Recreating the Colour Palette of Winifred Nicholson

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Winifred Nicholson was a relentless investigator of colour, a painter of flowers, figures and landscapes, and an experimental abstract artist. Her work inspired many, including her husband of ten years, Ben Nicholson, his father William Nicholson, Paul Nash, Ivon Hitchens and Christopher Wood. In exploring the colour relationships seen in three notable works from her career, Cyclamen and Primula (1923), Flowers On A Windowsill (1945-6), and Easter Monday (1950), we’re able to see in action her vehement belief in the light giving properties of Violet and Magenta, and her ability to let pure yellows sing against dusty hues of Umbers and Violet Greys.


 

Winifred Nicholson
© Trustees of Winifred Nicholson

 

Winifred Nicholson was born in Oxford in 1893, the first child of Charles Henry Roberts, a Liberal Party politician who was once Under-Secretary of State for India, and Lady Cecilia Maude Roberts, daughter of the politician George Howard, 9th Earl of Carlisle, and the activist Rosalind Howard. Winifred grew up in an artistic and liberal-minded household, with both of her parents being keen painters, although her mother prioritised parenthood over painting as soon as she had Winifred (born Rosa Winifred Roberts). Her sister Christina Henrietta followed in 1895, and in 1900 her brother Wilfrid Hubert Wace was born.

Her grandfather George Howard was a friend of the artists of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and collected and commissioned a number of their works. Howard himself was a keen painter, taking ‘….pleasure in painting the things he saw around him’ (as written by A Present Day Painter in an introduction to an exhibition of George Howard’s works, displayed in 1954; the present day painter is widely thought to be Winifred Nicholson). This pleasure in painting ordinary things clearly influenced the young Winifred during the painting lessons she was given by her grandfather, as the majority of Winifred Nicholson’s paintings throughout her life depict flowers, family members, and local scenes.

 

 

However, within Winifred’s gentle compositions are deeply contemplative musings on colour, shape and texture. She was a master of the limited palette, which allowed her to unleash the power of certain colours, and give breathing space to more muted hues. Not only this but she scrutinised shape; distilling and simplifying the triangles and curves that make up a pot of flowers wrapped in tissue paper, to a point where the ordinary becomes poetic, revealing pictorial truths that sing songs of awe and emotion.

Indeed, when looking back to her time studying under Byam Shaw in 1911, who questioned the rainbow-like spectrum of colours she used to paint a shell, she wrote, ‘I was seeing colours in the iridescence that he did not see – and I have been seeing them ever since, or attempting to because colours hide, they will only show themselves under the right conditions, and only to certain eyes at certain times.’

Cyclamen and Primula was painted around 1922-23 while living in the Italian Swiss Alps. Winifred married the artist Ben Nicholson in 1920, and having honeymooned in Italy, they then spent the first three winters of their married life there. Winifred painted Cyclamen and Primula shortly before their return to the UK, to settle in Cumberland.

 

Munghetti, c.1921-2
Winifred Nicholson
Oil and pencil on board
53.3 x 56.5 cm | 21 x 22¼ in
© Trustees of Winifred Nicholson
Often thought of as being a breakthrough painting for Winifred Nicholson during this experimental period of her painting career.

 

The couple both thought of the first three years of their marriage as being an incredibly experimental and fruitful time for their painting. In 1973, Winifred wrote of the series of paintings that included Cyclamen and Primula; ‘Ben had given me a pot of lilies of the valley – mughetti – in a tissue paper wrapper – this I stood on the window sill – behind was the azure blue, Mountain, Lake, Sky, all there – and the tissue paper wrapper held the secret of the universe. That picture painted itself, and after that, the same theme painted itself on that window sill, in cyclamen, primula or cineraria – sunlight on leaves, and sunlight shining transparent through a lens and through the mystery of tissue paper … I have often wished for another painting spell like that, but never had one.’

 

Cyclamen and Primula, c.1923
Oil on board, 50 x 55 cm | 20 x 22 in.
Kettle’s Yard, © Trustees of Winifred Nicholson

 

The painting’s majestic composition of strong triangles, in particular of the tissue paper wrapping the plants and the mountains behind, is juxtaposed with an incredibly muted pastel palette across most of the painting, with heavy reliance on white. The blues and greys of the skies, mountains and tissue paper are incredibly close-toned, with just enough distinction between the shapes. Without explicit documentation of the exact colours Winifred Nicholson used to paint Cyclamen and Primula, I have compiled an approximation of the colours I see in the painting:

Cobalt Blue, Indigo, French Ultramarine, Alizarin Crimson, Primrose Yellow, Cobalt Green, Oxide Of Chromium, Raw Umber, Ivory Black, Titanium White.

