Picasso’s Blue Period was reportedly sparked by the suicide of his friend, Carlos Casagemas, and featured subjects including ‘prostitutes, beggars and drunks’. Blues are able to convey desperation and sadness, with those feelings remaining as true in those paintings today as they were a century ago.
In the past, religious artists would call on colour in their work to represent implicit meanings, such as blue for contemplative faith, or green for hope. They placed their trust in the viewers to understand these connotations.
The distinction between using a colour to represent a particular emotion, and trusting the colour to evoke that emotion, is blurred, to say the least. It depends on a shared experience of colour.
A quick look at colours and their typical associations will not be unfamiliar to us:
Red, for danger, passion, but even optimism.
Green, for life, nature and fertility. We need only look around us to see why this is so. It is not to say a look at a landscape will make one broody but, instead, we may feel the richness of earth and comfort derived from that.
White balances and calms. This is deeply entrenched in religion, such as the robes of angels or the virginal bridal gown, and throughout nature—think, simply, of the blank canvas that a blanket of snow creates.
Humans do not experience emotions one at a time, so the way in which paintings use colour can recreate—or attempt to recreate—the sliding scale.
We can look at Lost Mine (1959) by Peter Lanyon, for example, which refers to a tin mine abandoned and then taken over by the sea. Lanyon uses blues to represent the sea and the sky. Snuggled within the painting is a flash of red. It shows a glimpse of the danger, but also the life that teems in the water—and that seeps from the mine itself. The prevailing colour is blue, associated with calmness, sadness or indifference. However, the nature of the brush stroke is sporadic, which evokes a sense of frenzy, or instability.
Art does not rely on colour to evoke different feelings, but also the way in which that colour is represented to us. Is it a single, uniform and smooth colour? Or, is it jagged, rushed and frantic?
Yves Klein, a French painter, produced over 200 blue monochrome paintings, as well as others in red, green, orange and gold. After 1957, Klein worked primarily with blues and designed IKB, or International Klein Blue. These vivid shades of ultramarine have depth due to the resin that carries the pigment. It is not a serene shade, it is meant to capture an essence of feeling – whether it be energy or inspiration.
Art speaks of visual sensation – or, that ‘wide-eyed’ response.
Artist Bridget Riley adopted, what she called, an ‘Egyptian palette’ after a visit to the transcontinental country in the 1980s. Riley’s 1993 oil painting, Nataraja, was described as, ‘an exemplary diagonal stripe painting’ by Toby Treves, when writing for Tate in 2000.
Made using vertical and diagonal lines, it has been meticulously constructed. A great effort was made to balance the colours within the painting, sometimes using as many as 20 shades of each to produce that balance. The distribution of colour contributes to the rhythm of the artwork. Our eyes can dance across the canvas, emulating the title Nataraja, which means ‘Lord of the Dance’ in Sanskrit.
The relationship between colour and emotion is a complex one. Whilst you can make blanket statements such as, ‘Yellow is thought to enhance feelings of emotional distress,’ the way people interpret colour is personal. It depends on texture, contrast and present mood, too.
Next time you are at a gallery, think about how the colours you are looking at affect you.
– Lara Stace, Editor (Art)