Transformations of Colour

Transformations of Colour

A text about the evolution of my thoughts about colour.
It was originally published in a french translation in “La Poétique de la Couleur”, Auditorium du Louvre/Institut de l´Image, Paris 1995.

Joost Rekveld, Rotterdam, 21-8-1995


My interest in colour began with watching films. The first time I remember seeing colours was when I for the first time saw films by Paul Sharits and James Whitney. It was shocking. After that I have seen many colours around me and many other films which derived much of their perceptual force from colour. The films of Oskar Fischinger, James and John Whitney, Jordan Belson and Paul Sharits made me want to make films myself. Colour and time have become the two main themes in my work.
However excited I was by these historic films and however great my admiration for them still is, in a practical sense my films have had other more direct sources of inspiration. In this text I will try to explain what they were in respect to colour and how my use of colour has developed until now.


The most amazing colour phenomenon I know is the daily cycle of night, sunrise, day, sunset, night. Frans Evers, a dutch expert on synesthesia, once gave me a text by Marius Schneider which deals with this cycle. Schneider was an etno-musicologist who did research on ritual music and the world views connected with it. In this text he explains how magic symbols come into being as analogies of sounds and how according to him this kind of analogies work in a ritual mode of thought. In any process of creation Schneider distinguishes three phases or ´realms´, which he connects with states of mind and times of day. The first is characterized by sound, darkness, unconsciousness, deep sleep; the second by rhythm (in either sound or light), twilight, dreamlike semi-consciousness; and the third by light, consciousness and rationality. “Since the very tenuous matter of the intermediate realm is all still vibrating from rhythm, any action in it is half concrete and half musical. … Inevitably, as the penumbra gives way to the light of day, optical sensations gradually become preponderant. Intellect and concrete action prevail and acoustic rhythm withdraws, stifled by the image and by conceptual thought. ”
Although through the years my understanding of this text has reached almost zero, the idea of an essential analogy between times of day and states of mind struck me at the time as especially significant. This idea became the main principle in my thoughts about colour.
Film #2, one of my first films, was an attempt to visualize an evolution heavily inspired by the kind of evolution Schneider describes. The film was made on super-8, using a contact-printer to make complicated textures by copying layer upon layer using different colour filters. #2 consists of three parts: a first part with images derived from filmed fragments of nature scenes, a second ´night´-part with abstract imagery and flicker and a third part which is an almost unmodified time-lapse recording of the sky during sunrise. In the first part I tried in a very intuitive manner to invoke one cycle from morning to evening by using colours that evolve from ´deep sleep´ to ´wakefulness´ and again to ´deep sleep´.

artificial light

After completing #2 I became interested in a more conscious approach to structure time, colour and form in my films, for which I started to study musical composition. With regard to colour I felt it was necessary to use only a restricted set of basic colours, rather than using many adjacent colours to modulate from one colour to the next. I condensed the colours I used in #2 into a sequence of five ´primary´ colours: from deep blue-violet, via deep green, red and bright blue to yellow. The order of this sequence I thought of as being fixed, since it runs from ´night´ colours to ´day´ colours and for me represented a fundamental kind of transformation.
This ´primary´ colour sequence became the structural backbone of film #3. The images for it I made by using a simple mechanical system, driven by a motor. At slow speeds and at high speeds this system moved in a predictable way, in the intermediary range its movements were chaotic (in the sense of recent physics). I filmed the movements of a light connected to this system, with exposure-times from one-fifth to fifteen seconds for each frame. I used very saturated filters for the colours. I shot the film according to a detailed score governing the amount of layers, the colours in use, motor speed, focus and camera position.
The film evolves from blue-violet, minimum speed, out-of-focus and close-up to yellow, maximum speed, sharp focus and total. The film is divided into thirteen sections with each a particular constellation of parameters. These constellations I tried to arrange in such a way as to avoid trivially linear developments while slowly moving the emphasis from one phase to the next. Like in my basic colour-sequence there is for all parameters a progression through a small number of distinct situations.
In later films and experiments I used my five personal primaries in a much more free and improvised way as a standard palette, slowly abandoning the idea of a temporal order inherent to it. In my three-projector film #5 the colour-relations and their development on each of the screens are exactly the same, but the colours are permutated, every separate film beginning and ending on a different colour from my palette. Also for this film I changed the blue-violet to a more purple colour, in order to have a more balanced set of colours.

