Beyond the pale

“TO think we've reached such extremes... Apocalypse because of a white square!” As Yasmina Reza brings her play, Art, to a close, the audience is left to wonder how a white painting can deal a near-fatal blow to the friendship of three bourgeois Parisians. Can a white square really elicit such passion?

I have been making“ white” paintings for the past three years. Or, should I say, I have been making paintings that appear to be white. And, when I say white, I don’t exactly mean the definition my dictionary gives of white, although it is a remarkably poetic one: “ white, adj, of the colour of pure snow”. I think my paintings are paynes grey, burnt sienna, yellow ochre and cadmium red, sap green, prussian blue and chrome yellow. It takes all of these colours and more to make white. Observe the glass of milk you’re about to drink or the bunch of lilies on your kitchen table. They aren’t the same colour, yet both are white. Does white as a single colour really exist? The idea of it has exerted a certain power throughout the history of art.

Take the 17th-century Spanish painter Francisco de Zurbaran, one of the outstanding painters of the Baroque movement. He used white as one of his favourite pictorial devices. Famous for his paintings of repentant monks and martyred saints, naturalism was merely a tool for him in the service of impassioned spirituality. One of his most extraordinary works is that of Saint Serapion (1628) which was made for the De Profundis hall in the mercedarian monastery in Seville. Saint Serapion was to be suspended in death in the room where monks were placed before burial. His body is draped in white robes, each wrist bound with rope as his head falls to one side. He is beautiful.

Zurbaran’s use of white paint creates the drama in the painting, yet there also exists an overwhelming feeling of calm. Each fold is deeply carved as clear colour and contrasting lighting accentuate form and lifelike illusion. Zurbaran’s white has an incredible purity and precision as he traps his subject under a radiant spotlight, seemingly allowing the fabric a life of its own. He was a master in the rendering of white material that is at once crisp and soft and heavy. Perhaps it’s the apparent simplicity of the colour white that is so compelling in this painting. Each fold has been pared down to the basic elements of light and shade. As a viewer you are seduced by this simplicity, only to realise you have been duped. Zurbaran has elevated the humble fabric of the robes of Saint Serapion to a divine level with pure, magnificent white.

One of my earliest introductions to painting was through the work of Jean August Dominique Ingres, the 19th-century French painter. I first saw his work as a child on a visit to the National Gallery in London, and he has been an enduring influence on my own work. Indeed, my most recent paintings owe a debt to Ingres’s use of white fabric in his portraits of women. There is no finer example of this than in his portrait of Madame Rivire (1806). She sits resting on one arm within the oval frame of the painting almost enveloped in white fabric, the most striking piece of which is a white shawl that encircles her body, enhancing the form below.

Ingres’s unique skill transforms this piece of white cloth into a virtuoso performance in technique. The shawl becomes the very soul of the painting. Madame Rivire seems to succumb to the design of the fabric surrounding her, each white fold carefully arranged by the artist not only to suggest movement but to explore a latent sensuality in the inanimate subject matter. Both Ingres and Zurbaran have the ability to liberate, in different ways, a piece of white clothing from its original function.

But how much of this is due to the colour itself? There is no doubt that white is a colour that is open to interpretation. But why should it be any different from any other colour? Could it be because it is bound up with our earliest memories? The use of white by a painter allows the viewers, to a certain extent, to project their own lived experience on to the canvas. To me, white suggests the intimacy of the years before the transition into the adult world: those early, distant recollections of clutching fleeced cotton for its comforting softness, the delicate clothes worn closest to the body or the safety of being tucked tightly into bed at night.

Cloth is an integral part of all of our lives. In every moment of every day, fabrics are present and they witness life’s most intimate scenes. Fabric is meaningful to all of us in some way. All of these things help form my relationship with this most enigmatic of colours. For a painter, its possibilities are endless. No other colour is so affected by its surroundings. No other colour has its reflective qualities, absorbing the minimum and reflecting the maximum of light rays. It has a denser, stiffer quality on the brush than its gaudier neighbours on the palette.

To attempt to make white paintings is to induce misery on a grand scale, but perhaps the difficulty of using white is also part of its attraction. There is little room for error when using this colour. The qualities that are so suggestive in white can sometimes remain tantalisingly elusive. I often stand in the studio watching the light change and the painting with it.

Perhaps like the characters in Art you may be wondering why there should be so much fuss over a white painting. It’s just a white painting, after all. Well, it all seems pretty complicated to me.

Alison Watt’s painting Love is included in White, which starts on 7 May at the Ingleby Gallery ( 0131 556 4441). She has also been shortlisted for the Jerwood Painting Prize. The winner will be announced on 20 May.