Home Introduction Jesus Mary Apostles Saints Spiritual Themes Genesis Moses Deuteronomic History Educating Arte Full new Screen

Lesson Ten – The emotional Value of Colours

Zeuxis and Arte walk again among the stands of the flower exhibition of Epinal.

Zeuxis: Are you not exhilarated at the sight of these tapestries of colours, Arte? How do you feel when you see all this?

Arte: I do indeed feel wonderful, Zeuxis. We finally came to a place where my soul is uplifted. Why did we not start here in the first place, and learn immediately about colours? Look how marvellous they are in so many combinations! Far more than the flowers, I like the effusion of colours. How I understand the English that love flowers in an often bleak country, and how well I understand that they like contrasts of colours.

Zeuxis: So colours evoke feelings in you.

Arte: Of course. And you made me read Goethe, who talked about the emotions associated with individual colours. When I look at the flowers, I recognise some of the emotions he mentioned. That knowledge has opened my mind.

Zeuxis: All right, then, if this is what you like, let’s talk more the emotional values of colour. Please help me with what Goethe and Kandinsky wrote on this subject.

Zeuxis: Mankind has lived for tens of thousands of years in the environment of nature, as we know it. The colours we perceive have become associated in our mind, in a combination of physical and psychological stimuli, with certain feelings, and it is with those feelings that we are most concerned, since these affect us most deeply. Our psychological responses to colour influence our way of looking and experiencing paintings. That emotional perception of colours has been shaped very much by social and cultural factors. The feeling of colour varies from culture to culture and from century to century. The emotional values of colours also change with culture. Feelings for colour are not the same in Western Europe, North and South America, Japan, Arabia or China. In our lesson I will explain how western painters could have felt about colours, and how they used them, and still do so today, to call to mind certain emotions in viewers. Colours are symbolic in our societies, and colours have been used as a code value.

Arte: Then let’s get on with it.

Zeuxis: I asked you to read two books, Arte, one written by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and one by Wassily Kandinsky.
When we talk of the emotional value of colours, it is good to refer to how people with special sensibilities for colours thought of them. One of these painters, who wrote on colours, was indeed our Wassily Kandinsky. He discussed colours and feeling in a treatise entitled "Über das Geistige in der Kunst" or "On the Spiritual in Art", published at the end of 1911, and that is the book you read. Another artist who wrote with much feeling on the emotional values of colours was of course Johann Wolfgang van Goethe. Goethe wrote that experience taught particular colours excited particular states of feeling. Goethe told of colours in terms of force and weakness, warmth and coldness, proximity and distance, repulsion and attraction, action and privation, light and shadow, brightness and darkness. He named these contrasts by the terms plus and minus.
You read the opinions of both these writers, and I ask you to recall their comments to explain for some colours the psychological effects.

Arte: All right!

Zeuxis: The emotional value of colours has changed with time. Leon Battista Alberti wrote in 1436 that there were four true colours, as there were four elements. Red was the colour of fire, blue the colour of the sky, green of the water, whereas grey was the colour of the earth.
We will go back to the Late Middle Ages, and follow Johan Huizinga’s appreciation of colours of those times. Huizinga (1872 – 1945) was a Dutch historian who wrote an excellent book on the period with the title "Herfsttij der Middeleeuwen", or "The Autumn of the Middle Ages". Huizinga’s perception of feelings for colours went much back to a chronicle of the Herald of Sicily called "Le Blason des Couleurs". The Herald of Sicily praised light yellow-blue, orange-white, orange-rose, rose-white, and black-and-white combinations. Blue-green and green-red were commonly used but not considered very beautiful. Our current preferences are blue and grey. This is an example of how tastes for colours have changed over the centuries.

Arte and Zeuxis walk on.

Zeuxis has a sudden idea: You pick the colours we will talk about, Arte!

Arte: All right, Zeuxis. Here is a large bed of blood-red tulips. Red is our first colour.


Zeuxis: Red photons have the longest wavelength and the most energy. Red is a warm colour. Infrared rays burn our skin, and so the red photons bring us a sensation of warmth.
Red is the colour of burning fire. It is the colour of flowing blood and of life itself. But when a man bleeds he is hurt, so red is the colour of danger. When our traffic lights are red we cannot pass; again, we perceive red as the colour of danger, the colour of interdiction.
Red has a very stimulating effect on people. It has connotations of strength, of masculinity, of liveliness and of turbulence. Red is the colour of power, of triumph, of warmth and of joy. It is a colour of love. The robe of Jesus Christ was usually of red colour in paintings. With Jesus, red indicated love, masculinity and triumph, but also the blood that Jesus would pour at this death.
Red is the colour of red wine, of the juice of the full grapes and their skins ripened in the sun. Red is a sun colour. Red is the colour of determination, but it is also a colour that is close, intimate to the viewer.
Kandinsky told that red attracts the viewer, draws him closer and into the picture. Red is literally an attractive colour.
Red is the colour of fire, of passion. Irish girls with red hair are supposed to be passionate and energetic.
Red was the colour of revolution, the colour of the Communist flag and emblems.

