In a previous post, we looked at the powerful role of lines, both obvious and implied, in shaping the mood of a work of art. This time, let’s take a look at the effects of color.
As you probably know, solid, simple colors are associated with many basic emotions and can take on symbolic meaning. For instance, red is considered the color of passion, anger, or love, while blue is the color of calm, trustworthiness, and security. At the same time, colors can be associated with elements of nature, such as fire (red and orange), water (blue), and earth (brown). [More details on color symbolism can be found here.]
Color is thus one of the most crucial conveyors of meaning in art, often functioning at a subconscious level. Let’s look through a few examples to see how we react to artists’ choices of color in various styles and time periods…
- Jan Van Eyck – Arnolfini Portrait
Jan Van Eyck, one of the very first European artists to use oil paints in the 1400s, painted the iconic Arnolfini Portrait using deep, vibrant colors, each of which carries symbolic meaning along with the numerous carefully selected objects featured in this work (for more details on his fascinating use of symbols, watch this awesome video). Specifically, the rich green of the woman’s dress can be seen as a reference to fertility, since green is often the color of life (think of spring, the return of the leaves, fertile fields, etc.). The bright red of the bed can hint at a sense of passion and intensity within the marriage, while the blacks and browns of the husband’s coat and hat imply a serious sense of power, dignity, and respectability. Overall, the purity of the colors can also be seen as a reference to the couple’s wealth, since these materials would be extremely expensive.
- Edward Hopper – Summertime
Summertime focuses on the figure of a young woman dressed in white emerging from the shadows of a large building, looking upwards expectantly towards the promise of a happy summer. The painting is composed largely of white and shades of grey, colors that exude a quiet calm and a sense of peace. Yet there is a strong sensuality in the tightness of her dress, outlining her graceful figure and tracing the shape of her leg beneath the skirt. The color white makes reference to purity and innocence, which in light of the sensual undertones could suggest the young woman’s virginity, especially as she is only just emerging from the safe enclosure of her home (a symbol of coming of age perhaps…). Overall, the light palette creates a hopeful, happy vision of pure youth and opportunity.
- Vincent Van Gogh – Starry Night
Van Gogh’s well-known painting Starry Night uses powerful colors resulting in a deeply moving image (see an interesting explanation). The dark blue and bright white highlights of the night sky create a thick blanket over the sleepy town, which blends into the hilly landscape. The brilliant yellow moon and shining stars illuminate the painting, contrasting the energetic sky-life with the silent, static earth below. The dark, heavy outline of a cypress tree (a symbol of death) connects the two layers of the scene. Taking a cue from this dark symbolism, I would suggest that the painting documents a spiritual journey from a state of grounded reality to a lively, liberating sense of freedom as the soul moves across the sky, enlightened by the vastness brightness of the universe, a journey documented in color.
As a note: this is what happens when colors take my imagination on wild journeys. Colors have incredibly different influences on different people… what is your reaction to the colors in these works?