Israel Hershberg said that “Ken Kewley is a painter who reveals a serious and profoundly comprehensive engagement with the art and act of picture making. His work is possessed of a most astonishing quality: a primal joy, a continuing infatuation perhaps, with the very purpose of being the painter, of looking at art and making pictures.”
I met Ken Kewley this summer, who taught at the Jerusalem Studio School Certosa program in Siena, Italy that I attended. Meeting Ken, seeing his work and hearing him talk about painting and color made a profound impression on me. Much of what I’ve found written online about color tends to be either too esoteric, too dry, too academic, or just dumb. All too often, writings on color tend to be in the service of doctrine or specific technique of color mixing and very little on creating the delights of color sensation. When I first read these writings on color I realized I found what has been missing; great writing that stokes our primal color poetics, that gets us pumped up to go out and find our own color voices. This compilation of thoughts on color by such a masterful colorist is a fantastic resource of inspiration and affirmations for both perceptual and abstract painters. I’d like to thank Ken again for his generosity.
I choose several examples from his many paintings and collage on his website to show along with his writings. His artwork clearly shows the thoughts written here put into practice. He shows with Lori Bookstein Fine Art in New York as well as several other galleries and venues.
Ken has expressed an interest in reading any feedback about these writings from readers here, so please write any questions or reactions in the comments. The notes on Color that you see here now is a newly revised version that Ken recently asked me to exchange with the original version – (updated 12/22/10)
Color by Ken Kewley
It is all about having a passion for color. This passion gives one an unlimited vocabulary. Color is use to create steps to direct the eye around the painting parallel to the vision of the artist. Along the way, like a song writer, rhyming words that do not really rhyme, we invent color relationships to get at the surprising juxtapositions that are found in nature. It is a way of staying excited, staying in love.
Color, like drawing, is an abstraction. One color, just as one word in poetry, needs to be found to stand in for several colors. Each color needs to be chosen in consideration of the whole. Color does not become itself until the whole work is completed. A painting that earlier in its making resembled a poem, as it gets filled in, cluttered with too much color that changes or dilutes what was there, loses its poetry. If a painting isn’t working I find it is not because something is missing but that there is something that is not needed and therefore hurtful. This brings us back to love. Love colors as writers love words. It is the love that comes through when the mind gets out of the way. Don’t think too much. Trust your instincts. I try not to worry about what I do not know, what I have been unable to teach myself. My inabilities serve me better than my abilities. That art is not something that is learned and then practiced, it is a form of communication and one is always trying to say something clearer. To love and to be honest, maybe one does not exist without the other and a desire to communicate that, this is what it takes to make art.
Start by putting down the one color that excites you the most, then the next, relating it to the first. This is the relationship that excites you the most. Then the third color, relating it always to the whole. You are emphasizing what interests you and minimizing other things by putting them in the service of your true passion and leaving out altogether what distracts. Keep it simple.
Each color plays its part. Less is more. Each element is made to do more. I often look at paintings, good well observed paintings, and I wonder why they are not more exciting. There is an exciting color relationship in there somewhere but it is being drowned out by dozens of other colors. Take a random paragraph from the newspaper, remove the right words and you have a poem.
As far as keeping a painting fresh to the end, you cannot lose site of the reason for starting the painting in the first place. That first excitement, that one big relationship, if the details slowly obscure that relationship the painting becomes dull, then it is necessary to dig back in and pull it out even if it means upturning days of work. In the end nothing is lost and it will be more exciting for being harder found and deeper felt.
Within ourselves we all have great paintings, we all have the colors needed to make these works, and we just need to dig them out.
Try not to dilute the paint (there is a time for thick and a time for thin). Since I use one brush, one might think that I must be always rinsing the brush but I am not. Instead I am always mixing on the palette and on the painting; going up and down the value scale, from light to dark, from dark to light.
Just paint. If it works out well, that is good, if it does not, that is good. You have the perfect surface for another painting and it solves the problem of starting with an empty canvas.
I tend to like paintings where the abstraction is strong. By this I mean that the paint, the colors and shapes, are distinct, like strong actors in a play. Going towards abstraction does not mean going away from representation. It is more like describing something real my other means than illustration. It is like describing an apple with your hands, forming the shape in the air with your hands, by enclosing an imaginary object with two hands. You do not try to make your hand look like an apple. Paint takes over the role of the hands and does not hide the fact that it is paint. Painting is talking with the hands made permanent.
When color and shapes are emphasized it is the artist that is directing the viewer. “Look at this and then look at that and see how this relates to that”, the artist is saying, “This is what I want you to see.”
In painting you never do what you set out to do. Something else happens. If it always turns out right you are probably doing something wrong. Do not try to make a picture of something. Make something. When painting the model, treat each part (do not name the parts) as something separate and then compose the parts into a whole, into a composition. Use as few shapes as possible, do not think human. You are making a painting. Keep the foreignness of the parts and use them to make up the whole. I love the human figure, I do not negate it, but I trust that this love will come through in the process, through my love of painting.
Certosa Painting 12 x 12 inches Oil on panel 2010
No color theory. Only love of color. Have all your colors ready at hand. When painting the model do not think flesh color. When painting grass do not think green. This will take nothing away from your love of the human body or the landscape.
One false mark (dishonesty) destroys the whole.
Do not allow the illustration or the details to carry the whole. If you are painting a landscape and there is a lettered sign, do not depend on what the sign says for interest. It has to be the abstract shapes of the letters and their placement in the composition that creates the interest.
Painting over previous works promotes the desire to cover quickly what is underneath. The old peeking through will not distract if the new is strong enough to carry the viewer’s attention. What would distract is covered up and what is useful can remain. You are unconsciously saving what is useful. Back to talking with hands, if you are describing an apple and right past you there is a murder taking place that would distract. You would probably need to add a little violence to your gesture. The painter needs to take possession of the subject. Painting is building something out of abstract material. A house is built of wood or brick, etc. The material itself does not resemble a house. The human figure in painting is made up of abstract shapes and colors. Take away the face from many a Corot or Courbet portrait and you would be left with an abstract painting.
Certosa Painting 8 x 8 inches acrylic on paper 2010
Painting exercise; paint, cut painting up, and reassemble. It is important to keep things movable, adjustable.
Painting is a language. As thoughts are made up of words, the subject of a painting is made up of shapes and colors.
Painting is and is not like building a house. Sometimes it is good to start with the foundation and sometimes you can change and build a different house half way through.
Quick sketches can be just as finished as paintings.
Limits make things otherwise impossible, possible.
To restart dead paintings reshape whole by large actions.
Colors create steps that move around, into, and back out of, paintings.
Paint instinctively with joy.
Knowing how to paint may not be good. This is not heart surgery. It is better when things have to be figured out each time. Getting lost is not dangerous in painting.
Paint large areas quickly and unconsciously as much as possible. Never consciously paint them. Let nuances happen.