Arte: Goethe found in red gravity and dignity, grace and attractiveness. His feelings on red were much the same as described by Kandinsky.

Zeuxis draws out his magic screen and projects a picture.

-> Mark Rothko (1903-1970). Red on Maroon. The Tate Gallery. London. 1959.

Zeuxis: For an example of the effect of just one colour on a viewer, or of at most a few delicate shades of the same hue, we refer to an abstract painting. A group of painters in New York in the 1960s and 1970s emphasised large areas of a few colours. Their movement used colour to express emotions and one of their foremost representatives was Mark Rothko. He made a painting in 1959 called "Red on Maroon". This painting expresses well all the qualities of red. Which emotions go through you when you look at this painting?

Arte: I feel sad but warm. I would like to lose myself in these surfaces. These are the colours of autumn in the woods.

Zeuxis: In the Middle Ages, red could be the colour of love. Red was the most beautiful colour, and brown the ugliest. But red was then also the colour of crime and sin. The hair of Judas, the traitor who sold Christ, was painted red, and until our days in Western Europe men with red hair are looked at with suspicion, even though the feeling is much diminished. Red was the hair of the Vikings that attacked Western Europe in the Middle Ages. A connotation of being wild and weird is attached to red.
Red is now also a colour of eroticism, of provocative underwear. It might be the colour of prostitutes.
Red seems to be associated with particular shapes, mostly with right-angled shapes, such as the square. The symbol of the Bauhaus school, whose teachers brought first to the general awareness such emotional relations between colour and form, could have been the red square, the yellow triangle and the blue circle.

Zeuxis: What will our next colour be?

Arte: Here we come to a rare kind of colour for flowers: look at those blue roses that grow to the ceiling!


Zeuxis: Blue photons have short wavelengths. They lie at the opposite side of red in the natural spectrum. Blue is the light of the sky, and we know that the higher we climb the colder it gets. So blue is associated with feelings of coldness.

Arte: Kandinsky also wrote that blue is a cold colour. It is the colour of heaven. Blue calls a viewer to the infinite. Blue is the aspiration to the mystic, to an existence of a higher order, to transcendence, to a super-natural existence. It is related to the circle, a closed and cool shape.

Zeuxis: Blue is a peaceful, tranquil colour, but leaves a somewhat sad impression. Blue does not attract the viewer, but keeps him or her at a distance. Blue lives for itself, does not commit to the viewer. It is a passive colour. Bright blue is resplendent and glorifying. But its coldness has a chilling effect on the viewer.
The cloak of the Virgin Mary, the maphorion, is traditionally of the blue colour. That tradition, however, dates from the beginning of fresco and oil painting. Before those times, before the thirteenth century, Mary was painted in warmer and more sombre tones. Blue and white was used when Roman Catholicism started to regard more and more Mary as the Immaculate Virgin, hardly approachable by humans. The Virgin is almost always depicted motionless, a symbol of peaceful but distant glory, compassionate but distant. She turned inwardly in the mystic of her Immaculate Conception. Hence painters used cold colours, the light blue and the white, in images of the Virgin. The Virgin’s blue became thus brighter and lighter in hue over the centuries.

Arte: Goethe found blue also to be a powerful hue. For him, a blue surface seemed to retire from a viewer, and to draw the viewer after it. He found here coldness, emptiness. Blue was the colour of melancholy and of gloom.

Zeuxis: The French, very original artist Yves Klein made many monochrome half abstract, half figurative blue paintings. At a Sorbonne lecture in 1959 he spoke as follows on the colour blue: "Blue has no dimensions, it is beyond dimensions, whereas the other colours are not. They are pre-psychological expanses, red, for example, presupposing a site radiating heat. All colours arouse specific associative ideas, psychologically material or tangible, while blue suggests at most the sea and sky, and they, after all, are in actual, visible nature what is most abstract G86 ."

Zeuxis: Blue is a non-committing colour. It is a discrete colour, and hence used in the flags of international associations such as the United Nations or the European Union. It is a non-aggressive colour.
When we feel down we have "the blues". Just how blue moody the colour blue can be is shown in Barnett Newman’s "Cathedra" of 1951. Barnett Newman was another painter of Mark Rothko’s generation, who used colours to express emotions. Various shades of deep blue indicate the depths of the cosmos, the distant mystery of the universe. An equally cold white vertical line breaks the blue field to indicate another space behind the blue, or opens up the blue space.

Zeuxis shows a picture of Barnett Newman, all in blue and white.

-> Barnett Newman (1905-1970). Cathedra. Stedelijk Museum. Amsterdam.1951.

