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  • Writer's pictureShawn Dell Joyce artist

Matisse and Wild Color or Fauvism

Henri Matisse is widely regarded as the greatest colorist of the 20th century. The French artist used color as the foundation for his expressive, decorative and large-scale paintings. He once wrote that he sought to create art that would be “a soothing, calming influence on the mind, rather like a good armchair”.

Heavily influenced by Paul Gauguin, he once spent every cent he had purchasing a Gauguin painting because it he felt a kinship to the "wild color." This garnered Matisse the moniker of "Father of Fauvism." Fauve is French for wild animal, and was used as a put down by critics at the Paris Salon for the wild color chosen by Gauguin and Matisse.


Matise was frenemies with Picasso. They loved each other and gravitated toward each other for parties and events, but had lengthy disagreements on art. Both were considered equally successful during their time so the competition was intense between them. Artists friends sharpen each other in a way that nonartists never will. Its important to build and cultivate these friendships.


"The Dance" Is probably Matisse's most famous painting. Here you see how he utilized complementary color to make the tension between the positive form and negative space. Fauvism is the use of complements and the jarring contrast it creates in the eye.

Matisse loved his cats. Later in life, after winning a bout against cancer but losing the use of his legs, Matisee was confined to a wheelchair and homebound. He began painting simplified room interiors populated by his cats.

In my classical training class, we used his process to create our own Fauvist painting. To try this at home, take a photo of your cat in some calm pose and put composition lines horizontally and vertically like this.


Use the photo reference as a basis to make a simple line drawing of the same scene. You can change the composition to make it more attractive if you wish.


Use the red composition lines to help you transfer your finished sketch to the canvas. Remember this is a simple line drawing and not a value sketch.


Now for the values, squint and look at your b&w photo reference. Number the values from darkest (5), next to darkest (4), middle value (3), light (2) and lightest light (1). You can put these numbers on the canvas if you like but paint may not cover them. Put them on your sketch instead.




Now using this bright Color as Value chart you can paint by numbers. Start with the darks and use any of the colors on the 5 line to fill in your 5's on the canvas .




Put in all your 5's first (darks) then your 4's (next to darks) and develop a strong design. Simplify the forms so that you have only 2-3 colors tops on each form. Remember you are making a flat, colorful painting.


This is the halfway point. Once you have most of the darks in place. Use your colorwheel and start putting in the complements of each color beside it. Everything that touches the cat should be orange or red (the complement of blue) so I'm putting streaks of orange in the drapes and yellow/orange light through the window. This is the trick of the Fauves!


When you are finished, you will have a very bright and flat composition. This is the goal. PLAY! Don't try to make a highly realistic painting-it's an exercise in color theory. Have some fun with it!

I'd love to see what you do. If you make this painting at home send me a jpeg.

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