remember. What had leapt into my consciousness was a small stroke of yellow, a sash on a uniform. The world stopped turning for that moment. That mark summed up the genius of the artist for me. I wonder if other viewers notice it, and what they do notice in Goya’s paintings. For me, involved in my own practice in representing colour rather than form, the artist has (as Goya did for Brice Marden in his interpretation of The Marquise de la Solana) the ability to turn a portrait, or a scene of soldiers at ease, into an image with a colour detail that burrows into the consciousness.

When we view colour in a painting are we always tapping into the well of memory? Or is that small slash of pale yellow a jolt into another way of looking? The way I sometimes paint stems from a memory of being in a train moving through a snowbound and empty landscape. For an instant, in all that grey whiteness, there is a woman walking halfway along the edge of a field in a scarlet coat, both as outstanding and perfectly fitting as the red ribbon tied to Goya’s Duchess of Alba’s little dog’s back right leg. The Duchess’s adornments; the soldier’s bandolier; the woman walking her dog in the snow. These have all led me to the same place of wanting to reduce the size of a painting until it can call the viewer with an intensity not present in the large scale. In their immediacy, these primary colours do not speak of the psychology of the secret and yet they hold one. That of the whisper heard above any clamour of imagery or largeness. It arrests the attention and calls the viewer to examine the detail. It might be overlooked by many but is there to be seen by some.

The yellow was pale, the brush stroke was probably less than one centimetre long and yet it informs so much of what I aim to achieve as a painter. When I returned to England I searched through every means possible to find a reproduction of that Goya painting and have never done so. Of course that brushstroke of yellow was about its relationship to the grey. Just as Matisse’s goldfish are in relation to the blue room their bowl lives in. Both the Duchess’s red details and the woman’s coat in the snow might have looked quite insignificant on a green dress or a summer landscape and, if not insignificant, certainly different and less urgent.

By Anna Gahlin


Painting by Goya of a woman in a white dress with a red sash and a little dog
A painting by Henri Matisse of goldfish in a blue room

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