Zeuxis: The Romans used little blue G85 . But blue paint has been discovered on the armour of a statue of Emperor Augustus. In the chariot races run in the Circus Maxima of Rome, four teams competed; one was dressed in red, the other in white; the third in green, and the last in blue. So Romans did use blue. In the Middle Ages blue was a male colour, as opposed to red, which was the colour of women. Red was considered a very beautiful colour, the colour of robes to be worn at feasts. Blue in the Middle Ages was as warm and true a colour as red and green. Blue was consistently used in religious scenes for Saint Peter’s tunic, whereas his cloak was usually yellow G97 . John Gage showed that Philipp Otto Runge (1777-1810), a German painter, formulated a relationship among colours based on the Christian Trinity. Blue characterised the Father, red the Son and yellow the Holy Spirit G97 .

Zeuxis projects the Beate Angelico’s painting.

-> Fra Angelico (ca. 1400-1455). The Coronation of the Virgin. Musée du Louvre. Paris. Ca. 1430-1435.

Zeuxis: In the Renaissance, the primary colours were used in all brightness and splendour. Look at Fra Angelico’s paintings. Fra Angelico used blue as a resplendent colour to the same extent as he applied green and red. And even combinations of dark blue and violet were not avoided in the Middle Ages.
In Fra Angelico’s "Coronation of the Virgin", the painter applied almost only the primary colours. Red, blue and green are situated next to each other and are repeated in symmetry. There is no fear of stark contrast here, since Angelico made the colours so light that they are fine and delicate, and in several places he separated the colours from each other by a clearer hue. On the right for instance he painted a Saint in a blue robe and a green cloak, but these two conflicting colours are light and separated by a golden lining.
In the Middle Ages, blue was the colour of faithfulness when used in circumstances pertaining to love or falling in love. Blue was the colour of willingness, of openness. A French saying goes "Bleu, je veux" or "Blue, I grant". But blue could be feigned, and hence later also appeared as the colour of unfaithful lovers and of transitoriness in love.

Zeuxis: We have used the words warm for red and cool for blue. This is called the temperature of a colour. All colours can thus be associated with a temperature, and appear warmer of cooler depending on the degree of red and blue they contain. When we will talk later of the juxtaposition of colours, we will also see that a colour can induce cooler feelings when it is juxtaposed with a warmer colour. The temperature quality is relative.

Zeuxis: Next?

Arte: Here are tapestries of anemones, and they are set in a green field!


Zeuxis: Green lies between red and blue in the spectrum. Green is the colour of the endless meadows and of the peaceful foliage of vast forests in spring. Green induces feelings of restfulness. Green is the colour that expresses peacefulness. Green is the colour of spring. It is the colour of young life, and of self-satisfied peace. It is the colour of ecology. Green is immobile. It contains no overtones of joy or of passion.
Green is motionless, untouched, unthreaded nature. It is tranquil.
Green is the colour of discretion. Green was the colour of the dresses of harlots in medieval England, hence the song "Greensleeves". But it was also in the Late Middle Ages the only colour allowed for the bedroom of the Queen of France, so that in many Northern fifteenth century pictures of the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary, the bed in Mary’s room is in green. Johan Huizinga wrote that the greatest charm seemed to come from the colour green in the Middle Ages, from the colour of nature.
Green is also the colour of Islam, the colour of the prophet Mohammed. Green is the colour of many flags of Muslim countries, like Pakistan. Maybe this colour was chosen by the Arab people for its significance as a longing for luxurious nature, which was opposed to the dire realities of the desert.

Arte: Goethe wrote that green gave a graceful impression, as it was the colour of hope. He found the colour reposing for the eye and the mind.

Zeuxis: But green is also the colour of chance, the colour of fortune. Hence we perceive it in our culture as an unstable colour, one that changes quickly. Green is the colour of games, of the billiard table and of casino boards. Green is the colour of money, since the colour of the Dollar note is green.

Zeuxis shows another picture to Arte.

-> Josef Albers (1888-1978). Study for Homage to the Square; Beaming. The Tate Gallery. London. 1963.

Zeuxis: We look at a painting "Study for Homage to the Square; Beaming" of Josef Albers, a picture of 1963. Here we see an interaction of colours, centred on the green square in the middle. This square is a centre of peace, whereas the border is all blue. The attention of the viewer remains focused on the middle. Green and blue are not complementary colours, so when juxtaposed they would give a disagreeable impression (an effect we will discuss later in this text). Albers used the tension between the green and blue, but he painted a transitional colour between the two chromatic hues to alleviate the tension and to isolate the peace of the green in the middle. But there is more to this combination of colours than the qualities of each of the two colours separately. If you look long enough at the colours, the square starts moving in space towards you and back. Therefore, the green square is beaming through space. The other colours push the green forward, and reject it from them out of the canvas. The quality of distance of blue makes that the border recedes, whereas we are intuitively attracted to the green. These are special effects of the juxtaposition of colours.
In the Middle Ages, green was the colour of fortune that comes and goes hence also the colour of hope. It was the colour of destiny. Wearing green could bring bad luck. In the Middle Ages it was the colour of the devil, and we still picture sometimes aliens as green. It is the colour of poison. It was also the colour of young, first and hopeful love and the colour of falling in love.
Besides the three constituting colours mostly used by painters, red, green and blue, two other colours can be considered as basic. Those are white and black.

