Matisse Cut Outs and Color Palettes: A Lifetime of Inspiration


The Matisse cut outs at MoMA! Breathe deep. When I heard about this exhibit my heart danced: these were very influential works for me as a budding artist and color nerd. These revolutionary works were open until this evening (here's a walkthrough from The New York Times, in case you missed it!)MoMA was open round the clock this weekend to accommodate the crowds. It was jammed at midnight Saturday when I went for my third visit. 

A quick overview on the making of these radical works before the deep dive on color. As Matisse aged, and his vision and health deteriorated, he moved from painting with a brush and paint to making larger works out of paper, which he called “painting with scissors”. The cut papers, each painted in single colors according to his strict palette, were cut in many differently sized shapes that his assistants pinned to the wall or arranged on his desk depending on the finished size. The larger shapes were cut by Matisse while the assistant moved the paper according to his cutting. It’s a beautiful dance to watch him cut these sensual shapes so confidently. And with very large tailor’s scissors:

On to the colors! The palette is bold, the colors rendered bright and clear as pure pigments. They are one of the many perfect palettes I consider a gold standard in color (and If you want to talk black and white, we’d need to look at John Singer Sargent... and that's another post).

Matisse used the colors available at the time in gouache, and created a very tight palette from them where you can feel the juxtaposition of the colors' shape, size and composition. There is a real joy in the purity of these colors; a light, a happiness that comes from within each one. The personality of these slightly different shades of greens or oranges (or any of the colors above), is palpable. They each evoke a different emotion. 

These are images from my RISD artist notebook, featuring some Matisse cut outs I saw and immediately grabbed postcards for. These colors spoke to me. Eye-washed my vision. Kept talking in my head. They spoke through my work... whether or not I knew it.

When it came time to color-code our botanical and zoological periodic tables at na2ure, Matisse's colors were the colors I chose - albeit unknowingly. I needed groups of colors for groups of related icons. Color groups distinct enough to not be confused with each other. Colors which connected to modern art and to Nature’s own palette. Colors that were instantly identifiable.

Rendering colors across different media does not make this kind of color-coding process easy; it is certainly not all love and roses. The color in your mind has to be translated into different systems. Inks printed on paper are either 4-color printing like in CMYK (cyan-magenta-yellow-black), or spot colors for very specific colors not rendered consistently by CMYK. Onscreen colors are rendered in RGB (red-green-blue). Just to make things more confusing, CMYK and RGB are direct opposites.

Matisse’s palette is pigment-based using gouache. If you intend to translate them into print or onscreen, then you need to translate them into CMYK or RGB, respectively. Keeping all of these qualities in mind, I built my palette for distinct biological traits in our ferret app, making sure to keep each icon group distinct and clear in terms of color. Each group served a different purpose (how an animal moved, how it breathed, what it ate, etc) and needed colors to represent that. For instance, I knew that the color describing how an animal breathed needed to be blue, to represent either the sky or water (since that's where animals breathe), but I needed the right blue. One that represented the airyness of both of those materials. A blue with the right personality. I did the same with the games printed with ink on paper, like Ani-gram-it. The colors of those bio icons needed to be - and function - the same way as the ones in the app.  I built this a few years ago and have fought to keep the tile colors true -- meaning, choosing spot color for the tiles rather than the 4-color CMYK process and going on press to ensure quality. I knew what the colors needed to do... and I owed to all the kids who would play this game to give them something fun. And the kind of quality that I knew existed already.

Years later I walked into the Matisse exhibit and the nickel dropped: our palette at na2ure is the result of Matisse’s colors swirling in my brain for decades. I have used his cut outs palette in my work before, but his influence is crystal clear when you put my current game design next to his palette. 

I think these really true, beautiful colors appeal to children. Parents: do you agree?