Letter To The Curator (Notes on Colour)

from Max Mosscrop to the curator of the exhibition Touching Colour at the Hatton Gallery, Newcastle, 2013.

Hi Rob,

You ask about my approach to colour, how and why colours are selected, how decisions are made, what effects might be intended, etc.

I am interested in the issues of human agency, intentionality, and determinism – the extent to which we can be, or know, the true causes of our actions – and my practice has been a way of exploring some aspects of this, for example by doing things very quickly, or by using certain ‘chance’ procedures.

In thinking about your questions, I find myself looking back to the time when I was making these works, and speculating about how and why I might have done them. So I’m looking at them, and analysing them visually, and it’s tempting to say that such and such a painting achieves such and such an effect, and to conclude that that was what I was trying to do – which would, I think, be misleading.

Painting is a physical process executed in real time. It involves conscious deliberation, but also intuition, habit, accident, mistakes, improvisation, chance and luck. When I start a painting, I both know and don’t know what I’m doing, and the process of making the painting is a process of working out some of the uncertainty. As I write this sentence, I have an idea of what I’m trying to write, but it’s only in the act of writing, of making the sentence, selecting the words and organising them, going back and changing and correcting, that my meaning becomes clear to me. I think it is similar with making a painting (except that ‘meaning’ takes a very different form). The chosen materials and means of making have a determining effect on what can be made and meant.

A painting begins with the question of how to cover a surface: how will it look if I do it like this, with this procedure, this geometry, these colours, etc? Some of this has to do with what’s possible, what I think I can achieve, what means are to hand. And a lot do with what I’ve done before, each painting being to some extent a response to the last one. But there is also a huge uncertainty behind the question which drives the process: I don’t know, and don’t want to know, precisely what the painting will look like. Making the painting is then a process of realisation in which something previously unknown unfolds and becomes clear. I’m feeling my way through an experience hoping to end up with something I couldn’t entirely have anticipated. Colour can play an important role in this uncertainty because it’s infinitely variable and unpredictable.

For me, colour is tied to the properties and behaviour of paint. Choosing colour in a painting isn’t like choosing colour on a computer, where all the colours are made in the same way and are equally available. In a painting colour has to be made from paint. I have to go out and buy the paint, store it, mix it. The colour that comes to hand in the studio is dependent on what the manufacturers produce, what the shop stocked, what I could afford, what I mixed last week, what I haven’t spilt or left in an out-of-reach corner, etc. All these factors help to detemine which colours I use, but they aren’t part of my consciousness when I’m painting.

The painting you have selected are made with watercolour on gesso. Gesso is a traditional material, used historically on panels as a ground for oil and tempera painting, but it is more absorbent than most modern painting surfaces and can be stained so that colour can appear to sit under as well as on top of the surface. The behaviour of watercolour is very dependent on the particular pigments it is made from. For example, chromium green is made from a metallic oxide which feels granular, heavy, dense and opaque, and can be used to form a flat, matt film. Cadmium red shares the heavy granular quality, but it’s also incredibly vibrant, giving it a completely different energy in a painting. Prussian blue is another intense colour, but it is deep, inky and transparent. These non-chromatic properties of the paint can be as important as the ‘colour’ itself.  I almost never use white, so varying tones of a given colour are a result of varying degrees of transparency, allowing the white of the gesso to shine through to varying extents.  Watercolour has the advantage of remaining soluble, so I can mix dozens of colours in pots which can be revitalised after days or weeks just by adding water, allowing me to get to work quickly without spending hours re-mixing. This fast and easy access to a really big range of colours has been hugely important to my way of working. I don’t like to deliberate about colour, preferring to select colours haphazardly in the hope of creating an interesting visual predicament which I hadn’t consciously intended. In order to help this I built a big turntable to hold the pots of paint. There’s some serendipity involved, and a good deal of failure too, but the process has to be enjoyable and playful.

The works you have selected for this show are more systematic than most, made using some rules to help the decision process. I often avoid using any given colour more than once in a painting, but these works use the repetition of colour quite strategically. In the sculptural works I used dice to select colours from a limited palette.  The painting called “What I Think of When I Think of You” tends toward green, but in much of the work from this period I used as much colour as I could muster rather than pre-select a particular palette.

In the works selected, as in much of my recent painting, I’ve used an idea of ‘patches’: discrete areas of paint which acquire identity through shape and colour. Here, colour does something very obvious and very specific by differentiating one bit of a painting from another, and thereby giving the painting its structure. One can think of colour purely as a system of infinite differences, and in this sense colour is incredibly productive and fertile.

But colour always does something in excess of this articulation, something to do with energy and intensity which is difficult to describe and to predict. How a colour feels is so dependent on how much of it there is, what’s underneath it, what’s next to it, how it’s applied, etc. The only way of really knowing what a particular colour will do in a particular spot is to put it there and see. If I do this, to see how it will look, and leave it, does that mean I meant it?

The panels that these paintings are made on are fairly heavy, solid objects – their three-dimensionality is important – but I feel a painting works when it achieves a kind of vitality that makes it appear light and immaterial, and the vibration and dynamism of colour plays a big role in this .

There is a line in Peter Handke’s “The Weight of the World” which has acquired some significance for me (“To keep from crying, a child stares at the satchels hanging in the cloakroom”) because of the way it gently raise the question of what it means to look at something, and the possibilty that being wholly engaged in sensing the world might momentarily take us out of ourselves.

I hope this helps,