A world devoid of colour is a rich one

I’ve recently been painting using just two tubes of paint: black and white. I want to see how painting without colour, and with just shades and light to manipulate, affects how I paint and affects how the viewer sees objects which are familiar to them.

One of my black-and-white paintings

The act of painting in black and white has had a liberating effect on me as an artist. I feel that it has freed me from the constraints of making colour decisions. I’m finding myself rather addicted to it now.

As a by-product to that, I now have an urge to surround myself in a world devoid of colour. I need to know: why do we envisage that a world devoid of colour is a world devoid or richness or joy? I am finding new richness and joy in my desire for a black and white world. Why is that? Is that contradictory? Is it just me?

In addition to the effect this new monochrome art-making has on me, I like the effect it has on my relationship to objects (and the output I’m producing). It has allowed me to look at objects in a new and interesting way. I hope that the viewer of my art feels that way too. I am seeing objects that I paint as richer, more textured, more real, more solid and more tangible. I can’t explain why this is so, as that seems contradictory. If you take away an element of an object (such as colour) in theory it should lose some of its richness and depth.

If you took away a different element (such as shape or form) surely it would lose some of its richness and depth? That seems obvious. However, I’m now starting to doubt that this is necessarily so and to question why we think this would be so. I want to consider what happens when we take away any element of an object. For example, what happens if you take away the tangibility of an object (i.e. show it in online only or in photograph form), would it then lose depth? Why do we assume it would? Where has this assumption come from? I am coming to believe that the process of element elimination in fact adds a new element which we don’t have a name for, something intangible, something as of yet unknown, something fascinating. Is this just another one of those Western philosophical hang-ups we have inherited from the likes of Plato? 

I was able to test this idea of the richness of a black-and-white world for real when I went to the Monochrome: Painting in Black and White exhibition at the National Gallery in London yesterday. At the end of the exhibition there was an installation piece by Olafur Elaisson called Room for one colour. The room, originally conceived by Elaisson in 1997, was sparse but vibrantly lit with what appears to be a bright, painful-to-the-eyes yellow light. It is in fact lit by a single frequency monochromatic sodium-yellow lighting system that suppresses all other colours in the spectrum, transforming any objects (human or otherwise) in the space into shades of black and white. 

I didn’t look yellow as I appear here – photography changes the effect

The effect of walking into this room is profound. I’m not sure whether I’ve experienced anything so all-over physical before. The closest I can think of is when I went on a BBC tour in Manchester and was taken into the sound-proof room, which made me feel really unwell as it almost completely removed sound. That was painful on the nerves, for me, in a negative way. Eliasson’s room was also painful on the nerves but in a positive rather than negative way. It created for me a hyperreal sensitivity to sight. I felt almost as if my brain was going to explode. The appearance of myself and others as black and white was both surreal and hyperreal. It was mesmerising. It was just plain odd, for want of a better word. It was like seeing yourself and others in a science fiction movie. I found it quite addictive. If it hadn’t been for the pain in my head of this sensory overload I would have stayed in that room for longer.

The brain struggles I think because it has to digest the sudden change in visual stimuli and I suspect it tries and battles to add colour, yet cannot, so it is working very hard. It is also overwhelmed by the new detail it sees in the colourless world, in faces, objects, contours, shades and contrast. The suppression of one element of visual data resulted, for me at least, in a heightened sensitivity to form and light. 

The soundproof room at the BBC

By removing an element, such as colour, from my art I want to force the viewer to look at the ordinary with a new perspective, see the mundane without one of it’s vital elements.

Initially, at least, I would like to continue removing colour, perhaps create a black and white world of familiarity. How? I don’t know yet.

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