The online editorial and curatorial project for systems, non-objective and reductive artists working in the UK

Website: Chestnuts Design

New Paintings: Jonathan Parsons

New Art Projects
17 Riding House Street, London, W1W 7DS.

12 Nov to 22 Dec 2014

A review by Judith Duquemin

Colour wheels and colour terminology have provided painters and their contemporaries with a basic guide for classifying and mixing colours in order to create certain visual effects. The history of colour theory has drawn a wide range of comments from many disciplines across the ages. Early attempts to define primary colours relied on sensory experience until a scientific explanation was produced. The proposition that painters can mix all the colours - except three - can be traced to Aristotle’s (c.350. B.C.) Meteorologica. References to colour terms and principles appeared much later, in the writings of Leone Battista Alberti (c. 1435). Leonardo da Vinci (c. 1490) developed a special combination of six basic colours: white, yellow, green, blue, black and red, to paint Mona Lisa.

Isaac Newton (c. 1666) turned the tables, stating in his book, Theory of Colour, that all colour comes from light reflection and refraction. Objects appear to be certain colours because of the way they absorb and reflect different amounts and wavelengths of light. Newton used mathematical calculations to decide the position of colours on the colour wheel, resulting in the colour terms: primary, secondary, and tertiary colours, complementary colours, and analogous colour.  Inspired by Newton, Moses Harris (c. 1730), an English entomologist and engraver, created a colour wheel made up of the three primary colours, red, yellow and blue, to support ‘a painter’s art’, stating that primary colours were pure colours that could not be mixed.

“I’m sure that the Basic Colour Terms are to do with our ancient biological history and the naming of day and night, pigments of the earth, the sky and sea, foliage and being able to discriminate between various fruits and flowers. As a species, we are adept at interpreting a multitude of significations embedded in our environment and science has only amplified this. I wondered why our eyes have peak sensitivity to the ‘yellow’ part of the spectrum. Perhaps it is to do with the yellowish colour of sunlight; that it is an adaptation to survival through observation in diurnal conditions. It seems to me that it is possible to discern a huge number of different types of ‘green’. Perhaps this was an adaptive advantage for our ancestors; an ability to distinguish between all the varieties of plants and to recognise particular stages in their cycles of growth by sight alone. Also, it must have been an advantage to be able to make a distinction between the appearances of predator and prey animals and the variegated green background against which they would have often been perceived”.  (Jonathan Parsons, Basic Colour Terms. Thursday 10 June 2010. Notebook,

Jonathan Parsons. Break of Day. Enamel on birch ply. 90 x 136 x 2.5 cm. 2014

Jonathan Parsons. R, G, B. Enamel on birch ply, three panels. Dimensions each panel: 24 cm diameter. 2013

Jonathan Parsons. The First Five Colours. Enamel on birch ply. 200 x 40 x cm. 2014

There are two types of colour systems that differentiate between traditional and digital colour systems, both of which Parsons has chosen to investigate. These are known as subtractive and additive colour systems. Subtractive colour systems apply to material, pigment-based substances and are used by artists and industry. Additive colour systems are produced by computers; they begin with black and end with white. More colours emerge as light sources at different wavelengths are added. For example, the primaries of red, blue and green become secondary colours of cyan, magenta and yellow. Reversely, subtractive colour systems begin with white and end with black, as wavelengths in the electromagnetic spectrum are subtracted from colours that appear in pigments, paints, dyes, inks or natural substances. Mix the primary pigments of red, yellow and blue and the result is a version of black. The same principle can be applied to CMYK printing inks: the primaries of yellow, magenta and cyan produce secondary colours of red, green and blue that also combine to produce black. These systems highlight the scientific principle that the absorption of light by pigment-based substances behaves differently to the way light is perceived by the human eye.

CMYK. Enamel on birch ply. 144 x 36 x 2 cm. 2013   

The exhibition is made up of two types of shaped panel: ‘stacked discs’, and ‘two multiple rectangles’. For all his works, Parsons has used a technique of drip painting known as ‘controlled pouring’ to demonstrate that simple systems such as primary colour combinations, and time-based processes such as applying multiple layers of coloured drips of paint, can produce complex visual associations about colour. Drip Painting emerged as a form of 20th century abstract art, adopted by Jackson Pollock, Joan Mitchell, Larry Poons, Pat Steir and Dan Christensen. Enamel drip painting prompts the eye to follow the drip lines across a surface; its glossy consistency makes the paint look wet even though it is dry.

