Why Paul Klee’s Art is an Ingenious Blend of Process and Imagination

Where artistic possibility and technical excellence meet

Christopher P Jones
5 min readNov 21, 2023

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Battle scene from the comic fantastic opera ‘The Seafarer’ (1923) by Paul Klee. Gouache, oil, pencil, watercolour, paper. 50 × 34.5 cm. Kunstmuseum Basel, Basel, Switzerland. Image source Kunstmuseum Basel

The paintings of the Swiss-German artist Paul Klee have the beguiling quality of old European folklore. For me, their meaning is so often ambiguous, seeming to fall into a chasm of possibilities without ever meeting the firm ground below.

The Seafarer is everything a work of art should be: There is light and dark. There is humour and danger. Through contrast, symmetry, colour and form, the painting maintains visual engagement to the point where it becomes a complete world in itself.

If you take a moment to adjust your eyes to the teeming myriad of shapes that zigzag through the image, you can connect with something that is both cerebral and instinctive, dancing with your imagination.

So how did Klee achieve this?

Technical Imagination

One way of exploring Klee’s imagery is to see how his working methods moved continually between formal technical procedures and the imaginative possibilities of storytelling.

You can see, for instance, how this painting must have been made: carefully laid washes of watercolour placed one on top of another in horizontal and vertical bands, steadily darkening towards the outer edges.

Battle scene from the comic fantastic opera ‘The Seafarer’ (1923) by Paul Klee. Gouache, oil, pencil, watercolour, paper. 50 × 34.5 cm. Kunstmuseum Basel, Basel, Switzerland. Image source Kunstmuseum Basel

As is customary with watercolour, Klee almost certainly worked from light to shade, so that the richer tones consist of multiple layers of paint, deepening the tone each time.

The effect is theatrical, like a shaft of light above a stage.

What is formed is a grid pattern, an organic abstract texture that acts both as the background to the painting and a primary motif within it. It becomes a vital part of the fabric of the image — indeed, just like a textile, it gives the painting a sort of structural weave.

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