Master Artists and Their Relationship With Color

Master Artists and Their Relationship With Color

By Renee Phillips

There is more than a lifetime of knowledge to gain from master artists and their relationship with color. As we view color through the eyes of great artists we discover their intense passions, unavoidable obsessions and staunch beliefs about the powers of color. This article provides some insight on this huge and incredible subject.  To learn more about our interest in color find out about our online art exhibition “The Healing Power of Color”. You may also want to read my previous article “Dozens of Facts About the Power of Color“.

art and quotes by famous artists

Helen Frankenthaler’s Innovative Evolution Using Color
Helen Frankenthaler was innovative in her use of color and it evolved throughout her career. She began exhibiting her large-scale abstract expressionist paintings in contemporary museums and galleries in the early 1950s. Spontaneity was important to her, as the artist stated, “A really good picture looks as if it’s happened at once.”

She was included in the 1964 Post-Painterly Abstraction exhibition curated by Clement Greenberg that introduced a newer generation of abstract painting that came to be known as “Color Field”. (You’ll find more about “Color Field” later in this article). In the 1960s, she began to place strips of colors near the edges of her paintings, thus involving the edges as a part of the compositional whole. She began to make use of single stains and blots of solid color against white backgrounds, often in the form of geometric shapes. By the 1970s, she started using thicker paint that allowed her to employ bright colors almost reminiscent of Fauvism. Throughout the 1970s, Frankenthaler explored the joining of areas of the canvas through the use of modulated hues, and experimented with large, abstract forms. Her work in the 1980s was characterized as much calmer, with its use of muted colors and relaxed brushwork.

facts about color
The portal and the tower of the Saint Romain Cathedral at morning sun, Harmony in Blue 1893.

Monet’s Obsession With Color

Color may be the most important tool artists can use to express themselves, share their beliefs, convey a message and transform viewers intellectually and emotionally. Claude Monet exclaimed, “Color is my day long obsession, joy and torment.” The artist repeatedly painted the same subject at different times of day and in different weather conditions. One of his best known series is “The Rouen Cathedral”. He captured the facade under different lighting conditions. They are excellent examples of how light affects color on subjects. He reworked these paintings in his studio, as he explored a myriad examples of colors and moods.

When giving advice to artists he wrote, “When you go out to paint, try to forget what objects you have before you, a tree, a house, a field or whatever. Merely think here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow, and paint it just as it looks to you, the exact color and shape.”

Van Gogh’s Beliefs About Color

picture of Vincent Van Gogh, self portrait.
Self-Portrait as a Painter, December 1887 – February 1888, oil on canvas, 20″ x 26″. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Vincent van Gogh frequently expressed his preoccupation with color in his writings. He wrote, “…the painter of the future will be a colourist the like of which has never yet been seen. But I’m sure I am right to think that it will come in a later generation, and it is up to us to do all we can to encourage it, without question or complaint.”

He was deeply aware of the relationship colors had on each other and wrote, “There is no blue without yellow and without orange.”

The Power of Analogous and Complementary Colors

Claude Monet
Calude Monet, Water Lillies, 1908.

Artists have the powerful color wheel at their disposal with which to create an unlimited variety of moods and expressions. Firstly, there are many advantages to using analogous and complementary colors.

The colors that are close together on the color wheel are called analogous colors. Analogous colors can be used to create a sense of calm.  A stunning example of this is Monet’s Water Lilies.

On the contrary, using complementary colors—the ones across from each other on the color wheel (red-green, blue-orange, and yellow-purple) — make both colors seem brighter and more intense. They draw our attention to those areas having the power to vibrate and pop out.

Imagine how different Monet’s painting would be if he had used equal amounts of orange against the blue water.

O’Keeffe’s Masterful Use of  Color

painting by Georgia-O'Keeffe

A stunning example of the use of both analogous and complementary colors to create energy and bold contrast with a sense of harmony and balance is Georgia O’Keeffe’s painting “Lake George Reflection”. This dynamic painting which she created in 1921-1922 measures 36″ x 60″.  In this work of art O’Keeffe is a forceful leader who takes the viewer in the direction she wants us to go. The inimitable master of color and form achieves so much by using a juxtaposition of colors albeit a limited and simple palette. Opposite colors — shades of red and green — serve to express power and contrast, while analogous colors –red against purple and blue with green — create passages of quiet and calmness. Also notice her use of black and white, racing across the middle of the canvas, without which this painting would not have the same glorious intensity and counterbalance.

Van Gogh and The Marriage of Complementary Colors

About complementary colors van Gogh gave this advice to artists, “Instead of trying to reproduce exactly what I see before me, I make more arbitrary use of colour to express myself more forcefully … To express the love of two lovers by the marriage of two complementary colours … To express the thought of a brow by the radiance of a light tone against a dark background. To express hope by some star. Someone’s passion by the radiance of the setting sun.”

The Use of Warm and Cool Colors

Artists use colors to create depth. Warm colors such as reds, yellows, oranges, and red-violets associated with the sun project toward the viewer. Cool colors such as blues, blue-greens, and blue-violets that are usually associated with bodies of water appear to recede into the distance.

Henri Matisse, Les toits de Collioure, 1905, oil on canvas, The Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Russia.

The Fauves

In the early 1900’s artists used a heightened sense of color to express a strong emotional response to nature. These painters were called “fauves,” or wild beasts. While Fauvism as a style began around 1904 and continued beyond 1910, the movement as such lasted only a few years, 1905–1908, and had three exhibitions. The leaders of the movement were André Derain and Henri Matisse.