The shaped panels are not pictorial: they are not images or compositions; they are not contrived. Parsons describes them as a collection of concrete processes, in that outcomes occur simply by the way they happen. Here is an example of the way he works, in his own words:

CMYK:  “…comprises the four-colour sequence of subtractive colour terms in the order in which they are applied in commercial printing. The panels are painted to show the unfolding of the sequence, with colours further down being polluted by bits of the colours that precede them. If you’ve got Yellow, you’ve also got Magenta and Cyan. In this painting, Black is therefore covered over with traces of all the other colours. This colour pollution comprises of dripped and flowed paint that index five characteristics: the vertical flat surface of the panel; the paint’s liquid nature; its phase transition from liquid to solid; the colour sequence; the manner of paint application”. (Jonathan Parsons. Artist statement: New Paintings. 2014)

The same technique has been applied to some of the other circular works. But in some instances the shapes are intentionally rotated, or have been over-painted with a fine brush and a different colour, meddling with the colour grouping to produce subtle changes.

Jonathan Parsons. R + G = Y. Enamel on birch ply. 200 x 100 x 3 cm. 2013

“The rectangular works, entitled Break of Day and Interference, contain grooves that divide into sub-panels that reference layouts of light emitting display test patterns. The dripped paint changes colour as it moves across the grooves that separate each rectangular panel.”

(Jonathan Parsons)

Parsons, born in 1970 in Redhill, England, and now represented by the Artists’ Agency, UK, attended the University of London Goldsmiths College, and came to prominence in 1997 when his dissected map sculpture Carcass (1994) was selected for inclusion in the notorious Sensation exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, which toured to Berlin and New York.

His work was selected for the British Art Show 5 in 2000. His permanently installed architectural map sculpture Let Me Count the Ways was commissioned in 2008 by the UK Government Art Collection for the new British Embassy in Dohar, Qatar. His latest commissions include: For John Constable, a landscape installation for Salisbury Arts Centre in 2011, and Cruciform Vision, a painting for Guildford Cathedral (2011). His latest solo exhibition, Zed’s Dead, took place at the The Arch Gallery, London in 2012. Recent group exhibitions include: Mind the Map (London Transport Museum), Meanwhile (John Hansard Gallery), The Art of Mapping (TAG Fine Arts, London),  A Dialogue on Landscape & Constable (Abigail Reynolds and Jonathan Parsons, Salisbury Arts Centre), Waldweben (Kasteel Schuurlo, Belgium), and the Jerwood Sculpture Prize (Jerwood Space, London). His work is represented in public collections in the UK and private collections around the world. (New Art Projects. Room Sheet.  London. 2014.)

Jonathan Parsons. Installation View. Study for ‘So-Called’. Enamel on birch ply. 108 x 36 x 2.5 cm. 2013 (left). Interference. Enamel on birch ply. 90.5 x 135 x 2.5 cm. 2014

©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock  All rights reserved.

The 2010 notebook entry on Jonathan Parsons’ website provides a suitable introduction to his 2014 solo exhibition of ‘drip paintings’, in enamel on birch ply, at New Art Projects, London. Developed over two years, they demonstrate an attempt to address “the linguistic evolution of colour terms” and what he describes as “the conceptual straitjacket of the painter’s colour wheel”. But Parsons questions the validity of these terms, particularly in regard to the interpretation of digital colour systems. In particular, he challenges the definitions of primary colour, or primaries, which he claims do not reflect visual reality, and are “the product of ‘abstract philosophical ideals, cultural conventions, and the happenstance of biology”. In a statement supporting the exhibition, he writes:

“Any model reliant on three primary sources can only produce a limited gamut of colours that will always fall short of what the human eye can perceive”. (Jonathan Parsons. Artist statement: New Paintings 2014)

We all perceive three primary colours: red, blue and green, via cone cells located in the retina (Hermann von Helmholtz c.1850). Parsons’ argument relies on the fact that additional mental functions are at work, unless our biology has adapted to the advancing technological world. To believe this would be contradictory; instead, Parsons suggests that we make personal associations with certain colours as a matter of individual interpretation, despite the limitations of our colour receptors.

Other contributions came from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (c.1749), Michel Eugène Chevreul (c.1786), and Johannes Itten (c.1904). Goethe was the first to systematically study the physiological effects of colour, influencing the philosophers Arthur Schopenhauer and Ludwig Wittgenstein, and the English artist,  JMW Turner.  Chevreul, a French industrial chemist working with coloured yarn dyes,  devised the concepts ‘simultaneous contrast’, ‘Chevreul’s illusion’ and ‘chiaroscuro’, whereby the perception of colours were influenced by the proximity, light intensity and contrast of the surrounding colours. All of this had a great influence on later art movements in Europe. Johannes Itten (c.1904) developed a three-dimensional colour sphere based on 12 colours, developed at the Bauhaus in 1920. Now, in the 21st century, a computer can produce over 16 million different colour combinations of red, blue and green.