The use of colour in contemporary art

The European Colour Observatory is a research group within the Dijon ENSA (France), comprising Hubert Besacier, Alain Bourgeois, Bernard Metzger and Lionel Thenadey.

The aim of the research group is to question contemporary artists about their thoughts on colour and its uses.

This project also seeks ? by interconnecting different viewpoints on colour ?to reveal and qualify the connections held between the world of art and that of science in an area dealing with especially diverse fields of knowledge (from art history to nano-science including information science, semiology and linguistics).

The idea is to examine the influence such extra-artistic types of knowledge have on works of art and to analyse the behavioural reactions coming from new colour uses.

This survey work will lead to implementing a network made up of the artists, theorists and scientists who have helped us.

The surveys done do not have any statistical purpose. On the contrary, our aim is each time to meet an artist whose work stands out as meeting certain criteria, elaborated using the above-mentioned thematics.

Every thematic consideration calls for a specific survey protocol. The history theme works on the question of cultural heritage; that of chemistry and colour industries on the artists’ inventiveness as to the use of colour material.

The meetings take the form of filmed conversations. The videos are then used as material to feed the project’s internet site as well as a publication.

Such conversations are not an end in themselves. Our purpose is to use the ensuing data in such a way as to build a corpus of theoretical, historical, and technological knowledge, which not only our partners but also students may access. Here again the idea of a mixed research group becomes essential, since this work can only be done when a relevant number of skills have come together. Consequently, and from a practical point of view, the constitution of a documentary fund made available on our Internet site is essential for everyone to find therein the information required by his/her research.

This research work may also be done in cooperation with various French and European financial, institutional and industrial partners .

Reseach subject

Our research hypothesis consist in detecting and observing the way “colour fiction“ functions in the work of contemporary artists working in painting as well as on digital images.

The ECO project is an observatory, it thus implies a place whence one observes. It’s also the space for connecting multiple viewpoints on colour:

1 . The history of pigments and systems of colour representation.
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2 . The artists’ use of colour related to chemistry and colour industries.

3 .The artistic practices related to digital technologies.

In carrying out our first surveys, we took into account all the different points of view of our partners:

1 . We met M. Georg Kremer of Kremer-pigments to talk about the history of pigments and their chemical applications.

2 . Narciso Silvestrini, specialised in questions concerning systems of colour representation, gave us much to think about concerning the geometric implications in the formal elaboration of colour systems.

3 . Petra Kaiser, of the Institut für Bild und medien at the Z.K M of Karlsruhe, gave us access to the centre’s complete archives.

4 . Mady Elias, of the Paris nanoscience institute, accepted to take charge of our pigments’ spectroscopic analysis.

Using all collected data we will create a tool to visualise in three dimensions the coloured re-emission spectrum of so-called ‘historical pigments‘.

Indeed, the tool which the majority of artists employed was the Chevreul coloured circle, or at best the Munsel colours solid. The main difficulty in using such systems lay in the fact that they came from and were elaborated through the analysis of light phenomena and not of re-emission phenomena of colours emanating from coloured matter. The use of systems of representation of light spectra to elaborate pictorial procedures dates back to impressionism and still continues in the way colour is taught in different schools (the subtractive system of primary colours theory, these same colours being in fact the secondary colours of the additive system).

This ever persisting misunderstanding between colour/light and colour/matter, has led most contemporary artists to seek solutions often based on empirical experimentation linked to historical, symbolic or even autobiographical references. Several of our interviews involving artists have revealed this, and many went as far as asking whether there could exist a simple or even a pure reference system, based on recognised generic colours/matter.

The ECO team, under the expert supervision of Ms Mady Elias’ team, of the Paris Institute of nanoscience and the Paris 6 CNRS, carried out in July 2007 a series of spectroscopic measurements on the works present at the Dijon’s Museum of Fine Art and the contemporary works of the FRAC de Bourgogne. The spectroscopic results from this work, will be compared to our “historical“ pigment database.

The creation of a document repository on our Internet site ( http://www.eco-ca.fr) has proven indispensable, so that everyone may find the information necessary for their own research. This database was processed using documents provided by Dijon’s Museum of Fine Art’s archives on each of the works chosen.

The different problems concerning the use of colour in digital technology (Photography and video) constitute a specific field of research.

Its seems that, in the use of photography, the dominating thought on colour is mainly defined by the problem concerning the coloured profile (from shot to publication), with the sole reference to ICM colorimetric profiles of manufactures’ scanners, printers and other digital image peripherals. They are set up for Photoshop. This is most often done at the expense of the artists’ plastic choices.

In the use of video, the referent is often simpler, since it consists most of the time in proposing two colour calibrations, coming from commercial cinema: warm colour for historical films and cold colour for action films. The biggest part of video software offers such calibrations and of course Photoshop compatibility. What is there to do if the artist wants to integrate an effect or 3D modelisation?! The colorimetric logic of 3D software is based on Autocad colour charts, an architecture modelisation software, most often elaborated from the colour charts of industrial specialists in façade colours.

The greatest difficulty for an artist using these technologies will be to keep all these colour profiles together, while trying to maintain the initial idea of his artistic project.

Many photography and video artists have a pictorial culture of colour, hence an additional difficulty for finding cohesion in her elaborating their project. Their creative process is carried out through manipulations using referents of multiple origins (industrial, promotional, etc..) and is further complicated when these artists have previously used analogue technology.

We will base our elaboration of the beginning of the synthesis of these different problems on various interviews and collaboration with John Batho, a photographer-artist, whose work focuses in large part on colour, and who has experienced the change from analogue and digital technology.

