Article written on 26th January, 2017
Featured in Accessories & Art

Chat With An Artist

I have always been fascinated by the science of colour. How one colour can effect the whole look and feel of a moodboard. The games you can play are endless! I have often wondered how painters see colour, as their sense of observation is more acute. Or is it? Perhaps they see everyday objects in a different way? Or is just a question of interpretation? How do they analyse colour? How do they take inspiration from the colours in our artistic heritage?

There was only one thing for it, to ask an artist. Step forth Alex Fowler, of whose works I have always been a huge fan, with his strong use of complimentary tones and bold brush strokes.


MV: Looking to our heritage for inspiration is always rewarding, especially with the London galleries on our doorstep. Is there an artist, with works in London, who you revere, particularly for their use of colour?

AF: There are many. In fact the element that most draws me to a painting is probably the use of colour. In a gallery like Tate Modern, where there is a large range of different visual languages on display in one room, it is probably the paintings with beautiful use of colour that would draw me in. I think of the wonderful Bonnard painting “Bowl of Milk” depicting a young woman, possibly Bonnard’s wife Marthe, carrying a bowl of milk for the cat at her feet, standing by an open window with golden balustrades beyond and a glimpse of the sparkling evening light on the Mediterranean.

Pierre Bonnard: Bowl of Milk

Bonnard worked from drawings, memory and invention, a means of freeing himself from the tyranny of nature. “Art is not nature” he said. But in the scumbly, impasto and broken brushstrokes he captures an extraordinary feel for a glimpsed moment: the sun sets and shadows are thrown into deep blues. Warm light radiates in pinks and oranges. But it is filtered through emotion so we experience a psychological melodrama as much as a memory of an observed moment.

At the other extreme, I saw recently a wonderful little exhibition of Euan Uglow’s paintings, an artist whose program was particularly focused on finding the beauty in notes of colour in a subject directly before ones eyes.

Euan Uglow: Two Apples (left) and North Cyprus: Study For A History Painting (right)

In a Uglow nude the colours are held apart. Individual colour notes describe planes of the body which harmonise together with extraordinary beauty. He described his interest being in “Controlled Passion”, the idea that the expression is in the shape and colour not in flashy brushstrokes.

Euan Uglow: Zagi (left) and Kings College Gateway (right)

Old Master

MV: As an artist, you have a keen eye for detail, especially when working on portrait commissions. Again, is there an artist who you often turn to, to see how they have managed it?! I have always been struck by a portrait, once spotted in The National Gallery by I think Frans Hals, of a gentle-looking man, eyes brimming with joviality and kindness. I wondered at the skill to achieve the watery quality of the eyes that elderly people often have. It has been bugging me for years that I can’t remember who the artist is. Hang on to your hats, I will hunt this down and post again once found.

AF: I am not sure to which Hals you refer, but there is a beautiful portrait of a very genial fellow in the collection at Kenwood House.

Frans Hals: Pieter van den Broecke and Young Man Holding a Skull

There is of course that beautiful painting of The Young Boy Holding a Skull at the National Gallery, a vanitas painting, which reminds us that Youth will fade and we will all end up like the skull! I have always admired the quality of light in that painting, and I love how he knits the image together with hatched brushstrokes. He actually manages to capture reality with quite broad strokes which I admire.


MV: We all like a challenge. It keeps us on our toes. Is there a subject matter you find challenging (in a good way), and have to work that extra bit harder for best results? Portraits, landscapes, still lifes?

AF: Difficulties crop up in all kinds of ways in paintings. Artists talk about making it work which implies that at many stages a painting isn’t working, but with so many elements involved it is always a complex issue and the solutions are hard to pin down. It could be a matter of likeness, harmony or balance of shape or design, incoherent or inconsistent colour or, paint just not describing what it is supposed to, a plane in space for example. But I would say that capturing likeness is probably the hardest thing, as the tiniest adjustments in drawing or colour can have a huge impact.

Alex Fowler: Spring Onions

Alex Fowler: Camilla Flowers and March Rose


MV: Working as an interior designer in the past, I know that light has a huge effect on colour in a room. How does the constant changing light throughout the day effect your work, when your aim is to best represent what you see? It must be quite annoying, to have your colour mixed, ready to paint, you turn and suddenly the object is cast in shadow, for example. You are not Monet with his ever-changing canvases…or maybe you are?!

AF: At home my studio is north facing so unless the sun reflects off a car windscreen there is no problem with direct sunlight. But more and more I am happy to incorporate shifts of light, or at least to consider it. How we perceive colour changes. For example, if we have been looking at one colour for a while the eye becomes tired of it and the intensity diminishes. Colours are affected by the journey our eye has taken. Nothing is ever really fixed with colour, which makes it exciting to work with.

Alex Fowler: Large White Still Life and Mission Street, Dusk


MV: I love analysing the backdrop of a painting – so many tones in there. How significant are your background colours to your works? Do you intentionally choose a non-colour to show up the portrait? What happens if you want to go for a lovely strong green, for example – would it overpower the sitter? If so then how do you get around that problem, without going safe and using a “neutral”?

AF: The design of a portrait is critical to its effectiveness, so the background is considered as another element alongside the colours and shapes in the figure, their clothes and any objects. If the portrait is set in someone’s house, the background is sometimes a given. A lovely strong green could certainly make a fine backdrop as it would complement a Caucasian skin tone very effectively. As to overpowering the sitter, it really is a matter of degrees, you can adjust the colour of the backdrop place it in the shadows, increase the light on the sitter, change their wardrobe, add some other elements. There are many ways to solve a problem like that.

Alex Fowler: portrait commissions

Favourite Colour

MV: I know it is your job to be completely objective and represent the truth i.e. what you see, but do you find yourself leaning towards a particular palette (I know I do, with interiors schemes and moodboards)? Lots of artists tend towards certain tones. Do you? In short, this is a way of asking, what’s your favourite colour!?

AF: One can be objective and still lean towards a particular palette, especially in Still Lifes when you have complete control of the colours in your set up. But once I have the set up there I try to paint what I see faithfully……As for my favourite colour, well, I used to have one when I was a kid. It was Prussian Blue, but I think more because of the name, it reminded me of the wonderful blue of a military uniform and felt rather grand!

I tend to think of colours in harmonies now, rather like an interior designer I imagine. My recent paintings of books and other objects on a green baize bridge table have been an exciting opportunity to explore colour relationships and colour perception in the studio.

Alex Fowler: Books at a table no1 and Still life, blue jug and cyclamen

Well, I don’t know about you, but if ever you are stuck for a moodboard scheme or palette for your redecoration, just pop to a gallery or artist’s studio for inspiration. So much analysis has gone into the colours, all the thinking has been done for you, often centuries ago. Just feast your eyes and make your choice.

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