Arte: You thought of white when you saw these white lilies, didn’t you? But you made an error now: painters used red, blue and yellow most.

Zeuxis: Aha, just testing you, Arte. You were awake. I did think of white while seeing the lilies, yes.


Zeuxis: White is the absolute colour. It represents pure joy of the all-pervading very intense sun. It is the beginning of colours; it represents the light itself that lends its brightness to all other colours.
White is the sparkle of life. White is also purity. The robe that the Virgin Mary wore under the blue maphorion, was usually white. White is the colour of virginity. It is the colour of marital robes, but white cannot be worn in our culture at weddings if the bride has been married before or is no virgin anymore.
White is a constituted colour; it can be separated through a prism in other colours. The natural light of the sun is thus broken into the spectrum of the rainbow. But white can also be obtained by mixing only two colours in the additive process. Colours that when mixed yield white in our perception, are called complementary colours.
White is of course the colour of cleanliness, of pure things. White is the colour of bed sheets and underwear. It is the colour of hospitals and of medicines. It is the colour of innocence, of peace and of discretion. When a soldier surrenders in war he brings a white flag. White is the colour also of the divine, the colour of angels.
White is a bright but cold colour. It makes us think of snow and of ice.
In the Middle Ages and even centuries later, white was the royal colour of France. France’s royal standard was of the white colour. But the standard that was taken to war, the Oriflamme, was red and gold.
White and red were the colours of feasting.

Arte: After white we should talk about black, of course. I see no black flowers here, but there was a set of tulips we passed by a while ago, which approached black quite well.


Zeuxis: Black is absence of light. Black is the nothingness, the extinct sun, the colour of night. It is the toneless colour. Black is the colour of death and of mourning. But we must remind that in China and India the colour of mourning is white. For Western-Europeans, black is the colour of funeral rites.
There is no potential in black. Life and joy disappear into this colour. In cosmology, the stars that are so dense that their gravitational force even retains light are appropriately called "Black Holes".
Black is the colour of authority. It is the colour of the cloaks of Judges, of referees. Black imposes respect. It is the colour of the suits of businessmen in functions that inspire confidence.

Arte: Black was also the colour of the fascist movements of the 1930s, and the colour of some of the most un-human regiments of soldiers in the World Wars of the twentieth century. Therefore, the colour has become the colour of power, of ascendance of one man over another.

Zeuxis: Black is the colour of sadness, of solitude. It is the colour of austerity, the colour of religion, preferred by the Protestant preachers. Black is the colour of the robes of Greek Orthodox priests and of Roman Catholic priests. It has also become hence the colour of too much faith, of hypocrisy in faith, of bigotry. Black is the colour of robes of very old ladies.

Arte: How was black looked at in the Middle Ages?

Zeuxis: Black, grey and violet, thus sombre colours, were much in fashion in the Middle Ages. Black was the colour preferred by French princes like the Dukes of Burgundy in the fifteenth century. A Prince of England was called the "Black Prince". King René d’Anjou, a ruler of the Provence region of France preferred grey, black and brown for clothes. The art historian John Gage wrote that the taste for black clothing was a prerogative of wealth and nobility in the Renaissance; in succeeding centuries it spread in Europe to all levels of society G97 .
Black is the ultimate colour with which other colours can contrast favourably. Almost any colour confronted with black looks good and bright. We will come back on this effect later, Arte.

Arte: Then we should think about the colour that lies between white and black, about grey.


Zeuxis: Grey shades are simply combinations of white and black. Grey was toneless for Kandinsky, immobile, lacking in emotion. The deepening grey turns into a suffocating black. Grey tones induce sadness, depression and melancholy.
Grey is a nice colour, but it indicates absence of colour. It is often used to separate other colours. It is a weakened black, so that in our culture it is the ultimate colour of discretion. It is less pronounced than black, thus often more acceptable. It has come to be the colour of discreet elegance, of good taste.
In the Middle Ages grey was a general colour for sadness and gloom. It was considered elegant also in those times, and more elegant than brown.

Arte: Grey is a colour that is much in fashion in our current times. With black it has become the colour of business suits, of discreet business meeting rooms and of elegant, luxurious but discreet cars. It is also the colour of being non-committing, of being neutral in relations.

Arte: But enough of these non-committing hues. Here are daisies. It was a good enough idea to bring these simple flowers here in the exhibition. Let’s talk of yellow, wonderful yellow.


Zeuxis: Yellow is constituted of green and red in the additive process of colour mixing.

Arte: Yellow was one of the basic colours for Wassily Kandinsky. He wrote that yellow was also a warm colour. Yellow warmed to orange with the addition of red. Kandinsky said that yellow was disquieting, pricking, stimulating. Yellow was a typical earthly colour. He further told that when very bright, yellow was of intensity unbearable to the eye and spirit.
Yellow represented movement towards the spectator, it was an eccentric colour, it radiated outwardly.
For Kandinsky yellow with more green received a greenish hue that had a sickly, supernatural character that resembled madness. Blue affected yellow like a brake until it reached the tranquillity of green.
You may have understood, Zeuxis, that Kandinsky explained colours using yellow as a starting point. He used six basic colours: yellow, green, violet, blue, red and orange.

