Clouds: Perhaps Agnes Martin’s paintings are like clouds?

grid: graphite and pink pencil on parchment 2012Clouds

The number of forms which clouds may take is almost infinite, but for purposes of description it is necessary to adopt some kind of classification, though whatever classification is used there must at times be border-line cases when a cloud seems to fall half-way between two classes and perhaps belong to neither.

The systems of classification which have been proposed have sometimes been based on the observed appearance of the cloud and at other times on the supposed method of formation.  There can be no doubt that the former is the correct method since an observer is able to judge definitely of the appearance while the method of formation of a given cloud must be to some extent a matter of opinion.

The Meteorological Glossary, Air Ministry Meteorological Office, 2nd edition, 1930

I have been looking at Agnes Martin’s paintings.  They are similar in a way to clouds: her paintings are delicate with diffused colour.  Although there is a guiding principle in their creation, they cannot be the same as each other.  It is true that she drew horizontal lines or grids, but they are not rigid geometric forms.  The pencil lines are lightly drawn across the canvas and are broken by the uneven surface.

The paintings are light – very light.  They are so light that it is hard to capture them in a photograph.  The paint is brushed thinly in lots of pale brushstrokes, which gives a dappled effect.  Or, there are washes of uneven translucent paint.  Agnes Martin painted the bands of colour in a vertical position on the canvas and then turned the painting so that the bands were horizontal.

The colours are not quite contained within the pencil lines.  Sometimes they spill over slightly and often the lines do not quite reach the edge of the canvas.  The lines frame the delicate colours and hold the thin washes in rhythmic bands.  Early grid paintings of the 1960s have a denser mesh of lines.  Later paintings of the eighties and nineties by comparison are more open with a lot of space between the lines.

I recently drew a small grid in graphite pencil on translucent parchment and then drew over it carefully with a pale pink pencil.  The pink lines did not always cover the grey graphite lines, and the pink was not easily visible when it was on the grey lines.  It was intermittent.  Then I went to see Agnes Martin’s painting Morning (1965), and there were grey pencil lines drawn in a grid format with pink pencil lines in the same irregular way, the same intermittent colour.

This grid was a six foot square painting.  Seen on this scale, the mesh of pencil lines formed a soft haze.  Perhaps Agnes Martin’s paintings are like clouds?

Pale   Thin   Vaporous






Working towards a definition of nuance

In Japanese embroidery the coloured silks are selected so that no single colour stands out from the other colours in the composition.  Great use is made of cords; these are woven from tiny hanging knots that are almost invisible to the eye.   Embroiderers begin by learning to make the different coloured cords, each of which incorporates several differently coloured silks.  These multifarious cords will bind many things in the embroidered composition, from Japanese robes to drums.

Leaves are embroidered using various shades of green which creates an appearance of being three dimensional.  As the viewer shifts position the light catches the surface of the silken threads and each colour changes tone with the light.

White threads:






Careful choices are made.  An embroiderer told me that the colours must coalesce.  If this is coalescence, what is nuance?  Nuance, I think, is quite subtle.   It is not like disjuncture –  which is when things don’t fit together; separated and being uneven.  Nuance is just a slightly different beat, a slightly different resonance.  There is no breaking up; things can still exist side by side or remain integrated.  There can be simultaneity and coherence.

Extravagance -I love th…

Extravagance –

I love the word extravagance in its application to colour; for is not the sense of colour an innocent extravagance of the mind: a gift that saves the soul from discontent and death?
I know I shall not die while colour floods in upon my eyes: it is the silent music of an eternal vision!

William Kiddier,  The Profanity of Paint 1916

Callum Innes’ Cento Series: A Phenomenological Approach


Callum Innes’ Cento Series: A Phenomenological Approach

The Water of Leith runs through Edinburgh and the flow changes to different levels at a number of points along its route. It cascades off ledges in small waterfalls to the next level and the next. Sometimes there are islands of twigs and branches caught along the edge. The water gushes in a fast flow, then reaches a point where it is calm. Each part is one section of a continuum that takes it to the sea several miles away at Leith. Changing levels and flow come to mind when looking at a series of paintings in Callum Innes’ exhibition of works on paper at the Ingleby Gallery in Edinburgh. On the upper floor of the light and spacious gallery are six large vertical paintings in an even row. It is impossible to look at one without being aware of that painting’s relationship with the others. These works are from the Cento series and were painted in oil during 2011 and 2012 with modulation of transparency and colour.

The scale of the works is imposing (each painting is just over two metres in height); you look up high to the upper part of each painting and then your eye travels to somewhere just above or below the mid point, where the colour changes to another colour or between transparency and opacity for the lower section. Dissolved red to solid red; dissolved black to a solid pitch black; solid red to solid black; white to thin black; solid black to thin black; dissolved black to solid black. They are all different, but related in one dialogue that gives the series unification. The eye travels between smoothly brushed paint and thinned paint with blotches and runs made as it was dissolved by turpentine.

These paintings demand attention as you move between them, looking closely at the dividing edge within each painting and at the surface of the paintings. From fluidity to calm, smooth areas. Each long rectangle is painted on brown paper that seems almost waxy. An edge of brown paper extends beyond each painted rectangle, framing and containing it. The bare surface of the brown paper contrasts with the painted section. The mottled density of this paper is not thick and yet not transparent. I wonder about the paper – what is it? It looks like waxed paper.

And then, walking from one painting to the next, come the changing levels of the dividing lines. The division between the upper part and the lower part never seems to divide the painting evenly. It ranges from being above or below the mid point, seemingly at different heights. I try to gauge from my viewing position whether any two have the dividing line at the same height, like trying to match pairs. I am not sure. The levels do not drop in a consistent way; down, up, down, up, down two thirds, back to near the middle, all different? The divisions are mostly clean-edged except for one painting where a few runs of red drip down into the black and one with solid black brushed down slightly onto thinner black paint. They do not have the bleeding dissolved edges of Callum Innes’ Exposed Series.

Fluidity of dissolved paint is still a part of the making process in this series. Half of the six paintings exhibited have a dissolved area of paint. There are flecks and runs from the paint’s contact with turpentine. One work has waves of thin washy black paint flowing down towards a cleanly demarcated area of solid black. How did Innes preserve the neat opacity of solid black from this cascade of dissolution? Innes has, in the past, described his working process to the extent that he gives a basic understanding of the methods he employs. He does not go into greater detail, lest the magic is spoiled for the viewer. Fragility, alchemy, transformation.  Isn’t part of the enjoyment the close looking – and wondering how did that happen?

Images and information about this artist and his paintings are on –