COPYRIGHT © 2019 KATHY ELLEM

You can see Kathy's work in person at her Beechworth art gallery at 45 Ford Street, Beechworth, Victoria, Australia.

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The Ultimate Quest: Understanding Colour


With painting, often one question leads to another, and one new discovery leads to other explorations, and more discoveries. Most of the time these discoveries diverge, and I find it difficult to just pick one. However, some of those discoveries that I’ve pursued relate to colour. I started my big adventure with colour feeling extremely fearful, because I held a personal conviction that I wasn’t very good with it. But the itch to paint continued, and fortunately, my curiosity is never quite satisfied. These days, I feel completely free to explore and play with colour.


I've lost my fear of colour: 'Aged Grace' (2018) contrasts intense lilac-purple with vivid cyan.

I’d heard Lyn Diefenbach say that ‘tone is more important than colour’, which had me stumped for a long time; then it gave me wings. I realised that what Lyn was saying is that that I could have heaps of fun with colour, as long as I applied accurately positioned shapes of the right tone. This freed me to stop worrying about specific colours.


In exploring Lyn’s notion that tone trumps colour, and testing this idea in as many different ways as possible, I discovered the truth of Lyn’s statement, and I still stand by it. By adopting this approach, you can explore colour and what it means, and then think about what kinds of statements you can make with it. My overall artistic aim is to leave people feeling uplifted and happy when they look at my work, so that lies at the core of my decision-making behind colour.


Before I start a painting, I now consider what areas I want people to focus on within the painting and decide what complimentary colours I can put in those areas to draw their eye. I paint this focal area using high contrast, creating harder edges, and by choosing complimentary colours and strong tonal variations — all of which draw attention. The opposite is true in the ‘quiet areas’ of the painting, in which I use softer edges, and more muted colours with less contrast in colour or tone.


Summer's Rest (2019)

Many people think that the light that I capture in my paintings is ‘amazing', but they don’t really notice the shadows. I actually spend a lot more time painting shadows than I do light, and it is the shadows that makes the light ‘pop’. I can subtly manipulate the shadows using plenty of fun colours (as long as they are tonally correct), and get away with almost anything.


In recent times I have been applying multiple colours at once and mixing them more on the canvas rather than on the palette. This began with me brooding over Hans Heysen’s work: I noticed that from a distance, his landscapes look so real, but on closer inspection there is all this texture and interesting-looking brush work.


Detail from 'Summer's Rest' shows that the shadow area of the painting's focal point is painted roughly using everything from orange contrasting with purple, to deep blues and crimson.

On one occasion I was painting a chestnut horse, and leaned a little too heavily on the orange, which looked wrong — so I slid some blue/purple over the top. This resulted in the coat looking textured, and less glaringly vibrant. This led me to consider that even short hairs reflect light differently from base to tip, so I decided to use multiple colours in one area. And funnily enough, it was pure laziness that resulted in my loading two colours at one time onto a brush, rather than putting a slightly complimentary colour over the top of a base layer.


'Straight Six' (2019). This painting seems highly realistic in style.

This made me think more about Hans Heysen’s brush work, where he’s obviously loaded the perfect mixture of colours to create the impression of a realistic object. This concept has led to hours of (mentally exhausting) fun, in which I’ve figured out how to load a brush with different coloured paint, how much to load, and then how to hold and press/roll/squiggle the paint off the brush. This process has made me realise that both left and right sides of the brain are involved in this pursuit: sometimes it works like magic, while other times I just make mud and have to refresh. This exploration of colour and brushwork has been my quest for the past 12 months or more, and I don’t see myself exhausting this element of my creative pursuit any time soon.

A closer look at 'Straight Six' shows that the brown leather bridle has been painted in colours of green, purple and blue. However, it is 'tonally' correct in terms of light/dark.

If you are interested to learn more about colour, you might like to take my workshop, 'Oil painting: Understanding Light, Shadow and Reflected Light'. This is running on the weekend from the 22-23 June 2019. Although I will be painting in oils, you may like to paint in acrylic if that works better for you.