Tag Archives: Mark Rothko

Inspiration Monday: Art

I’ve talked a bit about using images for inspiration before, here.  Today, I want to say a little about the inspiration specific pieces of art can offer.

Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer

Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer

I hope you have seen the film ‘The Girl with a Pearl Earring’ with Colin Firth and Scarlett Johannson.  But have you read the incredible book on which it is based, by Tracy Chevalier?  Chevalier’s work is spare and beautiful, as atmospheric as the eerily beautiful painting which inspired it.

The Nightwatch by Rembrandt van Rijn

The Nightwatch by Rembrandt van Rijn

A film I sincerely doubt you have seen unless you are a particularly rabid Martin Freeman fan, or a Peter Greenaway fanatic, is ‘Nightwatching’, which deals with the events behind the making of Rembrandt van Rijn’s most famous work, The Night Watch, above.  While it is a stagey and self-aware production, typical of Greenaway’s work, Freeman’s performance as Rembrandt is devastating, for if ever there was a part he was born to play, it is this one.  Greenaway takes the making of the painting, and interweaves it with conspiracy, murder and an ironic portrait of seventeenth century Dutch life and commerce.  Add to this the tragic downfall of the artist with which the picture is associated, and you can see how a single painting can be the starting point for a many-faceted new artistic endeavour.

Coal Face Drawers by Oliver Kilbourn

Coal Face Drawers by Oliver Kilbourn

‘The Pitmen Painters’ by Lee Hall, is not specifically inspired by an individual work, but by the collective experience of a group of miners  from Ashington, near Newcastle upon Tyne, who set up a long-lived and much praised art group.  It is as inspiring a piece of theatre as I have seen, and  brings proper credit to the work of the pioneering men who took up painting against society’s expectations in the 1930s.  The fascinating painting above is Coal Face Drawers, by Oliver Kilbourn, a scene from a miner’s own life.

Rothko Seagram Murals

When I was seventeen, I visited the Tate Gallery for the first time.  The Tate Modern had not yet been created, and the fabulous Seagram Murals by Mark Rothko were at the old Tate Gallery, what is now Tate Britain.  The Murals now have an area designed to Rothko’s original specifications in the Tate Modern, but then, they were in a much smaller, but still impressive room.  I sat there amidst these vast panels of claret and black for nearly two hours, completely mesmerised.  Rothko’s huge blocks of colour have been much derided by those who dislike abstract art, but his work is about the effects of colour on the emotions, and I can definitely tell you that those paintings had an intense effect on my teenage brain that day that I will never forget.  I have never felt so calm, so peaceful, so at one with myself and the world, and I have spent my life since chasing after that feeling, hoping somehow to replicate it.

As a result I became interested not only in Rothko’s work, but in other abstract artists and their theories.  I read Kandinsky’s ‘Concerning the Spiritual in Art’, and was intrigued by the idea of the painter imbuing a work with some kind of spiritual presence.  Eventually I used this idea for a novel, in which a much-coveted and rare painting is imbued with occult properties that devastate the lives of its owners.

It is important to state that I am not encouraging you to steal other people’s art.

Proper credit MUST be given.  We must always acknowledge where we come from, and the ideas that have influenced us along the way.  That is part of being an artist, in whatever medium.

What I am suggesting here is that the great works of those who have gone before us can inspire original and unique responses of our own.  It would not be so far from the truth to say that this is what fanfiction is – and if you are sceptical about fanfiction, I refer you to the literary responses to great art that are much lauded:  Jean Rhys’s novel, ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’, which is a retelling of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, or perhaps ‘Death Comes to Pemberley’, PD James’s sequel to Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’.  Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ is inspired by the Bible, so don’t be sniffy about your inspiration!

Creative Exercises:

Visit an art gallery.  You would be amazed what fabulous works of art are available to view in your local county town or art sellers.  Treat yourself to a big trip, and visit a major city where you can enjoy a large museum.  Take time to wander about and figure out what you like and why.  Buy postcards of your favourite pieces.  Do a bit of research about the artist and their ideas.  Salt this inspiration away for future reference in your writing notebook and your image box, or let it fizz away in your brain like a vortex, spitting out new ideas as debris as it spins.

Alternatively, you could check out the suggestions above, watch the DVD of ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ or ‘Nightwatching’, or read Chevalier’s wonderful novel, and see where they take you.