Zeuxis: Yellow is often associated with the triangle and with angular shapes in general. Energy, radiation seems to escape from sharp angles, just as the colour yellow is an outwardly radiating hue.

Arte: Goethe wrote that yellow was nearest to light. He found the colour lively and aspiring, severe, gay, with sometimes a magnificent and noble effect as for instance on silk. It gave a warm and agreeable impression. Yellow gladdened the eye and expanded the heart.
Goethe warned however, like Kandinsky, that yellow was also extremely liable to contamination and could thus produce a very disagreeable effect if sullied.

Zeuxis: Yellow in Western culture is also the colour of treachery, of felony and the colour of lies. A cowardly man is called "yellow".
But yellow is also a very brilliant colour, and a very cheerful hue, therefore often too bright for our culture. It is the most luminous of colours. It represents prosperity since it is the colour of gold. In China, as it was the most luminous colour, yellow was reserved for the Emperor and none other was allowed to wear a yellow garment.
The writer Harald Küppers used for the colour yellow terms like eccentric, directed towards the exterior, optimistic, joyful, dynamic, freedom seeking and expansionist G99 .
In the Middle Ages yellow was the colour of madness. Judas the ultimate traitor of the Bible was usually painted in a yellow robe. Yellow was worn by soldiers and by servants. It was the colour of enmity. Ambassadors or envoys of princes who brought challenges to kings could wear yellow clothes.

Arte: It was absolutely Kandinsky’s favourite colour!

Zeuxis: I guess so, indeed, Arte. Yellow was probably his favourite colour. Let’s look at one of his paintings of 1925 called "Gelb-Rot-Blau" or "Yellow – Red – Blue". Many of the opinions of Kandinsky on feelings for colour and line are present in this very intellectual, very formal painting.

Zeuxis projects Kandinsky’s painting on his transparent screen.

-> Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944). Yellow – Red – Blue. Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Pompidou. Paris. 1925.

Zeuxis: On the right of the painting is a blue circle in different shades of blue. This blue is ascending, as if aspiring to the heights, to the sky. The blue circle ascends into light, into very bright and thin yellow, which gives here an impression of elation and joy as combined with the blue. The blue colour gradually migrates to red, as if the ascending movement was born in pain. The red indicates warmth, living material, especially as it is combined with the even darker tones of black. There is blood here, and coagulated blood takes on a deeper hue, going on black. These feelings are tempered however by a few more joyful drawings of perspective grids in various colours, which remind of the ascending movement and the joyful brightness of the full spectrum of colours.
To the left is the yellow colour again, here resplendent and lively against a little brown. Here also we can discern the stylised form of a human face.

Arte: I know, Zeuxis! Kandinsky used basic forms and lines to illustrate his theories. The blue circle enhances feelings of coldness and distance (the colour blue) and of being closed (the circle), whereas the yellow on the left is placed in almost a figurative form of a human face and this made it recognisable, tangible, more sympathetic. Straight black, horizontal lines on the right accentuate living movement. A heavy black jagged line with angular black triangles indicates the ascending movement of the right. But to smooth the movement, a curved black line undulates over the blue circle and enchants all forms in an organic swirl. Such a warm undulating line was not necessary on the left, since the yellow colour and the form of the face already created an organic impression here.

Zeuxis: Remark, Arte, how Kandinsky introduced three small circles in this painting, almost like enlarged dots or points. Kandinsky dedicated many words to dots, with which he started his analysis of forms. Here these dark circles concentrate attention and create equilibrium. The small, dark circle on the left bears a halo. The inward movement of the circle is thus checked by the yellow halo that surrounds the circle. The circle functions as an eye, and attracts the view of the spectator in a very decisive way, proving the attractive quality of circles even more.
Kandinsky inserted some of the traditional perspective impressions in the form of three grids, which resemble the tile patterns that were often painted in the fifteenth century in Gothic and early Renaissance pictures.

Arte: We have here all kinds of anemones again, in various shades of orange.

Red-yellow and yellow-red

Arte: Goethe wrote that red-yellow was more powerful and splendid than yellow. This colour had warmth and procured gladness of spirit. It had the hue of an intense glow of fire and of the milder radiance of the setting sun.
Yellow-red was also agreeable and gave a cheerful sensation. This was the colour of robustness, of impetuosity, but also the colour of uneducated men. When extremely excited, intense, this colour could be disturbing.


Arte: Wassily Kandinsky told of orange that it was red combined with yellow. He told this colour possessed the inward movement of red, transformed in the outward streaming movement characteristic of yellow. Orange was yellow with an undertone of seriousness, coming from the red. Red, orange and yellow induce feelings of excitement, of cheerfulness. Orange is an active colour, and a competitive hue that agrees well in combination with green.

