“Blue of the bugloss, and self-sown cornflower;Derek Jarman, Chroma: A Book of Colour – June 1993 (1993)
Blue of the sage and winter hyacinth;
Pink and white roses blooming in June;
And the scarlet rosehips, fiery in winter;
The bitter sloes to make sweet gin.
Brambles in the autumn,
And gorse in spring.”
This is a piece of writing reflecting on a book that’s given me a truly incredible experience, the kind of fresh experience I haven’t had for quite a while. I use the word ‘given’, as in itself this book is an all-consuming work of art, that has been described as a generous gift, a letter of love, for anyone to receive. Colour is the language of emotion, after all.
Written in the year I was born, 1993, Chroma is Derek Jarman’s final work before succumbing to the AIDS virus. Written while fighting the horrible disease, hovering between life and death, and while living in his cottage and famous garden at Dungeness, Chroma reads as part poetry, part love letter, part autobiography, and part art history. The freedom, poetry and urgency of the text and the richness of the conjured images is stunning, it made me want to live (LIVE) again and probably single-handedly snapped me out of the lockdown limbo I’d been festering in for the early months of this year.
I came to Chroma via another book, Bluets by Maggie Nelson, which I read at a friend’s house while cat-sitting in London last summer. It details the author’s obsession with the colour blue, heavily influenced by Chroma and to Jarman’s celebrated film, Blue (1993). Still, Bluets retains its own style and perspective. And when I came to Chroma, I found Jarman writes: ‘One book opens another.’ How true!
According to Jarman, white, like a snowdrop, is the colour of death. Death, and power. Red is life, burnt out almost instantly like a firework. Blue is eternity, a heavenly void. Green is rebirth, returning, the colour of narrative. Black is the coal fire, and the dewy drops of drowsiness on dark earth. Pink is the colour of secrets. Orange is warmth and taste. Yellow … well yellow is home.
But like language, all these colours can be inverted, satirised, changed and rebirthed into new meanings. And like every word in our language, they all conjure up our own colourful ideas in our imaginations and memories.
I can say that I love colour in a Jarman sort of way, though in the style of Chroma it’s hard to say who couldn’t write their own knowledge and memories of colour that wouldn’t be incredibly poignant. Though of course any such book would be lacking Jarman’s depth of intelligence and raw humanity.
I was reading Jarman’s Chroma at the same time as watching David Attenborough’s new series Life in Colour (BBC4, 2021) which, aside from documentaries about animals in the zoo who have a staff and vets, is the only wildlife programme I’ve been able to tolerate. And I still cried at the hummingbirds (so small and beautiful in a bad world) and have neglected the rest of the series for the sake of my emotional reserves. Maybe will ration out to one a month. But how wonderful to have the technology to see colour through non-human eyes and make discoveries that helps us understand communication beyond our senses.
I think colour unites us with the physical world. My ideas of colour come from vivid memories. I know the feeling of mixing paint, combining colours, and since I started using oil paint I have found it incredibly satisfying to contrast several hues together and see what the new colour palette suggests as an atmosphere. I can’t dream colour in the same way, or imagine it. Even on my phone, the internet, TV, I don’t remember those colours. Even if I’m watching a very fabulous documentary about colour (such as Dr James Fox’s Colour series on white, blue and gold, which I loved) these secondary sources of colour pale into nothingness compared to what I have seen with my very own eyes and brain.
Colour is a language. And, like Derek Jarman, I’m not going to include any images of my own. We have our own colours.
I remember at 5 or 6 years old trying to draw plants in our garden with felt tip pens. The plant I most remember was dark green and spiky with bright orange blossoms. Still have no idea what plant it was but I remember the pink gravel digging into my knees as I scribbled with my pens trying to capture it just before I had to go inside for tea.
Collecting gemstones as a child and knowing all of their names: rose quartz, lapis lazuli, tiger’s eye, jade, jasper, garnet, amethyst … I used to spend what felt like hours reciting their names, holding their shapes up to the light, watching their colours and patterns interact with each other, some opaque some translucent. I still have most of my collection. Jarman talks about a specialist pigment shop in London where jars of powders glowed like jewels. I think this is what I wanted back then, a way of using their fabulous pigment, as well as a strange ownership of them, acquired through using their colour.
My parents took me to a geology centre in Dumfries and Galloway where I got to see amethyst and pyrite crystals the (then) size of my head, and I bagged plenty more for the collection.
I visited the Natural History Museum in London with my sister in 2018, where I saw opals the size of my adult head. I love opals. I love all opals. I remember finding my dad’s opal wedding ring (my great-grandad’s originally I think) in our cutlery drawer when I was about 8 or 9. I love everything on the minerals floor of the NHM and realising it was there made a great discovery in my life.
I’ve also been reminded of my obsession with Changing Rooms (BBC, 1994 – 2004) from my early years. Specifically the moment when the interior designer would open the tins of paint to reveal the colour scheme of the future room to gasps *gasp!* to the philistine normal people in the room. Chartreuse, burgundy, cerulean – and then the designer relying on all their charisma to sell the palette to everyone around them when I was already, every time, sold.
The colour of absinthe with water and sugar in a glass, which we drank trying to emulate the paintings of Toulouse Lautrec. The same colour as Arsenic by Farrow and Ball. A strange green that is electric, toxic, seems to glow with its own inner light.
The dark broomy-red of scrub and the frosty blue-green of the spring on an early train from Glasgow to my crappy work in Edinburgh.
My tiny teen mind was blown with how the Impressionists painted snow, which we learned about in school. The object and its shadows are opposite in the colour wheel. Impressionist paintings were the full glare of the eyes; capturing colour before the brain had a chance to rationalise it. Orange and blue, yellow and violet, green and crimson. It goes to show how we expect what we see before we focus on what our eyes might be telling us.
In summer 2020, I walked around Maxwell Park in Glasgow with Stella and the roses were in bloom. I have always loved roses, but the whole park was full, on this day, of these magical forms, in the fullest shape, strength, fragrance, and colour. I looked carefully at every beautiful rose I saw. What rose isn’t beautiful? The colours of the yellow, pink, red and white of blooming roses are hard to separate in beauty. In the midst of lockdown I couldn’t. I then spent weeks reading about rearing my own rose bushes, in my imaginary garden.
Chroma has the urgency of a murder victim writing a message in their own blood. And if, as Jarman says, I’ve left anything out that’s important to you, write it in the margin. I always do. Or I write a blog post about it.