 

Experimenting with not only colour mixes but the thickness of the application of paint to replicate observations made of the painting Cyclamen and Primula.

 

The clever use of colour in Cyclamen and Primula lies in how the yellows in the leaves of the Primula, and the pale blues in the tissue paper on the left, sing out. Nicholson does this with a deliberate placement of tonal contrast, transparency against opacity, and warm against cool.

 

Top row: Pure Indigo followed by Indigo and White mixes, and French Ultramarine and White mixes.
Second row: Raw Umber and White mixes, then with Indigo also added.
Middle two rows: Explorations of yellows greens and pinks seen in the painting, using Primrose Yellow, French Ultramarine, Cobalt Green, Alizarin Crimson and Titanium White.
Bottom two rows: Examples of soft greys and putty hues made with Titanium White, Raw Umber, Oxide Of Chromium and French Ultramarine.

 

The first balancing act to note is with the use of yellow in the Primula, and Magenta in the Cyclamen. Winifred Nicholson often talked of the power of violets and magentas to both provide a sense of light and allow yellows (in particular) to come to life. In her 1944 essay Liberation Of Colour, Winifred Nicholson wrote:

Yesterday I set out to pick a yellow bunch to place as a lamp on my table in dull, rainy weather. I picked Iceland poppies, marigolds, and yellow iris; my bunch would not tell yellow. I added sunflowers, canary pansies, buttercups, and dandelions; no yellower. I added to my butter-like mass, two everlasting peas, magenta pink, and all my yellows broke into luminosity. Orange and gold and lemon and primrose each singing its note.

 

 

This phenomenon is thanks to the power of complementary colours, and how yellow and violet resonate against one another. When this resonance appears too harsh, using Magenta instead of Violet can allow your yellows to still hold their power in a gentler palette of neighbouring colours.

The purity of the Naples yellow (or Primrose Yellow) mixed only with Titanium White is placed against more opaque, complex green-greys, made by mixing an opaque green such as Oxide Of Chromium with Raw Umber and White. The multiple pigments and the opacity of the green and white pigments used, block light, making these particular greens appear more muted and earthy against the translucent, light-filled yellow.

 

 

A similar approach is employed with blues and pinks on the Cyclamen on the left. The sumptuous, clear light blue of the tissue paper, a two-pigment mix of French Ultramarine and White, appears pure and uncomplicated against a darker, more brooding burgundy colour mixed with a combination of Alizarin Crimson, French Ultramarine and White. The use of a pure Magenta colour for the lighter petals of the Cyclamen pays tribute to Winifred’s view of the colour being the most ‘light giving (colour) after white.’

 

Detail of Cyclamen and Primula

 

In stage terms, you might consider the Blue and Yellow as the main protagonists, with strong supporting roles from the greens and pinks. Holding everything together are the gentle warm Raw Umber and White mixes found on the pots and tissue paper closest to us – perhaps the warmth of which is reflected from indoor heat or light, and the cool blue greys outside in the skies and mountains. And essential to the sense of light in this painting is of course the strip of intense dark seen across the composition, perhaps the edge of the window. This acts as an anchor, a necessary contrast to hold the whole painting together and guarantee its visual impact.

 

 

In terms of colour, there is a very clear and considered use of warm and cool hues in this painting, creating a sense of balance, strength and space – perhaps a reflection of the strength of this creatively fertile and joyful time in the artist’s life.

On life with Ben, Winifred once wrote:

‘All artists are unique and can only unite as complementaries, not as similarities… When Ben and I were happy each of us was unique, each different, and each giving creatively to the other one; not the same things, but the things one was glad and happy to receive.’

One senses a similar relationship between the Cyclamen and Primula in the painting.

 

A study looking at the colours and brushmarks of Winifred Nicholson’s 1945-6 painting Flowers On A Windowsill

 

Winifred Nicholson painted Flowers On A Windowsill twelve years after Cyclamen and Primula. In the interim, her marriage to Ben Nicholson had disintegrated, with Ben moving out of the family home to live with the sculptor Barbara Hepworth. Despite the end of the marriage, Ben and Winifred continued their dialogue about painting through letters and conversations for the rest of their lives. In the years following the end of the marriage, Winifred moved several times, to the Isle of Wight, Cornwall, and Paris, where she became a firm friend of the abstract painter Piet Mondrian. Under the name Winifred Dacre she also began to exhibit abstract works with the Seven And Five Society, which also included Ben Nicholson, Ivon Hitchens, Barbara Hepworth, John Piper and Henry Moore, among others. At this particular stage of Winifred’s life, she was living with her parents at Boothby, Cumberland.

