Music to my Eyes – Paul Klee

I have recently been looking at the work of the painter Paul Klee (1879 – 1940) particularly at his investigations into colour and specifically theories which link colour with feelings and mood. Klee was especially interested in examining how our emotions can be affected by visual stimuli.  It is comparable or analogous to how we feel and are influenced  when we listen to different types of music.

In the same manner by  which music  bypasses our conscious thought processes – so too does input to our visual field – what we see and view is wordless and therefore not bound up with language.


Paul Klee (1879 – 1940)  ‘Painting Music’


In 1914 Klee travelled to Tunis, and influenced by the light and place – his work at this time became remarkably colourful and vibrant. During this visit, he produced some glorious watercolours. On the front cover of the book above is a painting from his Tunisia period  it is called ‘Motif from Hammamet’ and was painted in 1914.

You can observe clearly how he used informal geometrical shapes – based on squares, rectangles and triangles, to represent, in abstract form the buildings and houses commonly found in North Africa.  Overlaying colours, he created subtle variations and then with smaller brushstrokes arrays and textural patterns.  The colours he uses within the paintings are combinations of  bright primary colours contrasted with deeper browns and dark greys tones.  I think the output of this time is amongst his best work.

As a child, Paul Klee, was an accomplished violinist, but in his teens decided to pursue art instead of following in the footsteps of his musical parents. He also worked as a teacher and artist for the celebrated Bauhaus school, but the continuity of his work was interrupted and disrupted by the second world war.  His style of work was very varied and experimental and not easily categorised.

Below is a short introductory video showing the range of Paul Klee’s work with an explanation of how his use of colour and form created particular moods.  The video  uses examples from paintings which were displayed at an exhibition called ‘The EY Exhibition – Paul Klee – Making Visible’ and held at Tate Modern in 2014.  It is perceptively presented by art historian Rosie Rockel.



Visual imagery whether it is based on realism or abstract forms invariably attracts our attention and is surprisingly compelling.  An added and useful aspect is also that it  has a universal appeal – particularly when contrasted with language – visual imagery is much more capable of crossing  – countries, continents and cultures.

Pictures, patterns, drawings and diagrams,  are not as tied up with our thought processes as  ‘thinking’ which is usually articulated in and expressed through words.  The varied forms of visual imagery appeal more to our feelings and intuition than does rational thinking.

Thoughts and deliberations, especially those which, reach beyond daydreams or the imaginary, can lead onto logical and analytical thinking  – processes which visual imagery tends to bypass. But both the visual field and the hearing / musical field, transmit and connect directly into our subconscious, they  thereby  access the essence and the heart of our very being.  Via this powerful path they  have  a profound impact on our inner emotional life.


Watercolour Subtle Overlays


Experimenting with some of the techniques that Paul Klee used, particularly on his trip to Tunis, I  created, above, blocks of colour that sometimes contrast – when using colours that appear as opposites on the colour wheel – such as green and red; or alternatively, harmonise – those colours that sit next to each other – such as orange and red on a colour wheel.  The overall effect is kaleidoscopic and  will be a useful reference piece for trying out with future work.

I  used  the paints as unmixed ‘pure’ colours, straight from the palette and allowed them to dry  before overlaying them again to create new hues or shades.  Sometimes colours have been left as a single layer and other times they are overlaid with another colour or even the same colour once again.  This process of layering colours known as ‘glazing’ is a technique which can be used to create a multitude of new colours.

These new colours are far more subtle than any manufacturer of  pre-mixed colour could ever achieve.  Artists who take the trouble to make or mix their own ‘one-off’ colours  will reap the the benefit of having created their own distinctive palette.  The use of an individual colour range incorporates into an artist’s work a signature and a uniqueness that is entirely their own and which will  make their work instantly recognisable.

Returning to – and continuing with Paul Klee’s music analogy, it could be said that in musical terms the vibrant colours provide the high notes; the more subtle tones could be seen as mid-notes or neutrals – and lastly – the darker shades the lower and deeper notes.


Watercolours with Vibrancy

In another exercise piece above I have increased digitally the vibrancy and intensity  of the watercolours.  The brightest colours seem to give out a  feeling of intense joy, whilst  a mood of deep gloom is sensed in the dark and blackish areas.

The combination of ‘contrasts’ or ‘harmonising’ could be compared in melodic terms with the varied movements within a musical score, each of which has its own mood and atmosphere. Colour areas can be equated with our feelings –  happy to ecstatic; or sad and melancholy; quick, slow and so on.  The main idea is that all of our moods and emotions can be translated into ‘visual-musical’ compositions which then  affect and move us.

Klee not only compared his work to music but even referred to his watercolour paintbox as his ‘keyboard of colours’.  It is as if when painting a picture he is actually playing or creating a musical piece. He wrote “I have …. always tried to arouse certain sounds in me; an adventure with colour, great or small.” (1926)

Whilst exploring the effects of different colours, within his paintings he also  played with another essential musical element, that of, rhythm. He converted rhythm or beats from a sound to a visual motif – this was achieved  by introducing into his work repeating forms.


Monument in Fertile Country (1929) a watercolour by Paul Klee


This repetitive theme can be seen in some of his work inspired by landscapes.  In the painting above he reconfigures an aerial view  into simplified abstract geometric forms by  emphasising the linear lines.  He also plays with the horizontal dimension by dividing it into sub-sections and then into further ‘dividual‘ structures all of which help to create a sense of rhythm.

Within the painting Klee uses separated parallel lines and these interplay with vertical and slanted sides. Using a pattern of musical notation he divides the ‘fields’ into “halves, four quarters, eight eighths, sixteen sixteenths or alternative quavers”. (Duchting)

This watercolour was produced in 1929 and is titled  ‘Monument in Fertile Country’. In the year before  Paul Klee undertook a trip to Egypt so it is quite likely that the inspiration for this painting was the landscape of the River Nile.  The yellow broken and truncated sloping shapes may represent the remains of monumental pyramids which are then surrounded by brown and green strip fields and plots.



The linking of visual experience directly to musical forms was quite particular to the personal vision of Paul Klee and using this metaphor enabled him to produce some wondrous work.



Klee by Hans L Jaffe, Hamlyn 1972

Paul Klee Painting Music by Hajo Duchting, Prestel 2016

All the photographs and also the ‘artwork’ experiments in watercolour translucency are by myself.