Happy Creating,


Inspiration Monday: Colour

colorful-paints-WallpaperThe fact that human beings can perceive colour has been a huge influence on our development and our cultures. Colour has helped to protect us from danger, and find good things to eat.  It has helped us to define who we are in relation to others, as well as what we believe.  These days, it is as widely used in marketing and medicine as it always has been in art and fashion.  Colour blindness can prove a significant disability.

Thinking about how we respond to colour can be a rich seam to plunder for creative purposes.  The artists of the Fauvist movement, such as Matisse, and later Abstract Expressionists such like Mark Rothko, used intense shades of colour to convey and provoke emotion.  Both Matisse and Picasso made blue nudes, but look at the images they produced:

blue-nude picasso

Picasso Blue Nude 1902

blue nude Matisse 1952

Matisse Blue Nude 1952

Matisse’s vibrant cutout provokes a very different response to Picasso’s sombre meditation on grief.

Blue is the perfect colour to think about as an example.  It is culturally significant in many ways.  For example, the pigment lapis lazuli, a vibrant blue, was the most expensive pigment available to Medieval and  Renaissance artists, so was reserved for only the most important figures. Thus, the Virgin Mary is always pictured wearing a blue robe.  In Medieval England, blue was worn as an amulet to ward off ill-health, probably because of its Marian associations.  (This is why brides still wear ‘something blue’.)  In contrast, in some cultures, blue is shunned as the token of death, ghosts and bad luck.

We identify blue with calm and peace, and blue light has been used in urban areas with some success to reduce violence.  Blue can also be associated with depression – we talk of ‘having the blues’.

Conversely, red is seen as a vivid, energetic colour, associated with lust and sex.  We speak of the ‘scarlet woman’ for example.  It can also be interpreted as a warning of danger, as in ‘Stop’ signs and traffic lights.  Rooms painted red look smaller to our perception, but also warmer and cosier.  A blue room looks airy and spacious, but can seem rather cold.

Our emotional response to colour is also of interest.  We speak of ‘warm’ and ‘cool’ colours, and choose the clothes we wear by colour according to our mood.  I wear bright red all the time, but my mother accuses me of looking ‘too bright’ when I do!  My sister has such a visceral response to the colour lilac that it actually makes her nauseous.

I never really appreciated the importance of colour in the landscape around me until I moved to East Anglia.  I grew up on the south coast of England, by the sea.  There, the beaches are formed of toffee-coloured flints and broken, bleached shells.  The sea is often edged with emerald green seaweed, and is invariably the colour of cold coffee.  The crumbling sandy cliffs are the colour of ginger, and are held together by clumps of dark green gorse which turns acid yellow in spring.

The colours of the Norfolk coast are much more muted.  The beaches are pale sand, bound with dunes of khaki marram grass.  The sea is often indigo or petrol blue, and the skies are milky even in the most brilliant of summer weather.  Here, the prevailing colours are buff, dun, woad, grey.  They make the south coast seem gaudy by comparison.

As an artist or writer, you can use all this to your advantage.  The psychology and culture of colour can set the scenes for your images and stories.  Imagine a woman walking into a grey room in a scarlet dress?  (Artist Jack Vettriano uses this kind of contrast to huge effect!)  Imagine what people would be whispering behind her back.  Imagine what the response of the man she is meeting for dinner might be.

Creative Exercises:

Spend some time thinking about your own responses to colour.  What colours do you have in your home, and why?  Do they remind you of happy memories, or are they just there?

What are the colours you predominently wear?  How do you feel in them?  Go to the shops and try on garments in colours you would never normally wear.  How do they feel?  Why would you normally shy away from them?  What do you think the colours would say about you if you appeared in public in them?

Spend some time sitting on a bench in the high street, watching passers-by.  Note what colours they are wearing.  Are you drawn to them because of their colour choices, or repelled?  What do you think their colour choices say about them?  And what do you think they are trying to say with colour?

Keep your eyes peeled for colour around you.  What colour is your front door, the doctors’ waiting room, the toilet in your favourite restaurant, the plaster of the building across the road?  What shades are the trees, the earth, the sky?  What do these colours mean to you personally?  How do they make you feel?

You might like to spend some time with your writing notebook.  Choose a colour and write a word association exercise, scribbling all the words that come into your mind in connection with that colour, no matter how outlandish they might seem.  Now go back and examine what you have written.  Does your list suggest an atmosphere, a story, an image?  Play with whatever comes up as a response and see where it takes you.

There are a host of books you might like to read in connection with this subject.  Here are a few:

The Virgin Blue by Tracy Chevalier

The Colour by Rose Tremain

Colour: Travels through the Paintbox by Victoria Finlay

Happy Colouring,