Analyzing art/Colours

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Colours[edit | edit source]

Meaning of basic colours[edit | edit source]

The choice of palette determines the preliminary impression the painting has on its viewers. We tend to associate colours with certain emotions or states of mind, and apart from that, certain colours have symbolic meaning. And let us begin with that.[1]

  • White - traditionally stands for innocence,
  • Black - death, evil, elegance, mystery
  • Red - power, anger, passion. In Western world - warning, stop (traffic lights)
  • Yellow - joy, happiness, optimism, but also betrayal, cowardice and jealousy
  • Blue - peace, tranquility, sadness
  • Green - nature, health, envy
  • Orange - energy, balance
  • Grey - intelligence, stability
  • Pink - romance, love.

Pigments versus time[edit | edit source]

While analyzing a work of art you should remember that depending on the times, the artist might have had a limited access to certain pigments. And much as some colours were used symbolically, sometimes the choice of palette was dictated by nothing more than the availability of paints. You can check the history of particular colours on | Webexhibits.

Colours' role[edit | edit source]

Building the structure[edit | edit source]

Cezanne - Still Life

When you study a painting closely, you can see that colours build the entire structure. It may sound obvious, but just think about it! For instance, we tend to perceive shadows as grey, transparent shapes with more or less blurry outlines, whereas they are in fact made of darker tones. And it is not enough to add a hint of black paint to the colour one was already using. Incredible sensitivity to light and tones is required to find a hue that builds the shade. Had the painters presented shadows with grey or blackened hues only, the pictures would be flattened right away. To be frank, rarely is pure black used in paintings - this particular colour always stands out, spoiling the realistic effect. In real world all colours interact, reflecting the hues of the nearest objects, which means ideal black has no right of existence. Cezanne's still life illustrates the mutual impact of colours. While the apples are yellow and orange, at their sides you can see other colours: light blue and brown. You would not suspect such colours on fruit, would you? And yet that is exactly what happens and what a painter has to render if he wants to retain the realistic nature of what he paints. The plate is white, but there are hints of orange (influence of our apples) and of blue (the background). The plate's shadow is not a flat smudge: it is uneven and built of various colours.

Building the mood[edit | edit source]

Bajka zimowa

Apart from this brief technical analysis, it is worth noticing that colours are responsible for our reception of the atmosphere. Lively, energetic colours suggest dynamism and strong emotions while toned, colder hues - pondering, sometimes melancholy, tranquility.

Consider "Bajka zimowa (the Winter Tale) by the Polish artist Ferdynand Ruszczyc. Because it presents a winter scene, the dominance of white comes as no surprise. But the pale palette of light and delicate blue and lavender suggests a nostalgic, pensive mood, which is consistent with the image of a lone pond surrounded by dormant trees.

References[edit | edit source]