Zeuxis: Good, Arte, teach me! True orange is not so much present in nature. Hence it is often avoided, also in paintings, as being too offensive.

Arte: Here is a strange orchid, Zeuxis, brought by my mother. How would you call that hue?

Zeuxis: Well, maybe by a name Kandinsky used also: vermillion!


Arte: Vermillion inspired Kandinsky powerful emotions of a steadily burned passion and self-confident power. This colour, intense orange-red, glowed within itself but could be extinguished by adding more blue. It lacked the maniacal character of yellow.

Zeuxis: Let’s then talk about opposite hues to the orange-like hues.

Arte: That could be violet, like the little violets there, appropriately named!


Arte: Kandinsky wrote the colour violet was a mixture of red and blue (magenta). It was cooled-down red. Violet was a sad, extinguished colour used for mourning in China, and suitable for clothes of old women.
Kandinsky spoke of inner sounds associated with colours. Music indeed appeals immediately to our mind and evokes feelings. Orange sounded for Kandinsky like a church bell, violet like a cor anglais or a bassoon, green like the middle register of a violin. He wrote that light blue sounded like a flute, dark blue like a cello, darker blue still like a double bass, and deep blue like an organ. Bright red sounded like a fanfare and vermilion like a tuba.

Zeuxis: But violet is often considered to be a disagreeable colour, lying somewhere between dark blue and black. It is often used as a diminished black such as in Roman Catholic liturgy where it replaces black in half-mourning.
The painter and lifelong teacher of colour Johannes Itten (1888-1967) was particularly verbose about violet. He said of violet that it was, "the colour of the unconscious – mysterious, impressive, and sometimes oppressive, now menacing, now encouraging, according to contrast". He even said that, "when violet is present in large areas it can be distinctly terrifying, particularly towards the purple". And he continued, "violet is the hue of piety, and, when darkened and dulled, of dark superstition. Lurking catastrophe bursts forth form dark violet. Once it is lightened, when light and understanding illuminate dark piety, delicate and lovely tints enchant us.’ He found, ‘ chaos, death and exaltation in violet, solitude and dedication in blue-violet, divine love and spiritual dominion in red-violet." G95 .

Red-blue and blue-red

Arte: Goethe described these colours. Red-blue was disturbing rather than enlivening, and it showed liveliness without gladness. Blue-red also gave unquiet feelings. Goethe found a perfect blue-red intolerable.

Arte: here are flowers in another strange hue.

Zeuxis: That is a colour called cyan.

Cyan or blue-green

Zeuxis: Harald Küppers called cyan a passive, concentric, stable, concrete colour G99 .
Cyan is a neutral, non-committing colour, a non-conspicuous hue. The colour is seldom used in your culture.

Arte: Many of the flower stands are built in wood, and wood has the colour brown. But there are many shades of brown everywhere.


Arte: Kandinsky described brown as red and black. It was for Kandinsky a blunt colour, hard, capable of little movement, but with a strong and powerful inner tone. It had the beauty of restraint. Browns as reds and orange colours are often considered warm hues.

Zeuxis: For an example of a painting in these tones we go again to Mark Rothko.

Zeuxis shows a painting of Mark Rothko.

-> Mark Rothko (1903-1970). Dark over Brown Nr. 14. Musée National d’Art Moderne. Paris. 1963.

Zeuxis: Compare the "Dark over Brown" to his "Red on Maroon", and explore the differences in feelings you experience when looking at these two pictures. Rothko was a master in creating moods with just a few chosen colours.
Küppers described brown as sensual, restrained, without problems, simple, neutral, accepting, a broken and realistic colour G99 .

Arte: A colour that I do not like much and that seems to me to be somewhat associated with brown, is kaki.


Zeuxis: Kaki is a colour that lies somewhere between yellow, green and brown.

Arte: Kaki is the colour of the military, since it is thought to be the colour that blends most with all landscapes of nature as well as with urban landscapes.

Zeuxis: Kaki was always looked at as an ugly, non-conspicuous colour. But recently it has surfaced also in fashion, and become more popular.

The Splendid

Arte: We have come at the end of the exhibition, Zeuxis. You made me so happy! We have seen so many colours, Zeuxis. I would like to see all the colours together around me, and walk like the girl of the Wizard of Oz happily singing in her marvellous garden. She sang of the rainbow by the way!

Arte whirls around with open arms, and she dances in front of Zeuxis. Then she stops, gives a kiss on Zeuxis’ cheek, grabs his arm and continues to walk next to him.

Arte: For Johann Wolfgang von Goethe the "splendid" was all the colours gathered together in a marvellous harmony.

Zeuxis: Mmm. That girl in the rainbow was Judy Garland, I presume. Let me show you another splendid picture then.

Zeuxis projects Gerhard Richter’s combination of all colours.

-> Gerhard Richter (1932 -). 1024 Colours Nr 350/3. Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Pompidou. Paris. 1973.

