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Art Licks


Colour by Numbers

Sophie Michael

From the Archive

Sophie Michael discusses her contribution to Art Licks Issue 11 (2013), for which she presented a series of colour-by-numbers images as a way to adapt her work to the magazine's monochrome printing.

Holly Willats (Editor), Art Licks: Thinking back to 2013, when you contributed the piece 'Colour by Numbers' to Art Licks issue 11, I remember you faced a slight predicament in presenting something that would be printed in monochrome. Your work is so colourful, with a very particular palette. Playing with the idea of colour by numbers was such a fantastic solution, can you recall where this idea came from?

Sophie Michael: Yes I definitely saw it as a challenge, also because I was keen to present something image based. I use colour as both a material and a subject in my work so in its absence I thought about how else I could communicate a palette. I began to look for ways (other than photographically) in which I already record colours in the process of making work. For example, when I'm shooting a film I always make a log of each shot as I go along (I rarely follow a pre-written script). One of the main details I note down as a reference point is the colour and tone of the filter, light or object appearing in the frame. This is especially important when I am planning to rewind the (16mm) film and expose it twice, as this helps to avoid two identical colours being superimposed at the same point in time. The logs are usually very scrappy and make no sense to anyone but myself, so I wondered what would happen if I tried to list the colours in an image in a more premeditated and coherent way.

I liked the idea of using colour by numbers in reverse as an exercise in naming colours rather than in painting. At the time I had also been collecting colour names from industrial paint charts in the same way that I had been gathering objects for sets, and I remember looking a lot at Winifred Nicholson’s diagram of colours in Liberation of Colour. Somewhere in the back of my mind must have been Warhol’s Paint-by-Number series too.

Where are the scenes in the piece from?

The scenes are two production stills (medium format photographs) taken on the set of my film Chapters One to Five, which I made in my graduating year at the Royal Academy Schools in 2012. There are five stills in total, each presenting one of five designated zones, which would later become ‘Chapters’ (hence the film’s title), of the film set. I built the set over about six months—accumulating, selecting and arranging objects—whilst referring to a mixture of sources materials dating from the mid-20th Century and that all market an idealistic lifestyle: 1970's DIY manuals, home improvement magazines, 1950's advertisements, Charles and Ray Eames showroom plans, 16mm educational /public information films etc.

Although she doesn’t appear in these stills, the film features a girl aged 11 at the time called Astrid Everall. She guides the viewer through the set as she explores the space and plays with the objects. This was the third film in which I worked with Astrid over the ages of 7-14, in which she performs as both herself and a fictional younger self or doppelganger. I enjoy creating anachronisms and am interested in this era in particular because it belongs to a generation previous to my own: one that neither Astrid nor I have first hand memory of but nevertheless feel a false sense of connection towards—so what you see here is a construction, a fantasy. For me this work reveals more about a contemporary nostalgia or fetish for the recent past than anything about history, similar to the way a kitsch period TV series does (albeit unintentionally). But looking again at the stills printed here in the magazine, flattened out by the monochrome, they could easily be mistaken for an archival or found image just as pieces of repro furniture are passed off as authentic. In terms of the 30-year-cycle this work is already out of date as nostalgia and 'vintage' now attaches itself to the 90s—I’ll be interested to see how this work ages.

Did you continue to play with the colour charts within your work, beyond the magazine?

Not exactly in terms of presentation, but in the fourth and final film I made with Astrid, Astrid Masks (2014), I asked her to write her own log or index of the colours she could see in the film’s set whilst she was sat in it. She understood completely, because describing colours of the world around them is something that children do a lot from a young age as part of the process of learning how to communicate—something I understand better now that I have a two year old. My son identifies almost every object by its colour e.g. 'want the green train', and his interpretation can be very subjective. I very regularly find myself questioning whether something is blue or purple, pink or red. Astrid similarly listed all the colours as she perceived them in great detail and observed even the subtlest of changes in colour and light as she looked around: dark, pink, pinky purple, bluey purple, dark blue. What I enjoyed most was her awkward but poetic combinations of words like ‘dark turquoise’ and ‘light orange’. I’ve often thought about how one of these unreliable colour charts might accompany or dictate a film, but havn’t figured that one out yet.

Have you ever tried to colour the images in following your index!?

No and I hope none of the readers attempted it either! There was a fad for elaborate colouring books a few years ago wasn’t there; it was pitched as a so-called ‘creative’ and ‘meditative’ hobby for stressed out grown-ups. The idea of trying to follow my index fills me with anxiety. Perhaps if I get really desperate for things to do during lockdown...

Sophie Michael (b.1985, London) works with the moving image to examine the staging of nostalgia and innocence. Her work has been shown nationally and internationally at galleries, museums and festivals including Toronto Film Festival (2016, 2011) and Tate Britain where she presented a solo exhibition as part of the Art Now series in 2016. Michael is represented by Seventeen Gallery, London and co-runs Watch-it Gallery with Andrew Munks.

Read more on Art Licks Issue 11 / purchase a copy.

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