Those Blues

Can you isolate a color from your memory or your culture or art history?

Just the word Blues triggers an association in your mind.  “Feelin’ blue”–you hear the music in your head.

Our culture and history are loaded (and weighed down) with the symbolism of certain colors.   In 15th century France red was the color of power, as in for the king; green was the color of love; blue was for the Virgin Mary. But in Renaissance Italy Mary is often shown wearing blue and red.  Symbolism falls apart easily when you stop to look and think about it even a little bit.

Consider the colors in flags, like the popular red and blue.  Any given country will have historic and symbolic explanations for the color of the stripes in its flag.  Same color, different symbols for different flags.

I’ve read that blue is the most widely loved color throughout the world.  No symbols necessary.

But here’s the thing. Any attempt to pin a color down to meaning, symbolism or cultural propriety has to fail.  The reason for this is simple:  color does not exist by itself, in isolation.  Any color will always be seen next to another color, i.e. in the context of another color.

Back to the hue called blue.  There are many variations of blue.

Does the blue at the top of this post remind you of uniforms?  Official orders? The proper way to do things here?  The energetic brushwork we saw in the red version of this painting, the original painting by Keven Wilder, seems to get dampened by this cold, military blue.  Doesn’t it?  I can’t be sure.  Color is subjective.

If you mix ultramarine blue with a little alizarin crimson, you get a purplish blue, but still blue, a so-called warm blue:

If you mix cerulean blue, which is already cool…

with a bit of yellow, you’ll get a very cool, even greenish, blue, but still blue. Like this:

After that, things get more complicated depending on what wall color you hang your blue painting or  whether the painting next to it will have red, yellow or orange in it, for example.

We’ve looked at this before.  https://artamaze.wordpress.com/?s=albers

The groundbreaking authority on the relativity of color is Josef Albers. For an eye popping introduction, go to: https://www.google.com/search?q=josef+albers&tbm=isch&source=hp&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjw48eBpMbgAhUHTawKHbmvDdEQiR56BAgEEBU&biw=1222&bih=815

Josef Albers is an essential teacher and companion in any study of color.  Keep his little book Homage to the Square at your side. He won’t simplify anything for you.  On the contrary, he will show you how infinite and subtle the perception of color is.  It may drive you a little crazy.  Ahhhh! Color!



All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.






Here we have it in black. What do you think now?  What do you feel?

Do you think this is more cerebral, more subdued? Neutral?  And does that go with “less emotional or not emotional at all?”  Even “cold?”

Would you consider this friendlier, more accessible, more tuned to emotion than the previous red version?

Would this be just right for a child’s room? A dining room?  For a corporate office?

Would you like it huge, say 10’ x 10’?  Then, would you like to have the huge version in your home or should it be in a museum?

Would you say it’s more “modern” than the original red?

None of these adjectives have anything to do with ultimate judgments of “like” or “dislike.” Actually doesn’t like-or-dislike come first, as the immediate gut reaction?  Gut reactions are emotional.  All other descriptions like “neutral” or “cerebral” come later, as rationalizations of that gut reaction, don’t they?.

This is a valuable exercise. Thanks to Photoshop we’re able to isolate one factor, in this case, color, in a painting. We can now test out how we react to color.  How do we associate to color?

Review the original at https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2019/02/12/

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.





Red and Rational

This painting by Keven Wilder is three feet square. It is monochrome; painted with only two tools, a wide brush and a wide squeegee. And it is immediately appealing.

Monochrome: the artist used only one color, red, and then the same red mixed with white for a paler, heathery red near the border.

The red was applied with a flat 3” brush. Then came the squeegee.  While the red was still wet (this is oil paint) the 3” squeegee, loaded with white paint, deposited white paint in the center of the painting, scraping some red into it in the process.

Appealing. The painting is immediately moving and intriguing.  How can that be? How can something be intriguing, when it can be described so easily, even mechanically?

The first reason is that in all cultures red is perceived as emotionally evocative. Red is sensuous:  enveloping, round, cozy, sweet, ripe, luscious, delicious.*

The second reason is that the strokes of the brush and squeegee are the opposite of sensuous.  They are abrupt, quick, random, indifferent, angular, flat, rational, raggedy.

These two qualities, red and rational,  are contradictory.  That contradiction creates drama in this painting.  You can deconstruct this all you want.  But the painting is not a well-argued paragraph in a debate or a dissertation at the Sorbonne.  It’s a paradox.

The paradox is to be inhabited.  And once you’re in it, you’ll be scintillating and lose your self.

*I want to talk about red in greater depth in future posts: symbolism, psychology, history, language.

Next, let’s run this painting through different hues.  What’s special about red?  We’ll see about that!

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.





Pieter Lastman (1583-1633) is most famous, arguably, as having been the teacher of Rembrandt (1606-1663). Rembrandt was brought up Protestant, Lastman was Catholic. This is noteworthy because it shows that even in religiously torn Holland, people—artists, at least—still managed to respect each other.

The Protestant Reformation in the 16th century involved a lot of violence, for example, the destruction of stained glass windows, tapestries, paintings and statues in Catholic churches so that these stripped down buildings could then be converted to Protestant houses of worship. Holland became officially Protestant with Catholics being restricted to worshipping in private homes. How did this religious turmoil affect art and artists?  Drastically.   Painters, sculptors and craftsmen lost their primary client, the Catholic Church.

To work as an artist (to teach and to sell your work) you had to be a member of the Guild of St. Luke.  They met regularly and discussed art and business.  You can imagine these discussions when the big client was no longer there.  Paintings with religious themes were no longer being ordered.

