Music to my Eyes – Paul Klee

Mood – Colour, Contrast and Harmony


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 have 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  for me, it has been a useful  practise and reference piece.

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.

Another interesting musically inspired work  called ‘Polyphony’ created in 1932, is shown below, and was produced in oil and chalk.  In this painting Klee explores an entirely different effect which is striking and contrasting in its arrangement.  Its musical title ‘polyphony’ means two or more sounds appearing together at the same time. This idea is adapted into a visual form by superimposing small dots over an underlayer- in this way two or more colours always appear together at the same time.

This painting also seems to borrow  from the ‘Impressionist’s’ pointillism style –  but reinvents the technique by using  tiny pixel type shapes to form mosaic patterns over flat washes of colour.  Pointillism originally explored how our eye combines specks of colour together; but Klee utilises the effect differently – for him it is a representation of musical notes – and as with music itself it can create lyrical or discordant passages.

An extract from ‘Polyphony’ (1931) a painting by Paul Klee


I must say that I find these dotty-spotty paintings less pleasing to view than the more serene and sunny  watercolour paintings shown above. The patchy-flickering effect is  not restful or easy on the eye and it becomes exhausting when looked at for any length of time.

However, throughout the ages artists have  wrestled with different styles and techniques to support their work and it is the role of each generation to explore and reinterpret those methods which most reflect the concerns and technological advance of their own age.

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.



In 1919 the musician and composer Stravinsky was commissioned to write a ballet score by Diaghilev the renowned dancer.  The ballet was to be based on an  18th century Neapolitan play and an older music score was adapted and updated by Stravinsky.  The ballet premiered in 1920 at the Paris Opera. Below is a video of the introduction – This production by the Scarpina Ballet Company was choreographed by Nils Christe, most likely in 1987. With abseiling and other acrobatic frolics and follies the colourful production is amusing and delightful.



It is notable that Stravinsky (1882 – 1971 )  was born 3 years before Paul Klee; they  were contemporaneous, although probably not connected.  Klee sadly died 30 years before Stravinksy – Stravinsky lived on to a great age and was close to 90 when he died.





Colour, Dots, Blocks and Stripes – Sean Scully

Elements : Components and Parts

The image above is one outcome of some extensive experiments I have been carrying out over the last year or so with my watercolour paints.

I am quite pleased with the final effect achieved.  I particularly like the many variations of colour and have found that by photographing them the back lighting effect of a digital screen has allowed  the translucency and vividness to be kept. These lively qualities in watercolour are unfortunately often lost because as the paint dries it becomes significantly dulled.

I layered the colours so that they take on quite subtle variations and this is a technique that I was also came across quite recently in the work of Sean Scully. However his work is mainly in oils and on a colossal scale – certainly in comparison to my more modest and meagre efforts.

More colours using a cooler palette range

Sean Scully’s experiments in the  ‘abstraction of colour’ have been a lifetime’s work.  He has continued – doggedly and stubbornly, against all the odds – to follow his mission of examining the minutiae of  different colour effects through both layering and juxtaposition.

It was perhaps Kandinsky (1866 – 1944) who first began to look at painting and colour as analogous to music.  In music we are quite used to our emotions being stirred by notes and sounds; and it is in a similar way that our feelings can also be affected by the visual forms and colours within a painting.  This new and revolutionary idea involved stripping away the realistic pictorial elements of paintings and replacing them with abstract non representational forms.

Kazimir Malevich (1878 – 1935) is another significant abstract artist who further developed these ideas but he had his own emphasis and his paintings are particularly characterised by radiating and strikingly bold coloured geometric forms.

However, in Scully’s work the abstraction mainly consists of exploring variations of blocks and stripes of seemingly single colours and it is perhaps best understood  in the context of  work begun by Paul Klee,  developed  by Mark Rothko and then further progressed by Jasper Johns.  Other notable artists that have influenced his work include Matisse and Mondrian.

He has an extensive body of work which is only just beginning to be properly appreciated and recognised here in the UK,  although he has long been established in New York – which has been  his home since the mid 1970’s.

Scully has also more recently exhibited at the 2015 Venice Biennale. This  5 minute video was produced by The Royal Academy, UK, and  not only shows an interview with Scully RA but also tours his Venice exhibition and shows the paintings insitu.

These stunning paintings can also be seen in a recently published book  called “Sean Scully Land Sea” which is  beautifully produced. It shows wonderfully well his paintings whose inspiration are Venice itself and its canals – they were produced especially for the 56th Biennale. The photographs  of the paintings within the book are as displayed on the gallery walls of a magnificent, light-filled and luminous Venetian Palazzo.

( The book does not seem to be that widely available and I should point out that the customer reviews relate to a different book altogether – his black and white photographs of Aran – which also seems interesting but looks as if it will be tricky to track down ! )

There are also a number of interesting videos which can be found  via the internet which explain his work and follow his life story. I have selected, below, a few ‘choice’ representative samples to give an idea of what can be found with just a little bit of searching.

The first is called “Sean Scully -American Beauty” and lasts for just over half an hour.  It is an objective biographical account which traces Sean’s personal history, from his birth in 1945, then relates his childhood experiences and follows on with his development as a successful artist. The film was made in 2000 and it is well worth watching. ( Note: to see at full screen you may need to do a separate search – which will be worthwhile to see the detail – ditto the other videos below too !)

This second video which is around 5 mins in length is a tour around  some of his early paintings that were exhibited in Bern in 2012.  Sean gives quite detailed descriptions of how they were achieved together with their context.  He describes how his ideas have developed and also the techniques employed to achieve particular effects.

The third video I have selected is interesting because it follows the painting process from the start of a blank canvas through to it’s completion. The painting is relatively small so the video is a  shortish 10 mins in length. It is called The Opposite Ways Testigo – The Witness and was made by Robert Gardner in 1997.

Here also is a further link to a review from  ‘The Art Newspaper’ by Pac Pobric in May 2015, it gives details and updates about the background to his more recent work.

( I will find these links  a useful resources for me to return too when I get a bit stuck or doubtful about what I am doing and I hope you will find them helpful too ! )


Simon & Garfunkel sing ‘America’. The song was written in 1972 by Paul Simon.

The image at the top of is a photograph by myself of a watercolour painting also by myself.