Paul Klee’s oil-transfer drawings

“Colour possesses me. I don’t have to pursue it. It will possess me always, I know it. That is the meaning of this happy hour: colour and I are one. I am a painter.”
Paul Klee, 1914

Christian Sactarian - Paul Klee, 1920, 4. Oil-transfer drawing and watercolour on paper on board. The Museum of Modern Art, NY.

Christian Sectarian – Paul Klee, 1920, 4. Oil-transfer drawing and watercolour on paper on board. The Museum of Modern Art, NY.

Paul Klee (1879-1940) is one of my all time favourite artists. His delicate use of colour always gets me. I couldn’t make it to the exhibition “Paul Klee: making visible” at Tate Modern in spring but I enjoyed the excellent researched catalogue from a to z!

In the Wilderness - Paul Klee, 1921, 22. Oil-transfer drawing and watercolour on paper on cardboard. Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern.

In the Wilderness – Paul Klee, 1921, 22. Oil-transfer drawing and watercolour on paper on cardboard. Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern.

Klee began to exhibit a little over a hundred years ago in his hometown Bern (Switserland). For a long time he was not very successful, he performed as a violinist and he taught art students for over a decade. At the heart of his career lays a sustained involvement with the Bauhaus, the hothouse for the creative revolution of the twentieth century in Europe.

Room Perspective with Inhabitants - Paul Klee, 1921, 24. Oil-transfer drawing and watercolour on paper on cardboard. Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern.

Room Perspective with Inhabitants – Paul Klee, 1921, 24. Oil-transfer drawing and watercolour on paper on cardboard. Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern.

Colleagues of Klee recalled his studio as ‘carefully ordered confusion’. Klee established an environment in which to work on several pieces simultaneously which allowed him to produce watercolours, drawings and oil paintings at the same time and in generous quantities. He kept track of his output in his ‘oeuvre catalogue’ of completed works which he maintained for over thirty years. Each work is given a code which he inscribes on virtually every work on paper. For example, 1921/24 on ‘Room Perspective with inhabitants’ above announces that it is the 24th completed work in 1921.

The Twittering Machine - Paul Klee, 1922, 151. Oil-transfer drawing and watercolour on paper on cardboard. The Museum of Modern Art, NY.

The Twittering Machine – Paul Klee, 1922, 151. Oil-transfer drawing and watercolour on paper on cardboard. The Museum of Modern Art, NY.

Klee was inventive in many ways. Just as he made his own tools and brushes, so he developed his own techniques. For example his ‘oil-transfer’ of which all drawings shown in this post are examples. His ‘oil-transfer’ was essentially a home-made tracing system. A sheet of paper coated with black oil paint was, when dry to the touch, laid face down on what would be the host sheet for the image. On top of both was placed a drawing, the lines of which were retraced with an etching needle so as to press the oil paint onto the bottom sheet. The atmosphere of these ‘oil-transfer’ drawings is enhanced by the smudges of black paint pressed through by the drawing hand and which provides a resist to the superimposed coloured washes.

Ghost of a Genius - Paul Klee, 1922, 10. Oil-transfer drawing and watercolour on paper on card. Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh.

Ghost of a Genius – Paul Klee, 1922, 10. Oil-transfer drawing and watercolour on paper on card. Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh.

Paul Klee stated: ‘Art does not reproduce the visible, rather, it makes visible’. And that might well be the reason why i simply can’t stop looking at his fascinating work.

All pictures shown are scans from the catalogue ‘Paul Klee: making visible’, 2013, Tate Publishing.

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