‘A mix of control and accident’ – Helen Calder in her own words

Helen Calder’s Everything in its right place (Arrangement for seventeen colour groups 17/51) is currently on display in Kaleidoscope: Abstract AotearoaAnō he kōpere: Te reo tohu. Here, the artist talks about what drew her to paint, the role accidents play in her work, and taking inspiration from Radiohead.

Helen Calder, with Everything in its right place (Arrangement for seventeen colour groups 17/51), 2011-2017, acrylic paint, stainless steel pins. Photograph by Lucy Li. Courtesy of Helen Calder


“I am attracted to painting because of its history and the medium. The medium is wonderfully malleable. It has the capacity to be a tactile object and seductive surface.

When I start making a painting I have an an idea but the outcome is shaped as much by accident.

I experiment with paint and ways of applying it to give different surfaces, to see how far I can push the medium. In an earlier group of paintings I poured paint on to panels and then off again to leave shallow relief surfaces.

There was a particular day when I was in a hurry and left a panel still draining its surface on to plastic. When I came back the next morning there was a beautiful pooled paint form. It was a wonderful accident, and actually typifies what happens in my studio, a process that is a mix of control and accident.”


“The paint accident sat in a corner of my studio for a long time before I started making work with skins of paint. Removing a support rendered the skins pliable but required another mechanism to give shape to them. I suspended them from ceilings with rubber cords, hung others over rails or pegs, and some simply slumped on the floor. Architectural space became the frame for each work.”


“Earlier my colour palette was defined by the supports I was using – plywood, veneers, and plasterboard and a limited range of house paint colours, often mistints or black and white. I was thinking about the decoration of the wall, the marketing and fashion aspect of colour, paintings on walls, and what that relationship was about.

My use of colour has been shaped by an interest in the experience and perception of colour; how it makes us feel; how placement of one colour with another alters its appearance.

With Everything in its Right Place, each of the seven central groups of colours is placed to mimic the shift in colour across a spectrum while the outer groups of colours are less intense, moving towards warm and cool grays. Even the more saturated colours are only approximate to a colour spectrum. The yellow is tinged with green to give a strong acidic lemon yellow. Despite being a light tone, this yellow has the vibrancy to hold its own in the centre of the work.”


“I was nearing completion of this work when a particular line of music got stuck in my head – “I woke up sucking on a lemon” – from listening to Radiohead’s Everything in its Right Place, so that’s how the title of the work came about. And so at times the titles are accidental, like a lot of the work happens accidentally in the studio. Things come together in a sort of serendipitous way, and then it’s about making choices as to how you take those and use them.”

Helen Calder on Collections Online