Challenge in Blue

What on earth is The Blue Boy on to back there? - was the first thought when opening paper this Tuesday.

And so I had to read the article next to it. Bob Katzenelson once told how a friend had scolded him for having made a great drawing "which made me read the b… article and IT IS ALL YOUR FAULT!"

Per Marquard Otzen, "Blå hoveder /Blue Heads",
Politiken, January 21, 2014.

No, this article was fine. It was on today's children being tucked away from life happening around them when given an iPad to keep them quiet.

All the while The Blue Boy by Thomas Gainsborough is meeting our gaze from the back wall as it is of the drawing. The link between cartoonist and beholder is instant. This is all about being challenged. The Blue Boy was apparently Gainsborough's answer to a rule laid down by his contemporary, Joshua Reynolds: Cold colors such as blue must be used sparingly and never at the center of attention.

Thomas Gainsborough, Portrait of Jonathan Buttall (The Blue Boy), 1770, 
Huntington Library and Art Gallery.
"It ought, in my opinion, to be indispensably observed", with which Reynolds underlined that he was of course not making rules as such. Only... the great masters of art had known that the "masses of light" in a picture should always be of a warm mellow color, such as yellow, red or a yellowish-white. Whereas the blue, the gray, or the green colors should be kept "almost entirely out of these masses", used only to support and set off the warmth and so a small portion of them would be sufficient:

"(…) make it reverse, let the light be cold (…) and it will be out of the power of art, even in the hands of Rubens or Titian, to make a painting splendid and harmonious".

Out of the power of art. Strong words, which it takes a bold artist to disprove. Which of course Gainsborough did on the spot. And which Per Marquard Otzen does in his honor today. This is after all about the disharmony of the seeming harmony of quiet children. Per makes the yellow and white look ominous, their eyes empty from the screen.

The blue, green and grey are the colors which are the closest we come to basic colors in the oeuvre of Per Marquard Otzen. One is a prime color - the blue - while the green and grey are blended ones.

Joshua Reynolds, Thomas and Martha Neate with His Tutor, Thomas Needham, 1748,
Metropolitan Museum of Art.
- the boy in blue is placed off centre and with a magnificent red drapery behind him,
a greater mass of color than his own.
A prime color has martial qualities, according to Reynolds, it is not seeking transition, it is everything in itself already, while blended colors are of a softer nature. And here we have to make a transgression back to around 1770 and take a look at the two competitors - Gainsborough was a master of soft, blurred tones which placed his portrayed in another world, whereas Reynolds dreamt of the grandeur of historical scenery, with clean, masterful lines. Which we instantly recognize in Per's drawings. We see the clarity of line and feel the certainty in the placing of each element.

In a drawing by Per Marquard Otzen the planes of cool toned colors highlight the black line making it come alive. Yellows, reds and purples are only used sparingly for immediate effect. Any more of them and they would have been overwhelmingly noisy. And so, yes the cool colors have a supportive role in Per's oeuvre, but when it comes to quantity, large planes are one of the very means to set off a drawing.

But then he would never lay down any rules. One one could say that Per's drawings are each time a discourse in the true meaning of the word, a statement put boldly in front of us to see if we take up the challenge. Which is of course not all that far from Reynolds himself, who constantly stressed the need to learn and take in and then go one's own way. Never imitate.

If anyone should be nervous of or eager to break more "rules", they are all to be found in Joshua Reynolds' Discourses on Art. Comments on the proper use of blue are in No. 8.

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