Variation and Color: An Aesthetic Model

Variation has long been considered a standard component in formal discussions involving the principles of art and design. But what if variation could be seen as an aesthetic model both distinct and in the forefront of any discussion of issues surrounding visual communication? I would like to propose that, where the deceptively rich strengths of Variation are most visible, a profound dynamic is created. Identifiable on a multitude of levels, this is most evident in painting where issues of color predominate the discourse. Here, I would like to talk about Variation and Color in painting, and discuss some of the contextual, historical, and practical applications, incorporating my personal account as an artist who is very much engaged in the dialogue of color.

As an active painter, Variation has provided a keystone to my understanding of color. Initially intrigued by the question: When an identical palette and near composition are employed, what makes one painting more of a color statement than another? In a past life, working as a museum night guard, I would barrow a wheel chair and silently roll through the galleries, flip on the lights, and sit alone for hours looking at various paintings, exhibitions, and retrospectives, asking just this question. It wasn’t until many years later that both my experience in the studio and doing research for my Color and Design classes, that I conceptually comprehended how the use of Variation can breath life into a painting.

Artists for ages have sought to simulate and adopt the many variable color events found in nature and make them their own. Whether one speaks of Turner and his ability to grasp a conceptual construct of nature as the author John Gage observes in his book Colour in Turner: Poetry and Truth, when he states, “…In Turner’s own terms, his color did not become less natural, but changed with the changing conceptions of nature itself.” Or the view Cezanne continually expressed during his lifetime when he would pronounce, “To paint from nature is not to copy an object; it is to represent its sensations.” Or expanded further by the artist Bridget Riley when she so acutely observes affinities with Cezanne in an interview with Robert Kudielka, “No, it has to be an ‘abstract’ place. That is to say, if sensation alone is the yardstick, then the painting has to be a place that allows for the relatively independent workings of sensations.” And she goes on to say, “Although in the objective world sensations are always prompted by something or other, they are not necessarily bound to whatever may trigger them off. They have a life of their own, as every painter knows when he is working: they change, but not in a logical way; sometimes one may not even notice them, only to find them turning up again with unexpected force; but above all, they are coherent – without being in any way continuous.” Here and elsewhere nature is the prototype that continually offers a broad means for discussion, inspiration, and departure. With its ever-changing external dynamics and the more personalized internal experiences it sparks, the one constant that can be identified is its state of flux. Here is the foundation of why I think Variation holds a meaningful place in communication and expression. Variation is a dimension of nature that is very much alluded to throughout the history of the arts and sciences. Goethe points to this power of observation when he states: “With light and counterpoise, Nature oscillates within her prescribed limits, yet thus arise all the varieties and conditions of the phenomena, which are presented to us in time and space.” It is this oscillation and the very perception of time and space that I feel painting inherently conveys through color. The concept of Variation holds that nothing in the natural world is identical to itself. It also underlines its connection to natural events and the parallels it occupies in many arenas of thought. These serve as a powerful aesthetic model that has informed my work in ways that continually put me on edge and challenge my perceptions.

In my paintings, I am amplifying the use of Variation in pronounced ways. Every application, every hue, no matter how minute, reflects a change in chroma and value. Except for one stroke that provides variation from Variation, no color is ever repeated in each individual painting. Variation for me is not a thematic devise but an inner construct by which I can abstractly register the vivid natural spectacles of the surrounding Southwest without quoting verbatim the desert floor, a rock face, or a particular sky. Trained as a realist, Variation coupled with an abstracted means of expression provides me a continuous freedom and rigor to explore the subject of color and light, always the main attractions for me, across the stylistic spectrum of art. Like Cezanne and Riley, the sensations nature inspires are paramount to my work. Visually, the light that is perpetually trapped in the canyon out my back door throws me daily curveballs. My motivation is not to duplicate these many sensations but to experience them anew through the exploration of color and light in my own work. I respond strongly to the idea of this mystery of color which never reveals itself the same way twice. I knew I found something I could explore when my paintings started to take on some of the same internalized attributes I experienced looking at nature. This is especially relevant when viewing the paintings over substantial periods of time. With natural and artificial light sources always in flux, perceptions and mindsets always changing, often a painting takes on a life of its own and is not what it first appears to be. As the great artist and educator Josef Albers observed in his seminal book Interaction of Color, “The color becomes the most relative medium in art. In order to use color successfully, one must recognize that color deceives constantly. Therefore we do not start with the study of color systems. One has to experience the fact that one and the same color permits innumerable variants.”

