Ian Whittlesea: On colour...
Artists' Books
Art Monthly no. 430, October 2019


The number seven is central here: seven colours of the spectrum, seven short breaths to start, breathe in for seven seconds, breathe out for seven seconds, breathe in white, breathe out the colour you wish to visualise.

Approaching Ian Whittlesea's On colour... , a slim, square-format volume, I anticipate a theoretical treatise. What is actually presented here is more of a companion piece to his 2013 work Becoming Invisible. The book's full title appears not on its cover or spine, but only inside on the title page: On colour and its generation, projection and retention during partial manifestations of the white cloud.

Becoming Invisible concerned itself with a set of exercises enabling the practitioner, 'through visualisation and breathing exercises ... to split light into its constituent parts and then recombine the seven colours of the spectrum to form a glowing white cloud that envelops its creator'. Step into the cloud and you will become invisible. In a note tucked above the author's thanks on the inside front cover of On colour... he explains that some repetition has been necessary to ensure that knowledge of his earlier book is not required in order to glean benefit from this one.

On colour... begins with a guide to a series of visualisation and breathing exercises. The steps echo almost exactly those outlined in Becoming Invisible, with focus shifted to producing the 'white cloud of invisibility' on a white circular disc, rather than in your full field of vision. The steps instruct you, with careful breathing, to visualise the seven colours of the spectrum each in turn, before beginning to combine them. The number seven is central here: seven colours of the spectrum, seven short breaths to start, breathe in for seven seconds, breathe out for seven seconds, breathe in white, breathe out the colour you wish to visualise.

Whittlesea touches on the emotional resonances and physical effects that each colour may have - the warmth of red and orange, the coolness of green and blue, the melancholy of violet. After the reader has become adept at visualising each colour individually they are encouraged to visualise all seven together and then to balance them, at which point they should blend to produce the white cloud. Whittlesea warns of the 'the problem of balancing the physiological and psychological effects inevitably caused by simultaneously visualising the seven colours'.

Following the exercises, Whittlesea presents images drawn from a series of circular paintings, 'objects that aspire to the condition of nothingness'. These paintings, grouped under the title 'White Cloud Forming' on the artist's website, are the 'partial manifestations of the white cloud' referred to in the book's title. Humorous asides are littered throughout - the 'dangers' of allowing certain colours to dominate, the 'perils' of working at large scale.

Both books cite esoteric, occult sources of influence: Rosicrucian literature and theosophy are antecedents. On colour... adds to this list Mazdaznan literature and theories of colour harmony taught by Johannes Itten at the Bauhaus. Itten, a long-standing figure of interest for Whittlesea, was an ardent follower of Mazdaznan, a religious movement founded in the late 19th century and centred on the practice of breathing exercises. Itten encouraged his students to practise these exercises along with other Mazdaznan observances -such as maintaining a vegetarian diet -to create a holistic approach to life, learning and self-care. He ultimately left the Bauhaus citing unresolvable conflicts between his mysticism and director Walter Gropius's increasing focus on mass production. Quotations from Itten are woven into Whittlesea's text without announcement.

Whittlesea treads a line worn by early modernists that operates at a meeting point between mystical and aesthetic fields - notions of 'practice' inform both. In 2012 he published Mazdaznan Health & Breath Culture and in 2017 The Egyptian Postures, inspired by a photograph of Itten and his students undertaking some of Mazdaznan's most advanced exercises. He has previously also translated Yves Klein's practical guide Les Fondements du Judo (published in 2009), and holds a black belt in the martial art.

Sol Le Witt's famous edict, from his Sentences on Conceptual Art, 1969, that 'Conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists' is apt for Whittlesea and this body of work. On colour... strives towards touching the ineffable, stepping away from the rational and cerebral towards the affective, the embodied and the intangible.

Pointing towards the transcendent power of sustained daily practice, Whittlesea suggests that it is better to practice a little each day rather than to engage intensely only when the mood takes you; advice that might well apply to a range of artistic or mystical practices, and reminiscent of Gertrude Stein's suggestion that 'if you write a half hour a day it makes a lot of writing year by year'.

Ian Whittlesea, On colour...
The Everyday Press, 2019, 52pp, £22.
Tim Dixon is a writer and is deputy director of Matt's Gallery, London.