colour space

When I realized that my own highly personal palette was in fact a rather traditional equal subdivision of the colour-circle, I started to look for a way to use this as a structural principle for a film with many colours. For it I wanted to use paint on clear film as a negative, thus inverting all the colours while making a positive print. This method is a cheap way to make a long film and furthermore allows a great deal of control over colour, achieved by mixing paint. Also I was attracted by the interplay between additive and substractive primaries this method implies, because using painted film as a negative as it were converts paint into light and one primary triad into the other.
This interplay I found represented very elegantly in the colour space invented by Harald Küppers, a german colour scientist. Like other three-dimensional colour models by Runge or Munsell the central vertical axis runs from black to white, but in the model of Küppers the additive and the substractive primary triads are given separate levels (see diagram 1). This model visualizes very clearly the fact that white light minus two substractive primaries yields an additive primary and that darkness plus two additive primaries yields a substractive primary. Also it is symmetrical, which is very practical for my purpose because all colour-relationships stay the same when the colours are inverted.

diagram 1:
the colour-space of Küppers, with four levels for black, the additive primaries, the substractive primaries and white respectively.


This colour space of Harald Küppers was the starting point for the changing palettes of #7, my most recent film. The film evolves from very dark, desaturated colours (almost transparent paint on the negative), to the additive primaries (substractive primaries on the negative), to the substractive primaries (additive primaries on the negative) and ends with white light (black paint on the negative). In terms of Küppers space this means that the colours I use start at the bottom of the model and move gradually upwards across the surface to the top. I divided the film in 28 sections in total and every section is assigned a position along the central axis from black to white. The palette for every section then is a equal subdivision of the circumference at this heigth in the colour space. I used divisions into three, five, seven and eleven to avoid symmetry, and to make sure that all colours but one are significantly different in consecutive palettes (see diagrams 2 – 4).
Interesting for me about this way of structuring colour is that although it started as an expansion of the idea of an equal subdivision of the colour circle, in the end it actually more clearly preserves the idea of a progression in colour brightness which was at the basis of my thoughts about colour.

diagram 2, 3 and 4:
three palettes from #7, with divisions by 5, 11 and 7 on consecutive heights in the colour-space of Küppers.


colour interferences

From this account a development of my ideas emerges from colours as representations of states of mind to colours as points in a space, seemingly a development away from reality into the abstract worlds of mathematics. For me the opposite is true. Mathematics is a tool that is unavoidable if you want to make things with a certain complexity; I imagine geometry started when people wanted to know how to build houses that did not fall apart. I construct systems in order to get a specific sensual result. Although my original, vague and intuitive inspirations to think about colour are for me personally still valid, I think they are of little use to think of which colour to use at which moment in a film. Also I more and more regard colours simply as colours, as phenomena which are in themselves already so interesting and powerful, that there is no need whatsoever to justify or base their use on something which lies outside colour itself.
At the moment I am preparing and experimenting for a new film in which I will create my images using interferences of three independent movements: film transport, shutter movement and the movement of a rotating line. I will combine several layers of this type of image to create complex moiré-patterns. Since the this film will mostly consist of very fine moving textures, many effects of optical mixing will occur. Through studying these I have become interested in other types of interaction between colours, such as simultaneous and succesive contrast. I want to find a space or other kind of approach to structure these relations that are inherent to colour vision.


Marius Schneider, ‘The Birth of the Symbol in Music’,
translated fragment from Il significato della musica, Rusconi, Milano 1979

Harald Küppers, Das Grundgesetz der Farbenlehre,
Dumont, Koelln 1978

Ellen Marx, Couleur Optique,
Dessain et Tolra, Paris 1983

copyright 1995, Joost Rekveld.