Matisse and Color to Express Light

Henri Matisse stated, “The chief function of color should be to serve expression. Colour helps to express light, not the physical phenomenon, but the only light that really exists, that in the artist’s brain.” He also wrote, “Before, when I didn’t know what colour to put down, I put down black. Black is a force: I depend on black to simplify the construction. Now I’ve given up blacks.”

Kandinsky’s Theory About Color and Spirituality

As a child Wassily Kandinsky learned to play the cello and piano. As an artist, he made associations between art and music. “The sound of colors is so definite that it would be hard to find anyone who would express bright yellow with base notes, or dark lake with the treble.” He wrote, “Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the harmonies, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.”

Wassilly Kandinsky, Blue Mountain, oil, 76-3/8″ x 51″. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, NY.

Kandinsky wrote extensively about his belief that colors and shapes could affect our mood and that it provokes a psychic vibration. “Color hides a power still unknown but real, which acts on every part of the human body.”

Sculpture and Color

We generally don’t think about sculptors’ thoughts about color and that’s a mistake. For example, there is much to learn from Alberto Giacometti’s words, “If I see everything in gray, and in gray all the colors which I experience and which I would like to reproduce, then why should I use any other color? I’ve tried doing so, for it was never my intention to paint only with gray. But in the course of my work I have eliminated one color after another, and what has remained is gray, gray, gray!”

About Patinas

statue of liberty
The Statue of Liberty. Photo by Petr Kratochvil.

Patinas are applied to bronze sculptures using various chemical solutions, which react with the surface to form a thin layer of color. A patina is technically a layer of corrosion on the metal. Patinas can be either transparent or opaque. Artists can manipulate these reactions to create the desired effect — from gold to green to chocolate.

The rich patina that develops naturally as bronze ages takes a long time and isn’t easily predicted. The Statue of Liberty’s green patina now associated with the renowned symbolic sculpture only appeared after 1900 as the copper oxidized.

An experienced patineur can create a myriad number of colors and effects on a bronze, while a less talented individual can ruin an otherwise skillfully executed sculpture with a bad patina. The application of the patina can make or break any given sculpture.

Turner and The Color Yellow

color master artists
Painting by J.M.W. Turner in which he used large doses of his beloved color yellow.

The British painter J. M. W. Turner, was an English Romantic painter, printmaker and watercolorist known for his expressive colorization and sublime sunlit seascapes. He  had a strong passion for using the color yellow. This caused critics to criticize him, writing that his images were “afflicted with jaundice.” The artist used the experimental watercolor Indian Yellow, which was a fluorescent paint derived from the urine of mango-fed cows. To achieve brighter accents the artist employed the synthetic Chrome Yellow, a lead-based pigment known to cause delirium.

Giotto’s Powerful Message With the Color Blue

Giotto’s masterpiece, the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua
Giotto’s masterpiece, the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Northern Italy.

In most ancient cultures the color gold was was considered to represent the sun and the spirit of God. That changed when Giotto, an Italian painter and architect from Florence during the Late Middle Ages, believed the color blue represented heaven and eternal existence. He became obsessed with the color and painted the ceiling of the Scrovegni Chapel a radiant blue. This was a complete departure from the gold that had been used by previous painters that was associated with opulence and grandeur. The blue sky that fills a large portion of many scenes in the cathedral provides a unifying and expansive feeling of unlimited possibilities.

Picasso’s Blue Period

painting by picasso
Pablo Picasso,The Old Guitarist, oil on panel, 48 3/8″ x 32 1/2″.

It has been said that Picasso’s three year “Blue Period”, from 1901-1904, expressed his bout with depression following the tragic suicide of his friend Carlos Casagemas. It was a tremendous loss for the artist who changed from his typical gregarious personality to one who sank into a period of despair and recluse. Carl Jung referred to Picasso’s mental state as one of schizophrenia.

Possibly his most well known work from this period is The Old Guitarist, which depicts an old beggar in torn clothing, playing the streets of Barcelona, Spain. Picasso’s “Blue Series” series demonstrates how the color blue, when used in heavy doses in the manner in which Picasso used it could propel the viewer into a state of gloom and melancholy.

Color Field Painting

painting by Mark Rothko
White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose), 81″  x 56″.

In the 1940’s and 50’s in NYC, NY a style of painting emerged known as “Color Field” painting. This style is characterized primarily by large fields of flat, solid color spread across or stained into the canvas. In this movement color becomes the subject in itself.

The leading pioneers of this movement were Helen Frankenthaler, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, and Clyfford Still.

Rothko considered color to be an instrument that served a greater purpose which was to evoke our most basic emotions. Each of Rothko’s works was intended to evoke different meanings depending on the viewer. He achieved resonance through the use of layering colors.

“White Center” is part of Rothko’s signature multiform style, in which several blocks of layered colors shimmer on a large canvas.

Leger’s Quote About Color

In his “On Monumentality and Color”, 1943, Fernand Leger wrote, “The craving for color is a natural necessity just as for water and fire. Color is a raw material indispensable to life. At every era of his existence and his history, the human being has associated colour with his joys, his actions and his pleasures.”

The Fascinating Study of Color

This article merely scratches the surface with a small collection of examples in which artists have used color over the ages. I encourage you to explore this subject further and you’ll discover a world of magic awaiting you. You may also want to read  “Dozens of Facts About the Power of Color“.

Enjoy “The Healing Power of Color”

The Healing Power of Color exhibition

Learn more about this exhibition.



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