Colour Symbolism in Art

It is widely known that colors can be used to invoke mood in art, but what are the moods traditionally associated with each colour and how has this association been used to create mood in a given painting?

Colour Psychology in Art

Without colors, the artist can do little to convey a mood in painting. Imagine if Van Gogh had no yellow pigment for his Sunflowers or if the Impressionists had no ultramarine. The moods of such paintings would be very different. In this regard, let’s look at what is traditionally associated with each colour and how these colours have been used in painting.

How Red has been used in Art

Red is associated with anger, blood, passion, vigor sex and sensuality. It is also thought to stimulate the senses and provide energy. Dirty red can bring about a feeling of claustrophobia, as can be seen in Rothko’s red series or of torment, as seen in Francis Bacon’s screaming popes. And yet red can have a vitalizing effect as can be seen in Matisse’s La Danse and Red Studio.

Orange evokes energy but with less fury than red. Bright orange brings optimism, stability and resolution. The bright, toasty sunlight and skin tones of the Tahitian natives as seen in Gauguin’s paintings forms such an example.

Yellow in Art

Yellow is associated with confidence and the status quo. But in art, can bring about a feeling of well being and life. See Cezanne’s studies of Mont Sainte-Vitoire. Paul Klee favoured golds, ochres and yellows in his paintings to convey serenity and sensuality. But a dirty or jaundiced yellow can bring about an ominous air as can be seen in de Chirico’s Melancholy and Mystery of the Street. Yellow is also associated with caution.

How Green in Used in Painting

Green has strong associations with environment, regrowth, and the natural world, Rousseau’s jungle scene Surprised! conveys the wildness of nature. Monet’s The Water Lily Pond, brings about an airless yet spacious feel. Green is also seen to be a colour, of hope, equanimity and the democratic. See the backdrop in Holbein the Younger’s The Ambassadors, the figures in front of which are on a quest to keep the church united.

Blues in Art

Blue invokes inner peace and stimulates energy. Suffers of SAD (seasonal affective disorder) has shown to respond well to exposure to blue light – a color associated with a bright, clear sky. Yves Klein viewed blue as a colour of spirituality, freedom and meditation as can be seen in his blue resin works. In similar vein, a feeling of the celestial and grandeur can be seen in Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne. Dark blue and indigo, however, can have a tranquilizing effect to the point of melancholy – hence ‘feeling blue.’

 

The Colour Brown in Art

Brown is associated with dependability, stability but can be dour and melancholic. Many early oil paintings contain predominantly earth colours because certain pigments were costly or difficult to attain, so it is debatable whether the colours chosen were really intended to set a mood, but Rembrandt’s later self-portraits possess more earth colors than his earlier works, perhaps to reflect how life’s trials had drained the colour out of him.

How White is Portrayed in Painting

White can have a calming effect and is associated with purity, innocence and cleanliness. But Holman Hunt’s use of white in The Awakening Conscience reflects how moral values are put to the test in the female. She wears a white dress, but will it remain unsoiled? White is also seen as a lack of something, as can be seen in Mondrian’s Composition in Red, Blue and Yellow, comprising of colour grids set against a white background. Such minimalism has been used to extreme effect in Ryman’s Courier II featuring white enamel flatly applied onto a panel.

Grey and Black in Art

Black is commonly associated with depression, death and mystery. Blacks and greys are used predominantly in David’s The Death of Marat, where the alabaster-toned figure is set luridly against a black background. Monochrome is the mainstay of the Vanitas still life, such as Da Heem’s paintings symbolizing death. Such still life portrays human skulls and desiccated objects to describe the transience of life. But black can also be used to add drama, as can be seen in Caravaggio’s Doubting Thomas.

Colour and Mood in Art

Colour and their mood associations have been used in art throughout the ages to convey a message. Without such a wide palette, mood would be difficult to convey. But colours can often have conflicting associations and a shift in tone can alter the whole mood of the painting. The example of a buoyant yellow versus a jaundiced yellow is such an example. Again, blue can be uplifting and spiritual but can also be melancholic.
 
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