Zeuxis: An idea of this beauty is well realised in Gerhard Richter’s "1024 Colours Nr 350/3" of 1973. This picture epitomises the enormous number of possible shades of hues and tones and their endless combinations.

Arte: When I look at all those colours, I wonder what their names are! When you pronounce names such as "vermillion", or "cyan", or even "red", I have some idea about what you mean. I have one or other fine colour in hue and tone and intensity before my eyes, in my mind, and I can see that, as if projected on a magic screen. But I am pretty sure, after all I have heard on the subject of colours, that you have another perception of that colour and its name, and somebody else would have yet another one. Your mind-picture is certainly different from mine. Is there really no way to ensure that we might be talking about exactly the same image? How can we make sure that if I project my notion of the colour associated to a name, you would project exactly the same colour – in hue, tone and intensity?

Zeuxis: The answer to that question is probably no. No, we cannot be sure we would project the same thing. Yet, there are ways to get as close to the answer "yes" as possible. The solution is to publish colours in a certain hue, tone and intensity, and to give names to these colours, and have everybody agree to that one publication.
So, we would need a published reference list of colours.
However, the problem is already in the medium of publishing. One can publish a colour of a certain hue, tone and intensity on paper and call that "red" – for instance. But if one publishes that red on a television screen or on a personal computer’s screen, depending on the characteristics of that screen (your screen may be different from mine and your screen may be tuned with another luminosity, contrast and so on, than mine) the colour that is shown will be different from the one printed on paper.
Even when the colours of such a reference list are published exclusively on paper, the colour may depend upon the characteristics of the paper on which the colours are printed. If the printing is not on perfectly white paper but on a matte sheet (and we should define what exactly "perfectly white paper" is), the colour may be different from what you have on a brilliantly white sheet! Nevertheless, such a reference list exists. The problem is that there is not one such list, but many.

Arte: Could you describe me these reference lists?

Zeuxis: The first one to mention is the Pantone system. This system is a North American system, much used in printing and in the textile industry. Pantone publishes (you have to pay for it) a set of rectangular sheets on flexible metal or paper, organised as a fan, and each sheet represents and is printed in a certain colour. Each sheet and colour is identified by the letter P plus a number. Certain, but not all of the sheets/colours also bear a name in English. The Pantone Matching System exists for coated, uncoated and matte coated paper. Pantone offers several products, also for calibrating electronic screens.
You have a personal computer and an Internet connection. Have a look at Pantone Website .
So, what we could do is walk around with a few of the Pantone fans and when we talk of a colour, we could open a fan and agree on what we mean by the name we talked of. That is the closest we can get to a common understanding of a colour.

Arte: All right. I see. Or rather: I do not see me walking around with a Pantone fan in the woods. But let’s keep that for later. Are there other such systems?

Zeuxis: The European rival to the system of Pantone, equally backed by a company, equally a fan and sheets system, is the RAL system. This system originated in Germany. The name dates from 1925, when in the former Weimar Republic of Germany an institution was founded that was then called the "Reichs-Ausschuss für Lieferbedingungen" or RAL. The name stuck. The system survived World War II. The current company or institution is called the "Deutsches Institut für Gütesicherung und Kennzeichnung E.V." The system has a colour code in four digits (the so-called RAL Classic) or in seven digits (the RAL Digital). The system distinguishes in total 1898 colours.
Their Internet website is at RAL Website .

Arte: Do you know of more systems still?

Zeuxis: I am not going to explain all the existing systems to you. But yes, there are several more. One is the Munsell system and books of colours are published according to this system equally. It was invented by the American Albert H. Munsell in 1909. The "Inter Society Color Council", or ISCC, a professional society in the United States, and also researchers of the National Bureau of Standards (NBS) worked further on standardising the Munsell system, and it publishes colours and names. The colours are defined in a code of their constituents of red, green and blue. The NBS-ISCC publishes a list of 5411 colour names.

Arte: Is there a European counter-part?

Zeuxis: Another, interesting system, is the NCS system, which stands for "Natural Colour System". This is defined and published by the Scandinavian Colour Institute AB. It was devised in Sweden, but it is used in many other countries. The Colour Institute was founded in 1946 and was given its present name in 1978.
The system is based on six "primary" colours: red, green, blue, yellow, white and black. The NCS calls red, green, yellow and blue the four chromatic elementary colours. All other colours can be described in terms of their resemblance to these. The hue of a colour is determined from a mix of two primary colours among the four. The tone is determined by a degree of black, and the intensity is defined by a number; the higher the number, the stronger the hue.
The NCS publishes a Colour Triangle and a Colour Circle. The NCS Colour Circle provides the hues of colours. Grey colours have no hue. A Colour Triangle exists for each hue. Each triangle provides the nuance of the colour, which shows the visual amount of whiteness, blackness and chromaticity.
Like the pantone and RAL systems, the NCS system is copyrighted. The NCS publishes colour collections and also software to use on personal computers.
See the NCS website: NCS Website .