 

Palette inspired by Flowers on a Windowsill
Top three rows: Blues and Blue-Greys mixes using Titanium White, Cobalt Blue, Indigo and Ivory Black.
Fourth row: Reds and Pinks made with Cadmium Red, Manganese Violet and Titanium White.
Fifth row: Primrose Yellow, Yellow Ochre mixes, with a couple of green swatches made with Primrose Yellow and Cobalt Blue Hue.
Bottom row: Putty and Pastel Grey mixes made with Raw Umber, Titanium White, Indigo and Yellow Ochre.

 

When comparing Cyclamen and Primula with Flowers On A Windowsill, it’s easy to see a wilder brushstroke in the sky, and a looser composition, as you might expect from a more experienced painter. However, the same simplification of forms and careful placement of colour characteristic of Winifred Nicholson’s work is clearly evident.

Colours: Cadmium Red, Cobalt Blue Hue, Primrose Yellow, Titanium White, Manganese Violet, Yellow Ochre, Raw Umber, Indigo

 

 

In this painting, the gritty blue greys of the sky, vase and foreground resonate with the orangey red of the Cadmium Red used for the poppies, and it is a stark contrast of colour that allows the red to burst forth. In the sky, Winifred has painted a wide variety of shades of mid to light blue-grey, using Indigo for the murkier shades at the top of the painting, and Cobalt Blue with white and a touch of Ivory Black to reduce the saturation in the water. I suspect these blue greys may also have been rubbed thinly onto the whole substrate as a ground before painting the picture, as it appears to influence the thinner passages of yellow in the sand behind the flowers. This bright yellow would have been made with Cadmium yellow mixed with a touch of Yellow Ochre. Although it appears almost luminous in its brightness, it still maintains harmony within the context of the picture, and this is why the yellow needs to be harnessed with the earthy qualities of Yellow Ochre.

 

My palette after making studies of Flowers On A Windowsill

 

The Blue in the flowers is very similar to the Blue in the sea, a Cobalt Blue and White mix, placed simply, a single stroke of the brush for each petal, which adds to the dancing movement of the painting, both in the flowers and the breeze outside. Violet is mixed with a touch of Cadmium Red to decorate the vase, and the side of the window frame is a warmed grey to the hues in the background, mixed with Raw Umber and a touch of Ivory Black and lots of White. This warm grey helps to bridge the gap between the Yellow and the Blues.

 

 

Flowers On A Window Sill, c. 1945-6
Winifred Nicholson
Oil on board, 49.5 x 46.5 cm | 19.5 x 18.3 in.
Government Art Collection, © Trustees of Winifred Nicholson

 

In the year before painting Flowers On A Windowsill, Winifred Nicholson was commissioned to write her seminal essay Liberation Of Colour for the World Review. In it, she argued for the importance of colour in allowing the post-war world to appreciate the natural world with a renewed vision:

I have built for you the scaffolding of the artist’s science, upon which the new colour art is being built everywhere, even in the fiery crucible of war, because colour is as much a need for man as freedom.

 

Easter Monday, c.1950
Winifred NIcholson
Oil on panel, 68.5 c 68.5 cm | 27 x 27 in.
Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery, © Trustees of Winifred Nicholson

 

Easter Monday depicts an arrangement of daffodils on a cool breezy morning, and perhaps is the most gentle and radiant painting of the three. There is a clearly defined change of temperature between the inside and outside. Inside is positively glowing, the light source seeming to be the daffodils themselves. Surrounding this bright shimmering glow is the frame of the window, with the cool violet hues of the view outside framing the flowers, and allowing the artist to place her bright yellows immediately beside their muted pastel complementary, adding to the yellow intensity.

 

Exploring colour mixes inspired by Winifred Nicholson’s Easter Monday.

 

Supporting the flowers is an array of very soft beige hues, created by mixing Yellow Ochre, Raw Umber and White, creating a gentle, warm, comforting earthy hue that is the foundation of the painting. The stems of the flowers are mixed with Raw Umber and a touch of Yellow Ochre, with one particular stem pointing up to the brassy curtain rings, that add another accent of saturated colour (the curtains, incidentally, are adorned with a pattern designed by Ben Nicholson).

