Albert Irvin: ‘Colours of Feeling’

Albert Irvin

Filmed in his gloriously paint-splattered studio, Albert Irvin OBE RA discusses the motivations and processes behind his colourful canvases with curator and writer Hans Ulrich Obrist. With an intuitive approach to colour, Irvin’s paintings radiate with feeling.

Learn about the artist’s remarkable life and work in this intimate HENI Talk, filmed before the artist’s passing in 2015 at the age of 92.

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Albert Irvin: I was born in Bermondsey, actually, but when I was 5 my parents moved to north London, just outside Arsenal football ground, in fact. And I went to school there, around there, and at the beginning of the war I was evacuated. And I went to art school in evacuation. I was 17 in August 1939 and the war started in the September. And I got hoiked out kicking and screaming to go into the forces and flew around like an idiot in the Royal Air Force for 5 years. And then when I came out, I went to Goldsmiths, that was 1946.

Hans Ulrich Obrist: And I wanted to ask you how it all all started, how did you as a young artist come to art? Or how did art come to you? Was there an epiphany?

I became aware of Turner. And, in fact, Turner was instrumental in the direction of becoming an abstract painter. The early abstract paintings were more Turner-esque and painted with thinner paint, and less linear.

There was no way that you’re not going to be influenced by the Abstract Expressionists, they were all completely different from each other anyway.

It was conversations with Peter Lanyon which somehow brought you to Abstraction?

I was already heading in that direction, but he talked so well about painting and the way that you could traverse a canvas with a loaded brush as a metaphor for your movement through the world. His world was a landscape and coastal world, mine was urban, but it gave me a clue as to the way you could make the painting directly from experience. In no way depictive, but perceptions and experiences of moving through the world could then be translated into the journey, into the making of the painting.

Your work has always been resolutely urban. We should talk more about this urban experience for you because from your early abstractions there is this urban dérive, or urban flânerie, or urban movement, and sometimes the city even appears in your titles. This big painting is called Nicolson, the other one is called Kingston, so very often in your abstract work you have names…

They’re street names. I like to give them titles. Again, they’re not depictions. I started with the streets around my studio, but I ran out of streets. But I thought to myself that the concept was valid. If they’re got an extra ring of relevance, like it’s where a friend of mine lives, I pick them up. For example, the Serpentine show went on tour, one of its places was the Talbot Rice gallery in Edinburgh (a marvellous gallery) and the street outside was Nicolson Street – that’s my wife’s maiden name, from a Scottish family. So, I called it Nicolson: con amore.

Beautiful. Do you have a colour theory, or were you inspired by a colour theory? Or is it purely intuitive?

They are intuitive, really. But I use Chevreul, complementary colours. My first thought when I put a colour down is to think of a complementary and then move either nearer to the colour or further away from it: a series of contrasts and kind of mediations between the extremes of complementaries. I mean, if I use a red, I’ve got to have a green to kick it. My colours are more colours of feeling, I think.

I draw into it whilst it’s wet, with these sorts of colours. ‘Colour beginnings’ as I say, as I call them.

In the attempt to acquire a language, another big influence on me was music. I was aware of the immediacy on a human being of the form, space and time of a piece of music. I was seeking to get that kind of immediacy of impact into my painting.

And what kind of music inspired you at that time? What would you listen to?

Well, I listened to classical music, ‘modern classical’ as it seems to be referred to, but people like Boulez, Stravinsky and Schoenberg.

I work with the canvas down horizontally. Not on the floor, propped up on these cans. And the first thing I do is sully the canvas, then I put a colour on it and draw into the colour. A bit like Pollock, off the end of the brush. I used to work straight onto the white of the canvas but I discovered that it was a problem because any mark that you put onto this white canvas is darker than it is, and you’re making a kind of image with a background, and I wanted this space to work into – so I thought if I just colour the canvas so that I kind work with colours that are darker than it is, or lighter than that is. That Turner used to call ‘colour beginnings’.

I think about it a lot, and then work on it a lot. I’m trying make it look like I didn’t think about it at all and it took five minutes.

How did you discover acrylic? Do you remember the day?

I was teaching at Goldsmiths and all the students were using acrylic and I was still using oil paint. I painted quite thin oil paintings at this point. I realised, in purely practical terms, acrylic you could thin down with water – and I discovered the fact that it dried quicker was a great enabler in terms of the making in the painting. It meant I could paint on top of another colour without disturbing it, obviously much quicker than I could with oil paint.

