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Lesson Thirteen - Line or Colour, Energy and Mood

Arte and Zeuxis are outside. They are near the river. Summer has set in and it is very hot. Arte is dressed lightly, but Zeuxis does not seem to be bothered by the heat. Arte flings her hand at the occasional fly that bothers her. Cows are near in the fields, but the young grass has made way for a darker green and lower grass.

Zeuxis: So, here we are again, Arte. It has been a long time. Have you read what I wrote about harmony? What have you concluded?

Arte, sighing: Well, Zeuxis, now at least I know why men prefer blondes with blue eyes. They like the harmony of contrasts. Quite common tastes, if you ask me!

Zeuxis: Mmm, Arte. It is also a combination of the bright radiation of the most brilliant hue with the distance of blue to be conquered. But you would be surprised at how many men prefer copper-coloured redheads with green eyes. That also is a harmony of contrast, representing warm tenderness with soft confidence, and a combination of the red fire of passion in the comforting vastness of green nature.

Arte, blushing: Why, thank you, Zeuxis. You spread compliments in your old age.

Zeuxis: Not a compliment, Arte, just complementary notions.

Arte: I learned by now that there is an endless set of different colours, and that even one colour hue exists in various tones, and in various degrees of saturation or intensity. One and the same hue can be varied endlessly. All colours can be considered as additive or subtractive combinations of other colours, and since our retina contains molecules that are particularly tuned to red, blue and green, we took these colour hues as the basis of the process of additive combinations.
In paintings however, yellow, blue and red are the basic colours of the subtractive process, so that artists writing on their art usually took these three as the basis of conceptual theories on colour contrasts and harmony.
The juxtaposition on the canvas of areas of small dots of colours and of larger areas of one colour hue changes the perception of the colours. We have to remember always that never one sole area of colour counts in painting. What counts are the combinations of various areas of colour on the canvas or fresco or mosaic.

Zeuxis: That is all right, Arte.
Michel Eugène Chevreul did not just describe effects of contrasts of colours. He also formulated principles of general harmony. He wrote that harmony was established between different parts of an object by means of the proportion of the parts, volume or superficies, form and colour. Symmetry was one condition of harmony, but the symmetrical parts of the object had also to have harmonious proportions.
Therefore, harmony was also established between different objects by means of analogy of size, of form and of colour. Harmony was also built by means of symmetrical position, and lastly by means of the repetition of the same form, of the same colour, or of the same object or objects. These were the private rules of general harmony of Chevreul and these rules have remained for a long time the basis of our current understanding and conventions to describe harmony.

Arte: In our own times master-painters revisited Chevreul’s theories and formulated new rules and new definitions of harmony. None really had the extent and the detail of Chevreul’s experimentation, even though painters like Josef Albers and Johannes Itten wrote from lifetime experiences as teachers in colour, and from an experience of a century more of reflecting deeply on the value of colour combinations.
The general awareness grew that in colour combinations, harmony was essentially an individual and very subjective appreciation. Josef Albers and Johannes Itten concluded that viewers could appreciate almost any colour combination, as long as balanced proportions were realised, or as long as colours were subordinated to a grander design and aim. And new emphasis was laid on contrasts of colours as means of expression, contrary to the value of harmony.

Zeuxis: Rudolf Arnheim cited Ostwald, who proceeded on the assumption that "two or more colours in order to harmonise must be equal with regard to essential elements". The essential elements are hue, tone and saturation so that we come back much to Chevreul’s harmony of analogues. But Arnheim thought of this kind of harmony that it was, "the most primitive kind of harmony, suitable at best for the colour schemes of nurseries and baby clothing". Indeed, expression comes like in music from the counterpoints in musical harmony, from the variations in melodies.

Arte: Overall harmony of colours must take into account a myriad of parameters, Zeuxis, so many that my head spins!
It must take into account hue, brightness and saturation of each colour on the canvas.
It must take into account the proportions of the surface areas that are coloured in each of the three features of colours.
The relative positioning of the coloured areas are also important, as are the ways these are balanced in the picture.
The contrasts between the colours play, and the overall mood is often a deciding factor.
The temperature of the colours, the spatial value of colours and effects of repetition or of emphasis on certain colours are elements that construct harmony.
Then there is the correspondence between colours and meaning to take into account. There are too many parameters to be cast in a mathematical, geometrical or logical model! We are far away from the moment in time when a machine would be built that would scan a painting, measure and calculate all its parameters of harmony and give to the viewer one number that would represent the index of harmony. Yet, that is exactly what the human eyes and brain do. The sensations on the retina of our eyes are pre-processed, sent to the brain and worked upon there so that a judgement is formulated on harmony.