Arte: So, the NCS system and the Pantone and RAL are the three most important ones?

Zeuxis: Yes, I think so. There is one more we should mention however, and that is the one you might not expect. There is a large information technology business nowadays. Everybody has used the Internet. What you see on your screen when you access the Internet is described in the HTML language, the Hypertext Markup Language. This language has been specified by the W3C, the World Wide Web Consortium. The W2C develops specifications and technologies to promote usage of the Internet. It is a forum where industry and institutions meet and agree on how to further the Internet. The W2C produces recommendations, and one of these is for the HTML language. The HTML defines a colour attribute – a colour code -in six digits, which represent colours in the red, green and blue space. Information technology developers all through the world use this colour code, so it is widely known and understood. Of course, this code and system was devised by the information technology industry.

Arte: Knowing you, and having had a glimpse of colours so far, I suppose it can get more complex.

Zeuxis: Yes, it can, I’m afraid. As I said, we would like a certain colour to be reproducible on a variety of devices and media with the same results, even though different devices reproduce colour differently. What we would have needed is a way to take the codes that represent a certain colour on one device, and produce corresponding codes that reproduce the same colour on another device. That would mean a lot of transformations from one set of codes into another. The job would be simplified if we could all agree one standardised colour space, a standardised code. The International Color Consortium (ICC) has standardized the colour space definitions. It calls them "profiles". Almost all the major operating system and colour system vendors have agree to use that format. The transforms are then realised in a colour matching method (CMM). A word that is much used in that aspect is "gamut". The "gamut" of a colour space is the total set of colours that can be represented within that colour space. The two standard sets of colour spaces that the ICC accepts are the CIE-XYZ and CIE-LAB.

Arte: Now we are sending rockets to the moon! What in heaven’s name is CIE-XYZ and CIELAB?

Zeuxis: The CIE-XYZ was one of the first defined colour spaces or colour models. Colour spaces are defined by colour models. Colour models are mathematical descriptions of the way colours can be represented as sets of numbers, typically as three or four colour codes or values, such as the RGB (red, green and blue for the additive process) and CMYK (cyan, magenta and yellow with the K for black in subtractive processes) colour models or colour spaces.
The CIE-XYZ is also known as the CIE 1931 colour space. It was created by the International Commission on Illumination (CIE, because in fact called the "Commission Internationale d'Eclairage") in 1931. Our eyes have red, blue and green receptors and these three can be used as parameters to define colours by; each colour is a combination of these three. In the CIE-XYZ code the X stands for red, the Y for green and the Z for blue. The CIE publishes its own chromaticity diagram based on values for X, Y and Z. It looks like a coloured triangle in a space of two axes, the X and Y axis. The CIE does not publish names for the colours, however, and it is not easy to talk in digits to denote a colour, of course.
The work on the CIE-XYZ was continued by researchers, and the system evolved into the CIE-LAB colour space definitions. The problem with the CIE-XYZ was that it was impossible to measure the difference between two colours in an objective way. The CIE-LAB is now the most accurate model to describe all the colours that are visible to the human eye. The first of the three parameters in this model represent the lightness of the colour (L). L zero yields black and L of 100 indicates white. The "A" or the "a" parameter indicates the position of a colour between magenta and green. Negative values for A indicate green while positive values indicate magenta. The "B" or the "b" parameter indicates the position of the colour between yellow and blue. Negative values for B indicate blue and positive values indicate yellow. So, it is truly a three-dimensional model, that cannot be represented in a plane graph.

Arte: Where do the mathematical models lead us? We cannot talk three-digit numbers when we talk of colours, can we? What would that mean?

Zeuxis: No, we really cannot and should not. I suppose that when I say the word "red", you have some notion of what that would mean. The notion suffices for our understanding. For talking on the art of painting, that is only what we need. If we need more names, we can use the names provided by Pantone or RAL and I even propose that we be modern, and use the names as provided in the HTML language. Has not almost everybody a personal computer at home? Does not everybody access the Internet? At least, those are published on the Internet and for free. There are quite enough names proposed in that list for our purposes. Moreover, the art of painting is the art of looking at pictures. So, we will usually if not always be standing or sitting before a painting. It suffices to point to a colour on the canvas and we will have exactly a particular colour in our mind.

Arte: Great! And that was heavy stuff enough for today!

Zeuxis: On that picture of Richter and on the names of its colours, Arte, I will leave you. It becomes late. Sleep well with Richter’s colours in your dreams.

Zeuxis disappears and leaves Arte dreamy and happy in the exhibition hall, where suddenly the brightest lights dim so that Arte has to run to leave the hall before it closes.

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: June 2010
Book Next Previous

Copyright: René Dewil - All rights reserved. The electronic form of this document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source as 'René Dewil - The Art of Painting - Copyright'. No permission is granted for commercial use and if you would like to reproduce this work for commercial purposes in all or in part, in any form, as in selling it as a book or published compilation, then you must ask for my permission formally and separately.