Yes, you can layer it – it’s fascinating. I read in an interview you said that you benefit from this quickly drying paint as you layer them, sometimes it’s more than 30 layers….

Having got the basic colour, I then start to find my way around developing space with bits of painted paper. A bit like Matisse with the papier colé. I tack them onto the canvas.

And it seems particularly that Durham cathedral, the chevron and the lozenge patterns on the columns and the lattice have inspired you. What was it about this cathedral?

It’s quite a simple language in a way – these verticals and blocks and intersections from the edges.

So, it’s not only gestural it’s also constructed. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about this process, because you mentioned that the cut-outs and this collage moment, but then obviously you paint, and I was wondering if you stick to original plans or how chance enters. Are you open to chance? What’s the role of chance?

Absolutely – this journey, I don’t know what the end is going to be.

Jackson Pollock said ‘painting for me is energy made visible’ – what is energy for you? What is painting for you? 

I would to communicate in the painting élan vital. So, the paintings are disposed with as much energy as I can invest in them. And I hope the spectator will respond. I can’t change the world, but I’d like to think I could put something into it that would improve it a bit.

I’ve stuck to my beliefs in painting. I haven’t been deflected from what I believe in by outside forces.  And Fidelio is fidelityso, that was it, I called it Fidelio.

With thanks to

The Estate of Albert Irvin

Gimpel Fils

Hans Ulrich Obrist




Getty Images

National Gallery, London

National Portrait Gallery, London

Wellcome Collection



Music Vine



All paintings © The Estate of Albert Irvin

Featured works:



Albert Irvin, 1989

Acrylic on canvas

304.80 x 609.60cm



Albert Irvin, 1994

Acrylic on canvas


Mile End

Albert Irvin, 1980

Acrylic on canvas

213 x 305cm


Beacon II

Albert Irvin, 1994

Acrylic on canvas

183 x 152 cm



Albert Irvin, 1985

Acrylic on canvas

213 x 305cm



Albert Irvin, 1994

Acrylic on canvas

183 x 153cm



Albert Irvin, 1997

Acrylic on canvas

183 x 153cm



Albert Irvin, 2012

Acrylic on canvas

213.4 x 304.8 cm


Additional Archive

Poor British civilians rent rooms in dilapidated homes in the smoke and grime of the city’s slums

BFI HD Collection / Getty Images


Luftwaffe air raid, Rosyth, Scotland

BFI HD Collection / Getty Images


Children playing games in the street in the East End of London, 9th March 1946

Charles Hewitt / Picture Post / Hulton Archive /Getty Images

The National Gallery, London

(CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)


Goldsmiths College, New Cross, London

Prisma Bildagentur / Universal Images Group / Getty Images


The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up

Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1839

The National Gallery, London

(CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)


Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway

Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1844

The National Gallery, London

(CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)


Margate(?), from the Sea

Joseph Mallord William Turner, c.1835-40

The National Gallery, London

(CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)


J.M.W. Turner

after Charles Martin
etching, (1844)
8 1/4 in. x 3 7/8 in. (211 mm x 99 mm) plate size; 17 1/4 in. x 11 3/4 in. (438 mm x 298 mm) paper size
acquired unknown source, 1973
Reference Collection
NPG D39435

(CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)


Drone shot directly above people walking along Cleethorpes beach

BBC News / Getty images


London Aerials

Sky News / Getty Images


Stepney High Street Sign

Ben Rimmer / Flickr

(CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


Brick Lane and Bangladeshi translation

Richard Baker / Getty Images


Bacon Street E1

M.J. (trailerfullofpix) / Flickr

(CC BY-SA 2.0)


Optics: a colour-circle

After M. E. Chevreul

Coloured process print by R.H. Digeon, c.1868
Wellcome Collection
(CC BY 4.0)


Violin in the hands of a musician

Zoce / Getty Images


Durham Cathedral and Castle in Winter

HPuschmann / Getty Images


The central nave of Durham cathedral (11th-12th century) Durham (Unesco World Heritage List, 1986)

De Agonstini / Getty Images


The Cloister at Durham Cathedral, Durham

Robert Mullan / Getty Images

The Albert Irvin Estate

Albert Irvin’, Gimpel Fils

Mike Tooby, ‘Albert Irvin Obituary’, The Guardian, 27 March 2015

Albert Irvin’, Tate

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