The false dichotomy of 'colour' versus 'design'

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April Love

by Arthur Hughes, a Pre-Rapahelite painter, c. 1855-56. The man in the background is weeping, and holds a rose with fallen petals. The mauve of the woman's dress was a new pigment derived from coal tar, and was 'all the rage' for a few years in the mid-century. In sum, the young lady may be disappointed in love, but she is certainly fashionable!

It's a game artists often like to play among themselves -- the game of 'if you had to be in one camp or the other, would it be the colorito camp (traditionally represented by Raphael) or the disegno camp (likewise represented by Leonardo)?'. Of course from a modern perspective Raphael has it all, but other Renaissance masters sometimes were more critical, and the 'pre-Raphaelite' painters of Victorian England wanted, if I don't misunderstand their objectives, a return in painting to 'slice of life' pictures rendered in worldly detail (as opposed to otherworldly detail, in the imaginary realm of gods and goddesses). To put it another way: They wanted their pictures to be more like what we understand as illustrations, each with a story that unfolds as we take in its lifelike, carefully chosen details. The Royal Academy of Art had been holding up Raphael as a model of what painters should aspire to.

But I digress. The 'colour' versus 'design' (or 'drawing' or 'lines') idea is one that survives because it is possible to create art using only one or the other. The American artist Tom Hoffman creates watercolour paintings that mainly consist of swipes by a brush, using colour to represent distance, solidity, and form (both the general shape and any details). Then there are artists that work primarily with graphite or ink and achieve a high degree of realism with it. But in the main, I think that both viewers and artists themselves feel that the pinnacle of satisfaction in art is the meeting of colour and line -- the interplay between them, with line relenting to let colour do its work, and vice versa. In short, not only do I as viewer and artist have one foot in each camp, I really think that the camps are irrelevant to what I enjoy and what I hope to achieve. To be truly delighted with an artwork, I generally require not only the presence of colour but more especially the contribution of colour to the mood and sensual appeal of the work. At the same time, colour that is highly vague, all the same texture, suggestive of nothing but art itself -- that I find to be a dead end rather than an avenue of pursuit. For me, colour really shines and takes on meaning when it has recognizable form -- when it's giving life to a design that has a place in space and time. This is one reason, maybe the main reason, why landscapes have triumphant popularity in our era: we never tire of them because we never tire of seeing arresting colour married to arresting forms. And the fact is, it's silly to think that as artists (or viewers) we have to choose: one wouldn't ask an audience after a Mozart concert whether they most admired the sound of the instruments or the notes they played: we all know that the magic comes when they work together.