Press |  1980s | 

‘On Colour’: John Hoyland and Sally-Ann Schilling in conversation

John Hoyland: Well I think it’s the only thing that does – in a way that music does. Colour strikes you – I noticed it particularly in a ballet I’ve just done, where the music comes on and the colour comes on and you can feel the audience’s response.

Sally-Ann Schilling: Do you think our environment affects our choice of colour?

JH: I think in England colour compensates for the deadness of light. I bring a little life into my life through painting! I have a great longing for sunlight; I think that is why most of the great colourists come from the North! There’s an amusing anecdote in Jean Renoir’s ‘Renoir – my father’ where Renoir is asked why he doesn’t use more colour and he said: ‘Because I’m not from the North’. And I was always told I couldn’t use colour because I wasn’t from the South!

S-AS: When you travel are you influenced by colour?

JH: Yes, when I went to Australia – that Pacific light. Michael Andrews wrote something about his experience of Ayers rock and the outback. Well I’m an abstract painter but he’s not the first person to experience the light on the rock surface and this huge boulder with its special magical atmosphere. Some people think that just because you’re a non-figurative painter you don’t look at the world, but you do; you just don’t copy. Artists inevitably respond to their environment – what you see and what is going on in your head.

S-AS: Do you find some colours hard to work with?

JH: I find all colour hard to work with – especially yellow. It’s so easy with yellow to produce empty euphoric paintings. And of course yellow can turn to green so easily – and dark yellow can be quite menacing.

S-AS: You are using a much wider variety of colour now than you have ever used…

JH: Well I’m trying to learn to use everything. I’ve always wanted to be able to use dirty grey and put it next to red and make the grey radiant. Matisse could use every colour, but Matisse was very wise; if you count the number of colours in his painting, there are never really very many.

S-AS: What about your new stained dark grounds?

JH: Well, they are mainly to give greater luminosity to the colour – a ‘jewel-like’ setting.

S-AS: Do you prefer to mix colour on the canvas or the palette?

JH: On the palette – but of course sometimes I don’t mix it – I just put it on. Acrylics don’t mix that well. I sometimes find that in the earlier stages of painting I just allow colours to mix by being seen through other colours, which gives a greater luminosity. I do sometimes mix – I lower the tone of a red or bring a white down a fraction or darken a blue or lighten a green…

S-AS: Why do you prefer acrylic as a medium?

JH: Well, when it first came out it was heralded as being a new ‘magic’ material that would transform art, and it was very good for ‘stain painting’ because you could paint without priming. You can get the paint into the material of the canvas, like Morris Louis, and you can use it like watercolour. Also it dries quickly and this can be important when you are working in a limited space and you don’t have endless room for pictures. It is sometimes more difficult to use, especially in impasto, and it doesn’t have the juiciness of oil. But it does have other things like the watercolour quality and its transparency – and it’s tougher than oil. The only thing it’s susceptible to is the cold and extreme heat but otherwise it’s inert while oil is still changing. When acrylic is dry that’s it – you could hit it with a hammer!

S-AS: Have you thought about making your own colour?

JH: Yes, I have thought about it but it’s quite a business. You have to be very careful about the proportions of pigment to medium because the colours can be more fugitive.

S-AS: Do you find stained or impasto colour more useful?

JH: Well they are both useful if they are in their place and appropriate for the form and content. For me the stain represents space and the impasto represents form.

S-AS: What made you adopt an impasto surface?

JH: Because if you just stain and you are using the paint like watercolour it restricts the amount of adjustment you can make in a painting.

S-AS: Do you like building up your colour in glazes?

JH: I do initially, when I am backing into the painting as it were. It’s a sort of oblique approach, sparring around and sizing it up and not committing yourself too quickly. […]

S-AS: You said once that you found greens very flexible but reds more limited.

JH: I think that’s true, but red can be flexible, too. It can have the forcefulness of blood but it doesn’t have to; some reds can be quite gentle without being pink. It depends what the surface is like and what they are in relation to. […]

S-AS: You said that at the Royal Academy Schools you didn’t really look at colour until your third year?

JH: Well, you were allowed to use it but I think that colour has always been treated as something that is a matter of personal taste. I think it is in the end. Your eyes can ben opened up by looking at Van Gogh, or studying Rudolf Arnheim’s books, or Albers, but in the end you have to need it yourself.

© The Artist