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The Art of Pink

Painter Jonathan Schofield on why pink has become his signature colour.

A few months ago, we staged an exhibition of paintings by artist Jonathan Schofield in our Jermyn Street store. Many of you who saw them were intrigued by their atmospheric mood. Jonathan paints figurative work, but places his subjects in dream-like landscapes that are both familiar and strange at the same time. Fashion also plays a part in these scenes, and Jonathan says that he has always been taken with Baudelaire’s 1863 essay, The Painter of Modern Life, in which the writer and art critic speaks for an appreciation of the beauty of the here and now. ‘I want to paint images of the time we live in,’ explains Jonathan as we sit in his north London studio, surrounded by his large canvases in which men in elegant suits and women in evening dresses and high- heeled boots share their space with statues and vases, chandeliers, cars and animals.

The exhibition at our Jermyn Street store was called Gorgeous Pink Rags, a reference to a suit Jay Gatsby wears in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age masterpiece, The Great Gatsby. It struck us as an appropriate partnership, given our name and our love of the colour – and indeed, pink was the colour that ran through Jonathan’s show. But in conversation with the artist, we discovered that the exhibition was not an isolated celebration of the hue for him; pink haunts his imagination and makes multiple appearances in his work.

And when he sent us some photos of his new creations and we saw just how prominent pink is in what he does, we decided to visit him at his London studio and ask him to explain his love of this very particular tone.

Many artists have signature colours – Picasso famously had his blue period, van Gogh his yellows and blues, and Titian his red. And of course, there is Yves Klein and the distinctive, vibrant International Klein Blue he developed. So how did Jonathan come to adopt this striking tone?

Sitting among his brushes and rags and tubes of paint, spatters of colour all over the surfaces, including tables and chairs and easels, he told us – while wearing some Thomas Pink shirts, naturally, though in grey stripes and mid blue, rather than his hot signature colour:

JS: ‘Pink as a colour has been used forever by artists, from Goya, through French Rococo, to Matisse, to de Kooning and the abstract expressionists. In fact, it was Willem de Kooning, the Dutch-American abstract expressionist, who first got me thinking about pink when I was an art student, after I’d read a quote from him where he said, “Flesh is the reason oil paint was invented.”

The idea of how to depict the body merged in my imagination with a sense that pink was also something of a controversial colour. Growing up in the north of England in the 1980s, wearing a pink shirt was a bit dandyish, almost an act of rebellion for a man. And simultaneously I was aware that punks had adopted it – Jamie Reid, the artist, used it on the cover of the Sex Pistols’ only album; and in sportswear, you’d see football casuals in a salmon pink sports shirt on a Saturday. It was anarchic... both masculine and feminine. And in the right hands, had – and still has – the power to shock. If you know your fashion history, you’ll know that this was literally what Elsa Schiaparelli, the Italian fashion designer who liked to play with Surrealism, was going for when she created her signature, head-turning “shocking pink”.

Schiaparelli’s is quite a neon tone, a bit baby pink, a bit Barbie in fact. My go-to pink is a little different, a little more subdued. I create it using a magenta, which is a very strong bluey pink, and I mix that with white and a little bit of yellow and sometimes with a tiny bit of vermilion orange and raw umber. That is a base that I can dial up – more magenta to make it more intense – or down with more umber, or black, to make it into a dirty plaster pink.

That’s the beauty of pink – it can go from lurid to incredibly tasteful and beautiful, from screaming to whispering. Maybe more than any other colour it has the potential to “have” a range of feelings.

When it comes to painters, you find pink in so many works. There is Matisse’s The Pink Studio, that is a very pivotal painting for me. Then there’s de Kooning, who talked of his colours being inspired by an ice- cream counter; he’s the best painter of pink since the Rococo, I think. De Kooning is the master of pink, followed by Francis Bacon.

In their cases it’s very much used for flesh, but that’s not so true of my work. I believe that all colour operates from a place of feeling. For me, it’s the emotional qualities of pink that are appealing – it can be both comforting and disturbing. It’s kind of sexy but also very calm.

I’m doing some Paris paintings at the moment, based on a recent trip to the city. I’ve just come out of a month-long stint of painting quite dark pictures, and I seem to have this need to auto correct, a longing to get back to a lighter palette, brighter colours. Paris offers the answer – it is known as the City of Light, after all.

These works are about a series of imagined/real experiences in Paris. There’s one canvas in particular that is dominated by pink. It’s based on seeing someone outside the Louvre on a very sunny morning where there was a pink haze in the sky. There are two female figures, one chicly dressed, carrying a handbag and adjusting her earring in the foreground, and another in a long black dress behind. Between them is a statue on a plinth. Although I use colour decoratively in this picture, almost abstract slabs of it, including different shades of pink, I feel that colour is almost another character in the composition. Even though my paintings don’t have a narrative in a strict sense, there’s definitely a story here, and the colour is part of that. And of course it creates the mood, the atmosphere.

I think of colour as if I am a film director or cinematographer. As I imagine a picture, I ask myself, “How am I going to light this picture? How can I set the scene up?” But unlike a film, with a painting you just have colour and material at your disposal – there’s no movement or music. So I make the colour do the work. As a figurative painter, people might say the people in my work are obviously the protagonists; but I’d say that the colour pink is also a character in my paintings. In this Louvre Paris painting it’s definitely as much a character as the girls.

Because of the Paris series, at the moment I’m looking at a lot of French painting. And it’s amazing how much pink you find there, especially in the work of the French Impressionists, who, of course, said that their aim was to paint with light. You find it in Monet, Manet and Degas, for example. But I’m struck by how they’re not embarrassed by its sensuality or supposed frivolousness. They take pink very seriously.’

To see more of Jonathan Schofield’s work, visit his Instagram account: @jonathanschofield_art