Watercolours in 19th Century Vienna

One of the perks of marrying a historian is getting to visit the wonderful places he travels for research. This month we headed to Vienna for some quality research time at the Austrian archives. Austria is pretty notorious for having limited opening hours and as the archives were closed on a Friday, I was drafted in as a research assistant to photograph the stacks of documents Kurt was going over. It was AMAZING.

Vienna is a beautiful city and while we were there yellow ochre buildings saturated in the bright light made for a perfect early spring. You’d think we spent all our time outdoors but where we spent most of it was in the swish national archive facility – dark, quiet and climate controlled to protect the millions of pieces of paper (some nine hundred years old) from disintegrating. Feeling the hush of the room, of dozens of historians carefully turning precious paper, was memorable and humbling.

There is so much to discover in the archives. In one of the boxes I went through I discovered these vibrant and vivid watercolour sketches of Austrian military uniforms from the eighteenth century. Some of them were at least 270 years old, but most were later artist studies made for larger works in the nineteenth century (I’m told!).

Watercolour sets were an essential part of the kit for touring artists who worked closely with the nobility of Austria to document their holidays and adventures – people have been wanting to capture the romanticism of their holidays long before Instagram! The same thing happened with the military manufacturers and artists, who used watercolour paintings of modelled uniforms to depict the exact look textile workers needed to achieve.

In my practice I use watercolour to tint the page, suggesting colour where sounds resonate with me in a song. I only layer paint deeply when sounds are created by strong digital instruments or the beat of a song makes you get up and jump. Seeing how these watercolours were used to suggest folds, cleats, buttons, and the exact colour of woollen fabric reminded me that paintings in the past were prized as much for their aesthetic qualities, as for their practicality.

Without photographs and the amazing colour wheels we can use today, artists had to try and match exactly the shade of cloth they were depicting. It is hard to know how well they did. But these works are an incredible insight into how the paint was used, and how important it was to people you would never expect! The image of a moustached soldier standing at attention, so an artist can capture the exact colour of his pants is enough to make you laugh.

It was also interesting to see just how important looking good was to military men of the past, and what it meant for them to be distinguished and well dressed. It’s partly this physical military culture that Kurt is investigating. The use of colour to identify with a group, or to say something about yourself, happens today in our choice of art, clothes and interior design.

It also works in my synaesthesia art where my works identify the genre, tone and mood of songs through the colours I use. Heavy Metal is dark blue, black and touches of magenta, whereas Country is vibrant red browns and vivid yellows. It reminds me how much colour means to us, how much it tells us about the world and each other, and why I love getting to surround myself with colour every day.

Sigourney Young xo

April 30, 2018


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I’m Sigourney

I’m a synesthesia artist that will be forever found with paint on my nose, dancing around the studio in my yoga pants. I love travel, gluten-free brownies and working from the home studio I share with my husband. My goal? To bring you into the world of synesthesia and to create a space online that celebrates the colour and meaning of music.

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