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Colour and light

Colour, in all its sensuous, psychological and spiritual dimensions, was central to the art of the Sydney moderns. As Roland Wakelin put it in 1919, ‘a painter in the modern sense’ is one whose ‘chief medium of expression is colour’.

Much artistic experimentation with colour, light and form took place in the studio of Antonio Dattilo-Rubbo, which drew students including Grace Cossington Smith, Roland Wakelin, Tempe Manning and Roy de Maistre. Dattilo-Rubbo encouraged the use of colour as a constructive element in painting. Under his tutelage between 1914 and 1920, young artists studied the methods of Van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin, Vuillard and Seurat to create compositions that remained naturalistic, but in which form was simplified, space flattened and colour intensified. Colour experimentation created an important connection with international developments in modern art theory and practice, and reinforced the self-consciously cosmopolitan, rather than national, concerns of the Sydney moderns.

Questions and activities

  • Modernist artists were interested in colour theory and how colours could be mixed and blended to create different visual effects and to make us feel different emotions. Find out more about colour wheels and practice mixing different colours on strips of paper. Place the different coloured strips together in varying combinations and discuss what colours look best together and what emotions they could convey.
  • Compare and contrast modernist approaches by artists in Europe with those in Sydney. What did Sydney artists learn from their counterparts while still maintaining unique qualities grounded in Australia?
  • Analyse the use of colour in artworks by Grace Cossington Smith, Roland Wakelin, Tempe Manning and Roy de Maistre. Experiment by creating different colour palettes for these works. How has each artist’s use of colour affected the way we perceive the work? Discuss the importance of colour and its role in adding another level of meaning to the work.