color for its own glorious sake

 


Harold Cohen, Untitled 1966
Oil on canvas
30.4 x 30.8 cm

English artist Harold Cohen is famous these days for being the author of the celebrated AARON program, an ongoing research effort in autonomous machine (art making) intelligence.  But back in the flower-power days he was painting fields of colored dots that were alive with shimmering energy.

Basically he would cover the canvas with areas of color and then place colored dots all over the surface.  It’s a project that always fascinated my students, opening their eyes to the unpredictable and errant ways of color.  You might like to try it as a step on from the weaving project; a step into painting.  No drawing skills required, no figurative representation allowed, just color for its own glorious sake.

Take a large canvas, canvasboard, or heavy sheet of card.  Using acrylic paint or tempera, cover the surface with areas of color – try to avoid suggestions of landscapes and so forth.

Now mix some fairly thick colors – keep it simple, only a few – and use a 1.5cm round bristle stencil brush to daub circles on the colored ground.  Work all over the surface leaving only a little space between your dots; follow your fancy and watch what happens.  Resist the urge to correct or adjust.  Just play with the project.

Cohen said this of his work at that time:

I wanted to arrive at a state where the color was as unequivocal, as positive, as the drawing.  The moment you’re that interested [in color] and you start your exploration it becomes increasingly obvious that until you have stripped everything else off, you’re never going to know what color is going to do or what it’s capable of.

Leaving aside the technical problems, the biggest problem for me over the past couple of years is that once you do eliminate the drawing, how the color is going to behave is totally unpredictable because you don’t really have the experience … I find with what I’m doing now you put down two colors, and what you see at the end doesn’t really have much to do with either of them …

We’ve known for a long time that if you put down one area of color next to another area, something peculiar happens at the edge, but nobody’s ever done much about it, except do it at the edge.  And I think that in a way what I’m doing is taking that edge and putting it all over the canvas, and it really does become very peculiar then …

The essential thing about the dots for me is that they go all over the surface of the canvas in a completely undifferentiated way …

I’d like to get to the state where the painting disappears and just leaves color.

– Harold Cohen, excerpts from a recorded conversation.

Quoted in Natalie d’Arbeloff,  An Artist’s Workbook: line, shape, volume, light (London: Studio Vista)


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