Colour Conversations

with Dr Richard Davey, 2008

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Richard Davey: The recurring image of brightly coloured cubes exploding out a central void provides a striking leitmotif to your work; what inspired it?

Rebecca Partridge: When I was very young I had synaesthetic dreams. I dreamt of white spaces in which there were these simple, bright geometric forms moving round a centre point that dissolved into a dark chaos. I would then wake up as if I’d had a nightmare. Apparently it’s very common in synaethetics to have this alphabet of forms and patterns, vortexes and spirals, particularly in early childhood. I find them everywhere now.

RD: So you see these geometric forms as a recurring visual vocabulary?

RP: Yes. When I make a painting I think of it as learning a language. First I was learning the letters, and then I made words and sentences, now I’m making paragraphs. When I’m in my old age I hope to be making beautiful books.

RD: How does this visual language work grammatically? What are the letters and words that make up these sentences?

RP: The colours and forms in my paintings are all in relationship with each other, and are transformed by this relationship. I would see the letters as being the very basic relationships between two forms or colours; then the interplay between these ‘letters’ becomes the words.

RD: You describe your childhood dreams as ‘synaesthetic’; do you still experience the world in this multi-coloured way?

RP: For me letters, numbers, and days of the week are coloured. It’s Wednesday so I will have a beige colour in the back of my mind. Friday is black, but not in a depressing way. I also see sounds as having colour – dark blue has a low tone. But unlike Kandinsky, I don’t associate particular forms with particular colours, or with specific emotions. The relationship is just a matter of fact, but also different for other synaesthestics.

RD: At the heart of your paintings are moments of stillness; areas of darkness or light from which shards of colour are born, expanding towards the viewer in a burst of intense creative energy.

RP: For me, expansiveness is a fundamental, positive state in the world. I want my paintings to resonate with this. I want them to express something as fundamental as you can get. My work is dealing with notions of universality; with the interconnectedness of things, with the relationship between micro and macro, and how this relates to inner visual experience. I’m interested in what neurological research brings to the field of aesthetics, and how this might allow us to revisit some of the problems that have emerged in art history and critical theory around colour and abstraction.

I’m also very interested in the idea of a neurological-aesthetic continuum, which in my mind would move from the romantic space of the sublime at one end of experience, to vortex orientated geometry at the other end. I see my own work occupying the space in the middle.

RD: Could you explain what you mean by that?

RP: Imagine you’ve got a dial in front of you. At one end of it are artists such as Mark Rothko, James Turrell, or German romantic painters such as Freidrich, whose works, in dealing with and evoking huge, vast spaces inspire a sense of awe and fear that is thought of as ‘sublime’. This is the macro. In contrast, at the other end of the dial are small images such Indian mandalas that are concerned with ordered, precise geometry. These are the micro. Yet both micro and macro are dealing with the same thing. Both are dealing with expansiveness, which could be an internal sense of expansion or physically in the world.

RD: How does colour relate to these ideas of micro – macro, and universality?

RP: As I’m attempting to express something fundamental expanding from a source, it makes sense that the colour fragments from the primaries – that it illustrates a division of light; a moment of creative energy. When you get the colour relationships right it creates a real energy, a real visceral buzz, as they hit each other and react against each other. But I have to be careful, because I don’t want to make optical paintings. I need to get the balance right between optical experience and a more painterly tactile feeling. If I were to really push the colour towards kinetic relationships the tendency for the viewer is to think that is the sole objective. I love Bridget Riley’s paintings but cool science is not what I am concerned with.

RD: The colour in the dark paintings works differently to the white ones, can you say something about this?

RP: In the white paintings, when I ‘overlay’ one colour over another it becomes darker, as in the subtractive colour wheel, where theoretically mixing the three primaries creates black. In the dark paintings I wanted to flip things, to create a kind of duality between the works. Here, when colours overlay they get lighter, as it would if I were mixing beams of coloured light. In additive colour mixing the theory is that mixing the three primaries (which in the case of light are red, green and blue) creates white.

RD: It’s interesting that you think of these paintings as being like sentences, because that implies a linear progression, a sense of narrative, whereas to me they are far more physical and emotional; explosions of pure joy and wonder, yet with glimpses of darkness that lead us into the territory of the sublime.

RP: These are not only paintings about colour, expansiveness, synaesthesia, or universality; they are also about the body. I suppose I’m unfashionable nowadays because I like the idea of tactile energy being contained in the act of physical creation. When you paint it feels like you’re making a living thing. That may seem like an exaggeration, but that’s what it feels like.

RD: The physical act of painting is therefore really important to you?

RP: For me this is a long term project. I want to make articulate, beautiful complex paintings. But at the same time I don’t want the edges to be too neat and the finish to be too slick; I need to strike a balance so that the human, bodily act of painting is also visible. For me the way you physically make a painting is bound up with the attitude of the work. I want it to be clear that these paintings are loved as they are made. Painting allows me to bring together many different thoughts and ideas, and remains for me the best way of exploring colour.

RD: And in painting colour you’re giving form and physicality to light.

RP: Everything I do is centred on picturing something which whilst not externally visible and physically present, is as real for me as a tree.