Paola Rosa of the studio AZZURO group, relies in her work on a radical trichromy :

- Blue for fluidity, electronic immateriality
- Burned Sienna, for rooting and materiality
- Changing and diffuse colour, for the spectrum.

This survey work necessitates the creation of a network to serve as a relay for choosing artists. Partners who have accepted to work whith us play this relay role. This network was set up with Milan (Academy of Brera, Institute of Design, the Invernizzi Gallery), the Ronchi Foundation, Florence, Italy, Karsuhe (ZKM), Aichtetten (Kremer pigments) Germany, Valencia (University of Fine Arts) Spain, Brussels (Royal Academy) Belgium and Libero Zuppiroli (EPFL) Lausanne, Switzerland.

On colour

Although for many artists colour is positive, blissful and complex, they have been often faced with an opposite conception which is manifest in three points of view: colour considered as insignificant or worse, dangerous; colour “as a feminine principle“; and “corruption through colour“. In this way, colour is relegated to what is superfluous, superficial and cosmetic: It belongs to the oriental, the primitive, childhood, or even the vulgar, bizarre, and pathological.

Nicole Hassler - Nail polish - 2007.

In our culture, colour continues to be a victim of prejudice. Since ancient times, it has been systematically marginalised or despised. The rejection it inspires hides a certain fear, a contamination by something unknown and which seems unknowable. More recently, it has rather appeared as identity, or even communal reference, and uses the most up-to-date technology vectors. However, although today, colour is present in all symbolic applications (fashion, ads, design, architecture, etc...), there is still some resistance present, ranging from benevolent indifference to virulent chromophobia as soon as we are engaged in a reflection about it in terms of quality.

Colloquia organised on colour themes regularly take stock of current research. The Spring School which takes place every year in Roussillon typifies a certain kind of approach. It has taken the shape of a National Centre for Scientific Research (C.N.R.S.) interdisciplinary school on the colour of materials, and focused, in 2005,
on “links beetwen language, colour and cognition“. Participating as a painter to this events is as fascinating as reading Chevreul must have been for the artists of his time. However artists have found it difficult to find their place in this debate. One reason is that scientists consider colour phenomena mainly from a quantitative point of view, as is evident in the list of the main features in the Spring School programme: definition and terminology ? (radiometric, photometric, colorimetric measurements) ? colour perception (psychophysics, cognitive psychology, neuroscience) ? colour systems (history, terminology) ? semiotics and colour language ? convention and scientific languages.


This colour split along quantity and quality finds its historical origins is Goethe’s criticism of Newton’s optics and the physical-mathematical science of Nature. In his Maxims and reflections Goethe expresses his opposition to a mathematical approach to colour. He explains that “the mathematician turns toward the quantitative, all that can be determined through number and measure, and thus in a certain way toward the universe as externally knowable“.

Even though we later find, in Wittgenstein’s work, some elements linked to Goethe, we must recognise the high presence of Newton’s theory, through his posterity, in current results. The physical sciences have developed without taking into account Gothe’s view on colour phenomena. Still the gap between the experienced phenomenon (Erfahrung) and its representation remains entire.

Some artists such as Kandinsky would later refer to Goethe’s Farbenlehre. The moving of this debate outside the philosophy-science relation triggered what was to become the most important developments in avant-garde history: that of abstract painting and colour.

In his book Colour, Art and Sciences, Georges Roques talks about the effects the reception of «Chevreul’s Simultaneous Contrast Law» had on painters. He analyses the diverse positions of artists who, in order to integrate the principles of this law into their painting, reinterpreted it, sometimes going so far as misunderstanding it.

John Gage in his article “Colour without Theory“ (in Verba Volant n°3) refers to minimalist art and asserts that those artists « had little use for modern colour systems» and that « modernist art was powerless when faced with the complexity of contemporary research on colour».

Three definitions of colour delimit the extent of our research.

The first one comes from Michel Pastoureau («Colour» in Dictionnaire des Couleurs de notre temps): «colour is a cultural product - it only exists when it’s perceived, i.e., when it’s not only seen trough the eyes, but also especially decoded in the brain, memory, knowledge, the imagination (...) A colour which is not looked at is a colour that doesn’t exist».

The second one comes from Yves Legrand (quoted by Jacques Fillacier in La Pratique de la couleur):
«Colorimetry aims to offer a simple and precise specification of the colour of light sources and especially that of transparent materials and diffusing materials lit by those sources, as concerns the eyes».

The third one comes from Roland Barthes (Oeuvres Complètes): “common opinion always considers sexuality to be agressive. Thus the idea of a happy, soft, sensual, exulting sexuality is not found in any written text. Where is one to read about it then? In painting or better still: in colour”.

Survey protocol :


The surveys don’t have a statistical purpose. The aim, is rather to meet every time a singular artist whose work corresponds to a certain number of criteria, elaborated using the above-mentioned thematics.

Each thematic requires a specific survey protocol. The historical thematic deals with the question of heritage. That of chemistry and colour industry deals with the artists’ inventiveness as to colour materials. That of artistic practices linked to digital technologies leads to studying hybrid colour practices.

The meetings take place in the shape of a filmed exchange. The videos serve as materials to document our Internet site.

These exchanges are not an end in themselves. Our aim is to use the data therefrom in such a manner as to built a corpus of theoretical, historical, and technological knowledge which may be accessed not only by our partners but also by our students. Here again the idea of a mixed research group is essential, such work being only possible through the participation of multiple skills. From a practical point of view, the constitution of a documentary fund on site becomes indispensable, so that everyone may find there the necessary information for their own research.


Gloria Picazo-Bernard Metzger et Hubert Besacier-Lerida 2008