Well, what about the genre called history painting? That was still popular. All the more so, since the shipping industry was booming, merchants were getting rich, built themselves huge houses and, ta-tah, needed paintings for their expansive walls. Given the religious-political climate, these had to lean towards the secular.

History painting gave the artist the opportunity to present edifying tableaus with figures, both clad and not-so-much, congregating in idyllic landscapes.  This required some acquaintance with Greek and biblical mythology. The owner of such paintings could throw a dinner party and feel cultured.

The Mauritshuis in The Hague recently acquired the Lastman painting we’re looking at here.  Their website offers a nice entry into the painting:


What fascinates me about this painting is the composition.  (No surprise to the reader who has followed this blog for even only a short time).

Shall we?

I’ve asked a couple of people what they see as the most prominent thing in this painting.  One said, the man on the left in that long red coat.  The other said, the huge man on the right, striking that showy pose on that too-small horse.  I agreed with them.  My attention was also drawn to these large figures – but only momentarily.   Then my focus landed in the middle and got stuck there.

Look! Lastman put a white circle smack-dab into the middle of his painting.  What was he thinking?!

If he had made that headband brown it would not stand out.  If he wanted it white but had made the background figure’s tunic light, then there would be no white circle to command our attention.  What was he thinking?

Not only is the white circle exactly in the middle, two diagonal lines (pink 3 and 4) lead directly to it.  Lastman contorts the figure along line 3 so that the leg line leads our eye directly to the white circle.  On the other side, along line 4, the woman’s garment is forced up to conform to a line that leads to the white circle. And then it leads along the dog’s paws, perfectly.

What was he thinking?

The picture purports to illustrate John the Baptist preaching.  There he is.  You look at him because, well, because you’re supposed to.  The title of the painting tells you to.  Then your eye wanders to the more colorful, theatrical characters in the crowd and then, wham, there’s the circle in the middle.

This is not a photo.  Did he work at this carefully, deliberately constructed composition to create an effect in our minds?  But what would that be? Why would he want us to keep coming back to that white circle in the middle? Maybe he didn’t think about that.  Maybe it was a joke. Maybe he was jaded and cynical.

The painting measures only 24” x 36.” Twenty-seven people, a horse (or three) and a dog are crammed into that small frame. Maybe, as the article on the Mauritshuis page says, he wanted to show how well he could draw anatomy in difficult poses and from different angles. Maybe that was good enough. It was a living. The nouveau riches bought it.

His pupil, Rembrandt, created paintings with mystery and depth.  We stand before them, fall silent, are drawn into them. They pose questions that we cannot answer. They silence us. And we come back to Rembrandt’s paintings, drawings and etchings over and over, to be silenced.  We never say, maybe he was jaded and cynical.

More paintings by Lastman:


For paintings by Rembrandt, try:


All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.





This how you last saw this painting.


It has a firm solid base.  We like that, don’t we.  We like stability.  A solid object is good to behold, looks like it’s been here forever and will be here for another millennium.  Hmmm.

I suggested we turn the painting over.

Look what’s happened here.  It now feels like something suspended.  Still well-constructed, but it conveys so much more energy.  Of course, you can’t have stability and suspension at the same time.  This is a deeply personal issue. With the feeling of suspension comes the feeling of energy.  We like energy, but energy means movement or potential movement and that means “no” to stability.

Cassie Buccellato, oil on canvas, ~5’ x 5’.

The artist currently is showing her paintings at WeWork, 111 W Illinois St, Chicago,.  (312) 818-3060


All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.





The box you saw a couple of posts earlier is now fully integrated into the painting. In full frontal view its third dimension disappears.  But notice the added wit—feathers!

Having completed the painting, the artist now has to name the thing. When she walks her dog by the lake, Terry Fohrman takes pictures of sidewalks with their cuneiform cracks and collects found objects like Robert Rauschenberg. In general, she feels appalled by our culture’s wastefulness.  The title came easy: “Don’t Throw It Away.”

I look forward to seeing this piece displayed on a wall.  Here you see it leaning against a wall, which requires a certain effort on the part of the viewer.  You have to ignore the floor and the baseboard.  As you put up with that task, you may feel that thinking and painting “inside the box” was/has been not such a bad idea after all.  Right. Following the rules is the common thing to do, it’s easy, which is why “thinking outside the box is rare.”  And we call that “art.”

You can see the earlier stage of this piece at


All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.





That Big Brush

Notice how big that brush is.  And what kind of brush is that, anyway? Is that even a painting brush? No, it’s not.   It’s  a brush used by wall-paper hangers.  Are you allowed to paint with a brush that’s not made for painting?  Yes, Virginia, you’re allowed to paint with any ol’ brush you can find. Or, for that matter, use any ol’ tool you can lift to transport paint onto that canvas.

Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011) said that when she was getting into the NY art scene in the 50’s, it was taboo to buy your brushes in an art supply store.  You bought your brushes in a hardware store!

I remind my students to use the biggest brush they can. We buy our brushes in packages, yes, in Hardware and, yes, at the bulk price.  The smallest brush I like to see is 3”. 

The artist making this large painting is using only one brush, about 6 inches wide. Notice that she uses this one brush for every effect, from broad fat stokes to thin faint lines. There are two benefits from this loyalty to one big brush: a) the painting achieves a unified look because it’s made with only one tool and b) the artist can work in a more relaxed way. No switching, no calculating, no deciding.  She works gracefully in tune with her instrument. Harmony all around!

See the finished painting in the next blog.

Cassie Buccellato,  Painting on L’huile paper.  (Huile is French for oil.  It’s sturdy, museum grade paper that can take oil or acrylic.)

For Helen Frankenthaler:




I love this next video. It shows her pouring paint from a bucket and using a hardware store brush:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i9kfufFMRvg


All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.