Parsifal, Poppies and Posters: Choice of Colour and the Creative Process

Like every other artist, I’m fascinated, challenged and excited by colour and colour palettes.

I developed a colour palette during my MA which worked well for my illustrations reminiscent of a 1930s Bloomsbury or 1950s vintage style. However, it’s always good to be reminded how colours can work to evoke a specific times and places…

The other day, I was sorting through my computer files (I like well organised folders – that’s my French, bureaucratic side), when I found some images for a poster design for an opera I’d done two years ago. The opera was Parsifal and although the opera is a religious one, the director had had the interesting idea to set it in an opium den in East London in the late nineteenth century. Rather than Christian Knights protecting the Holy Grail, the director decided to interpret it as if the Holy Grail that the Knights were protecting was actually the very thing that was causing their downfall. In this case: addicts protecting a bottle of Laudanum – the drug made from opium which is an addictive painkiller. The laudanum causes the addicts to believe they are in a holy temple as opposed to their actual surroundings, which the audience see.

The director sent me a picture of a bottle that he liked, and asked for a flavour of this.

When I was thinking about my initial design ideas, I decided to incorporate poppies into the design, (laudanum is prepared from opium, from poppies, after all) and, crucially, use a different and suitable colour scheme.

I’ve always loved poster designing. I love the challenge of making that confined, rectangular sheet visually arresting as well as communicating facts and dates. When I was at university, I did the poster designs for the Clare College Music Society in my second year. It was a means of expression for me at a time when I was busy with reading, essays and grammar, but knew I wanted to keep an artistic, creative vein alive. I remember, too, being heavily dependent on the help of a patient first year with Photoshop. (Thankfully my Photoshop skills are much improved now).

One of the posters I designed was for a Remembrance concert. I chose a landscape form for the poster, and, drawing the organic twists of red poppies, created something that I felt was reminiscent of and Art Nouveau in feel.

I have always been a big fan of Art Nouveau – the late nineteenth, early 20th century movement. I grew up in a very Art Nouveau-inspired house; my mother, an antiques collector, had filled the place with ornate jardinieres and had painted a symmetrical stylised floral motif up our fireplace – so it was always deep in my psyche. I also love Alphonse Mucha’s posters.

As I started this opera poster design featuring poppies, the initial sketches likewise developed (subconsciously, but appropriately) into an Art Nouveau inspired image.

When faced with the colour choice for the poster, I was aware that I wanted to experiment with a different palette to that which I had developed over the course of my MA and which had been the choice for my illustrations to Flush by Virginia Woolf. Those were pastel, muted and soft. For this, I wanted something alluring, repulsive, sickening… irresistible!

What colours would work for a nineteenth century opium den?! It’s pretty niche.

I started to think which colours might have been prevalent in late nineteenth century Victorian England. The first colour I thought of was sepia, since I associated it with the rise of photography and photographic printing at the time.

Then, thinking of drugs depicted in nineteenth century art and Degas’ Absinthe Drinker (1893), arsenic green came to me as appropriately sickening.

L’absinthe, Degas

Although red poppies were perfect for a memorial poster, I felt it wouldn’t work for this project. After some research, I found out the colour of laudanum poppies is in fact purple, so decided on a lavender grey colour.

Finally, the colour of laudanum is a reddish brown, but I wanted something brighter to complete the palette. Gold, I decided, would be much more suitable: an irresistible and highly prized.

And here was the finished result – and the director seemed very happy with the end result!

I hope the above isn’t too much of an Art Nouveau organic-twisting-train-of-thought. I hope people can see that the creative process comes about as the results of many strands, sources of inspirations and avenues.

In a way I’m trying to create an aspiring-illustrator friendly blog, so, if I might include some words of wisdom as a sign off…!

1. Keep well organised folders!

2. Put yourself forward for all and any amateur opportunities you can; experimenting and the process of working through ideas will help you discover what subconsciously informs and inspires your creative process.

3. Try to think through your colour choice. One doesn’t want to smother a design by being too logical, but a bit of thought can pay off.

One thought on “Parsifal, Poppies and Posters: Choice of Colour and the Creative Process

  1. Hi Tulik – delighted to read your post. I like mauve a lot. My Viennese friend Richard has a wife called Gabriella who is a colour therapist. She runs courses and sells her colour skills. You must meet her. She is engaging and pleasantly wacky: stern and gay at the same time – romantic and a little scary. I like her a lot. She analysed me and said that grey and mauve were my natural colours so presented me with a tie with grey and mauve ice bears on it. I think ice bears are a German translation of polar bears. We must have lunch again. Anyway I send you my love as ever. John x

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