This perceptual complexity could point to why my paintings are brought up slowly with few concrete preconceptions as to systems of color and structure except for a loose sense of light level and where I would like the horizon line to be (both of which shift throughout the evolution of the painting). After about an hour of laying out a palette and creating values that will talk with one another, I place what I have in a circular format on the canvas, trying to activate the picture plane as quickly as possible. I largely let the painting dictate where it goes through the process itself. As the painting materializes the demands of each preexisting stroke of color inform the next, until towards the end stages of the painting, color decisions are made slowly (sometimes hours) and become increasingly high stakes, like a chess endgame. I was happy to recently learn that Cezanne could take up to fifteen minutes between strokes. And even then, with perceptions always moving, many times I walk into the studio a day later and have to rip whole areas of color down to the bare canvas because I realize they were not appropriate to the picture. This is why these paintings keep me on edge—they are inherently risky and frustrating, and therefore satisfying.

Like many of the artists I reference, the subject of my painting is also informed by nature. I like when a painting blooms or shimmers, when a sense of space or scale continually shifts and is orchestrated in a way that can be intuitively felt but not quite explained. I like visual events, in any form, but for me painting and color provide a distinctive place for the dialogue to materialize. Variation is the protagonist in what I see.

Over the past two years I have been particularly engaged by the idea of entropy and color and its relationship to Variation. Rudolf Arnheim’s essay, Entropy and Art: An Essay on Disorder and Order, richly illustrates how the second law of thermodynamics and the eventual tendency of all systems to fall into a state of disorder, brings into question how disorder and order is defined. Issues of degradation, distribution, equilibrium (an increase in entropy), catabolic effects (removing patterns and constraints increasing entropy), harmony, information, and how these principles are interpreted by physicists, Gestalt theorists, and artists alike, make for some very interesting reading. But although Arnheim frequently speaks a lot about the relationship of entropy and art in regards to the significance of order and shape, he makes an intriguing and somewhat conflicting statement that could speak directly to the use of color: “Mere orderliness leads to increasing impoverishment and finally to the lowest possible level of structure, no longer distinguishable from chaos, which is the absence of order. A counter principle is needed, to which orderliness is secondary. It must supply what is to be ordered. I describe this counter principle as the anabolic creation of a structural theme, which establishes ‘what the thing is about’ be it a crystal or a solar system, a society or a machine, a statement of thoughts or a work of art.” Arnheim goes on to relate that this anabolic structural theme provides tension, which brings life and change to the system. For me this observation accurately describes the virtues of Variation. How many times have we seen color used as an afterthought to provide descriptive order to a painting? I personally have seen more paintings that fall into this category than not, some of them my own. But could true harmony be a byproduct of Variation? Or as Arnheim states towards the end of his essay, “A work of art does not ask for meaning; it contains it.” Could Variation provide the dance between entropy and order the means to signify the natural affinities of time and space? And could this advance our perception of color enabling it to trigger new and more complex levels of human response? I like physicist Otto Rossler’s statement described in James Gluick’s book Chaos when he says, “The principle is that nature does something against its own will and, by self-entanglement, produces beauty.” When the use of color is successful and a work of art escapes its means, Variation seems at the forefront. Rich orchestrations result and lead to discovery and the unexpected. In many ways we are all hardwired to solve problems (survive) by finding order amongst chaotic developments. Variation, especially in regards to color, simultaneously provides an aesthetic model that inhibits the mindless or coded use of order and brings meaning to chaotic phenomena. For me Turner can provide a most readable example of an artist where Variation is central to his thinking. Whether tied to a mast of a ship or poking his head out of a train window speeding through a rain storm, he looked hard to see what vivid effects nature could offer. With his adamant use of the color yellow (at least a dozen varieties), a spectacular use of the spectrum, and his compulsion to work and rework his paintings, Turner well illustrates my assertion of the importance of Variation in color. John Gage speaks of one of the few times Turner trusts the color instincts of Goethe, “Goethe refers, for example, to the readiness of colours to change with the slightest mixture or change in parts, and Turner glossed approvingly: ‘this is commixture, and in this painting becomes an art’.

Variation as an aesthetic model offers a dynamic method. Reflected both inside and outside art, Variation constitutes a foundation easily recognized but often overlooked. Within the discourse surrounding perceptions involving color, it can provide the needed means to expand visual dialogue and move our thinking in uncharted directions. It has helped me map the course for many future paintings with a navigation of color that is inexhaustible. Who could ask for more?

Mike Stack

Presented at CAA conference in 2005 as panel member in a session titled Paintings:Issues of Color, moderated by Susanna Coffey.