The cool Indigo-White mix that is used to render the vase to the right of the flowers and the Cobalt Blue and White pattern of the jug that holds the flowers help to unify the painting and allow for some of the cool hues of the outside, to come into the room. There’s an exquisite array of soft mixes in the view outside; combinations of Indigo, Violet, White and Cobalt Blue, mixed meticulously to achieve a narrow tonal range while still being sufficiently structured. Of the painting, Mary Sorrell wrote in 1954:

As one looks, the surface begins to shimmer, and the enchanted vision the artist has laid over her canvas whispers its melody to the eyes and ears of the silent eavesdropper. All Winifred Nicholson’s paintings possess this whispering quality that wafts imagination over realism, and impregnates the air with daydreams. But these dreams are not illusions, nor, in fact, do they incantate some magic formula, unless it be the iridescent glow that is to be found in almost every painting, and which projects its soft rays around and into the heart of the work. This seeking for light, such as the inner light that shines through darkness (as opposed to the dazzling effects of eternal light sought by the Impressionists), is the source of inspiration that most reveals itself in her pictures.’

 

Further Insight

In researching for this article, I contacted Jovan Nicholson, an independent curator and grandson of Winifred Nicholson, to ask if he had any information regarding the colours that his grandmother worked with. Jovan very kindly shared the contents of a shopping list that his grandmother had written in 1980 (the year before she died), requesting the following colours:

‘I want the makers that I list – the colours are different in the different makers’.

Rembrandt:
Sevres green
Sevres blue
Monestial blue
Geranium lake
Scarlet lake
Crimson lake
Turquoise blue
Cobalt (written in another hand)
Mais yellow

Winsor and Newton:
Zink white
Magenta
Vermillion
Cobalt violet, 3 shades’

She writes ‘I especially want the turquoise blue, cobalt pale’.

In the final five years of her life, Winifred Nicholson worked on a series that is known as The Prismatic Paintings. In 1975 she met the physicist Glen Schaefer who gave her a prism that enabled her to see a spectrum of rainbow colours on the edges of every object that she glanced through the prism. This new way of looking at the world poured into her work, which became even more light-filled and tinged with the whole spectrum of rainbow colour at the edges of shapes within many of her compositions. In a letter to Glen Schaefer in 1976, Winifred wrote, ‘Thank you also for your help and advice. Light is obviously the source of form and substance (metaphysical light and its terrestrial expression – or reflection I should say), so why have all artists concentrated their eyesight on form and shape., and taken light and colour light as the second thought, to be applied when the form has been materialised? Why? So why not do the opposite now?’ The rainbow colours widened the palettes that she worked with for each painting, yet she was able to continue to support these bright hues with harmonious muted mixes that allowed the paintings to hold their allure and sense of mysticism.

 

Geometric Curtain, c.1980
Winifred Nicholson
Oil on canvas
61 x 61 cm | 24 x 24 in
Photo credit: Castlegate House Gallery
© Trustees of Winifred Nicholson

 

In working with this tropical palette of teals, bright greens and firey reds and yellows, I could appreciate the sheer excitement that could be gleaned from the experience of painting. The Cobalt Blue and Cobalt Violet alongside Cadmium Yellow Deep, in particular, offer starkly opposing colours, not only in their hue but in their transparency. Within these paintings, Winifred Nicholson was not only able to scrutinise the colours she could see at the edge of forms, but she could use them to interpret the drama she saw within her observations. Within these late paintings, she wallowed in the alchemy of putting intensely hot hues against icy cool ones, translucency against opacity, with hard lines traversing over soft blended areas of transitional colour.

 

 

Exploring the mixes of colours found on Winifred Nicholson’s art material shopping list in the 1980s. The study is based on a detail from the painting Prismatic Five

 

It is impossible to fully articulate the power of Winifred Nicholson’s works and why they continue to be as beguiling as they were the day they were painted. They celebrate colour and portray the artist’s never-ending exploration into how to make colours sing, and how to create visual symphonies, both fortissimo and pianissimo. The application of paint is always scintillating, passages scraped on against generous juicy brushstrokes, and an understanding of how light passes through the clearest of transparent mixes yet stops dead at muddier opaque hues. A sense of balance permeates through much of Winifred Nicholson’s work, and it’s this successful walking of a tightrope between complementary colours, between light and dark, transparent and opaque, that unleashes the poetry and mastery of her work.

 

 


 

Further Reading

Colour Mixing: Warm Colour Palettes for Painting in Autumn

Recreating the Colour Palette of Georgia O’Keeffe

What is Dark Yellowing?

The Story of Manganese Violet

 

Shop Oil Painting on jacksonsart.com

 


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