Marion Deuchars is an internationally-acclaimed illustrator who works with major design agencies as well as publishing illustrated children’s books. Known for her much-loved style of hand-lettering (used by organisations including the Royal Mail, the Imperial War Museum and Carluccio’s), Marion’s latest venture is a book called ‘Colour’ in which she takes us on a journey through colour, from the meaning of colours to artists and cultures through to what makes some colours stand out more than others. Here we find out what colour means to Marion in her day-to-day life, both at work and at play.
Martha: Can you describe your first colour memory?
Marion: My first colour memory is crying for a pair of red, shiny patent leather shoes at the age of five. My mother tells me that I was meant to be having sensible, new black school shoes but that I was sobbing in the shoe shop for the red ones so badly she gave in. First lesson, the power of red.
Martha: Do you have a favourite colour and has this changed over the years?
Marion: I have liked Cobalt blue for a long time and still do. As far as painting with colour, there was a time when I always used Cadmium Scarlet somewhere in the image and it’s still a favourite.
Martha: What is your favourite colourful object/objects and why?
Marion: Another early colour association for me were coloured wooden maths rods. I still really love their aesthetic and have a set I bought from Germany many years ago and used to play with them for fun when my kids were younger. 1=white, 2= red, 3=green etc. For along time I had a kind of fake ‘Synesthesia’ when I thought of the number 2, I thought of it as red, or the number 10 as orange. Such is the power of colour on young minds! I don’t think they have been used in education for a while which is a shame as I think the combination of colour, shape, and the physical quality of them, made learning more memorable.
Martha: How does colour make you feel? Do you use it in your work or personal life to influence your moods or those of your clients and readers?
Marion: I think it has a huge affect on me every day. I like to meditate on small wonderful moments of colour juxtapositions or observations. Whether it’s on a walk to work or catching some light reflection on a wall. My favourite is how colours in the landscape are transformed by an inky grey sky, especially those crazy rainy, sunny days which makes colours sing and dance. All colours look brighter next to grey but especially red. When I make images, I work very intuitively with colour but at the same time, try to experiment and vary my colour palette. It’s very easy to fall back on to a tried and tested palette of colours, many artists do. I sometimes copy other (famous) artist’s palettes, or try colours I don’t really like, to stop myself from being lazy with colour.
Recently I bought some little sculptures from ceramic artist Rosa Nguyen. They allow you to add your own objects to them, like dried twigs, leaves or paper. It’s a lovely thing to do. Whilst taking a walk, I look for things in nature that will work nicely and make interesting colour contrasts on the sculpture.
Martha: Do you have a colour you could happily do without?
Marion: When I was making my book on colour it really highlighted the colours I favoured and those I avoided. About halfway through the book I had made lots of work on the colour Blue, (supposedly the world’s favourite colour), as well as red, orange, yellow, black and white. I had done very little work on green and purple. I like the colour green but found it difficult to paint with. Purple is a colour I struggle with and yet it has a fascinating history that made me appreciate it more.
Martha: What does colour mean to you in your day-to-day life?
Marion: When my boys were a bit younger, I remember them saying, “You have a nice job mummy: you get to go to work and colour in all day.” It’s not too far from the truth. They are now 11 and 12 but I think still appreciate the fact that my work looks fun and playful. When they come to my studio, they get excited by all the paints and colours and materials there. We were doing some paper marbling not too long ago; a smelly messy business, but, oh, what joy to do. We were going a bit crazy with the colour and using lots of the oil colour to make thick, abstract shapes on paper, as opposed to traditional marbling swirls. Just dropping a big blob of red onto green was mesmerising.
Martha: Are there rules about colour? Or are rules made to be broken?
Marion: I was taught colour theory, as we were all in art school, and it links back to Bauhaus teaching and the likes of Joseph Albers. I think most artists learn colour (theory) and then mostly ignore it. It’s very important to work intuitively with colour, but having a grounding in how one colour reacts with another, does not do any harm. Sometimes I will set out to work with certain palette and then half way through, change it completely. I think that feels the right way to work with colour.
Some artists only use the same colour palette and I think we all have colour bias. We also can be lazy with colour as mixing different colours is time consuming and difficult.
Martha: Do you have a colour story or anecdote?
Marion: A few years ago I was helping my young nephew with his painting. He was only five or six and was making a lovely, bright abstract image in gouache. I was full of enthusiasm for his progress and knew when he had got it just right. “Just stop there’ I remember saying. He ignored me and continued slapping paint onto the paper until all the lovely colours slowly turned into mud. I assumed it was ruined, but just as he declared “finished!” I looked at it and surprisingly found it very beautiful. Certainly the vibrant colours had gone but somehow he had managed to make a really arresting little painting. I thought from that moment I would not try to influence a child’s painting again!
Martha: If you could give people advice about using colour, what would it be?
Marion: I think a really good exercise to do is to take a favourite painting and try to copy the main colour palette. I do this a lot to help me get out of my own colour comfort zone and also to learn. It’s difficult to match colour accurately, but there is a great sense of achievement when you do.
I was copying some colours from Matisse paper cuts and you learn some surprising things. When Matisse was painting his own paper sheets with gouache (before cutting it with scissors) it was a golden time for this new pigment in a little silver tube. You could literally buy hundreds of colours in every shade imaginable. Matisse was literally ‘painting straight from the tube’ I tried to mix some of his colours and it was really difficult. One green in particular, a strong emerald hue, was near impossible. Another purple/red was also very hard to replicate, but I persevered and got pretty close. I realised I had never really mixed, or used those colours before.