Zeuxis: So true, Arte. Only then a viewer can tell, "Yes this is a quite harmonious painting in its colours", or, "No, I do not like these combinations".
The theories of harmony, as stated earlier, work on the simplest of schemes and on the easiest of parameters. Our brain is much more complex. More complex still are the brains that produce harmony in paintings. We call that genius.
Painters are people who are particularly tuned to the perception of colour, and who seem more than most other people apt to make use of the combinations and both intuitively and intellectually to know what the effect is of such combinations. Most people however are tuned to a lesser degree to the value of feeling induced by colours. Painters are the masters who have a profound sensibility for the overall combinations of colours on the canvas in oil or tempera painting or on a wall in fresco painting. Painters seem to be able to exploit the grand colour combinations to an inner vibration. Therefore, colour is one of the foremost elements by which painters appeal to our mind and inspire emotions in the viewer.
But the viewer may or may not be tuned to the same sensibility as the painter. This means that the communication of the value of feelings may be complete or only be so to a certain degree. The paintings that seem therefore best to be able to move a viewer, to best communicate the inner feelings of a painter to a viewer, are the paintings that appeal to the overall sense of form, of line, of colour and of content of the viewers.

Arte: Harmony is so complex. Can you not give me a few simple indications anyhow? I know all the writers and painters have written and written, but what would be your recommendations?

Zeuxis: In fact, that is for every redhead girl to decide for herself. What would you take as rules?

Arte in a very dignified but ironical tone: Well, here are Arte’s very simplified rules on harmony of colours.

Arte even writes her rules down: Zeuxis: That is quite good, Arte. I would add a fifth rule, Zeuxis’ rule, and that would be to use your intuition, and to have faith in your hidden talent. Nevertheless, do not forget all of the theory I explained, and when you make a complex painting: have a look at the more complex theories of harmony.

Arte: Thank you, Zeuxis, but those theories are really too complex for me. I might stick with just Itten or Chevreul; I do not know yet which I will take.
I have an image in my mind when it comes to harmony of colours, and that is the symbol of the Olympic Rings.

Zeuxis (surprised): What do you mean, Arte?

Arte: The Olympic Rings are five. As the symbol of the Olympic games, they represent the five continents of earth, but for me and now they are also a symbol of harmony of colours.
The left rings are blue and yellow. The blue ring is of course the top one, representing the sky. The rings on the right are green and red, with the green ring below because it represents the green earth. Blue and yellow are almost complementary colours, and so are green and red. The fifth ring in the middle, the ring that holds the other rings together, is black. Black matches best with all colours. Finally, the rings are usually shown on a white background. White is the neutral colour, but also the combination of all colours of the rainbow.
I remind you also that you told me before that the four Roman teams that competed in the chariot games of ancient Rome were dressed in blue, red, green and white. If the white were yellow, we would again have almost complementary colours.

Zeuxis: That was truly a nice comparison, Arte. People indeed intuitively use complementary colours in many instances.

Arte: Here is another question for you: how many different colours should I use in a painting?

Zeuxis: There is no rule on the number, Arte. But it is an interesting subject indeed. Just how many different colours a painter would need to colour every area of a canvas in such a way that two bordering areas would never have the same colour has impassioned mathematicians for ages. The answer is that four colours are enough, but the proof of this theorem took over two centuries to develop and filled a fifty-page article plus hundreds of pages of supplementary material. The theorem could only be proved with the aid of powerful computers in our century. It was called the four-colour theorem in mathematics, and was only proven in the 1990’s.
By the way, when we think of four colours we see of course red, blue, yellow and green – whereas the modern theories of the subtractive and additive processes of colours need only three primary colours.

Arte: Does this then ends our lessons on harmony of colours?

Zeuxis: It does, Arte. I would like to come back now on the war between line and colour that has brought passion and anger between painters for generations.

Arte: Oh, I thought painters were such nice and peaceful people. Tell me about that, Zeuxis.

Zeuxis: Painting can be defined as the placing of forms and colours on a surface. In order to distinguish the forms, either line or colour must be used.
Over the history of the visual arts, schools developed that either emphasised line or colour.
The schools that favoured lines also favoured reasoned composition, and they based their pictures on strict geometries. The schools that favoured colour over line reached dominance later in the centuries, probably because the science of colours had to be developed better before colours could be fully understood and their effects exploited.
The Italian Florentine painters of the Renaissance period favoured line, and thus drawing. These were rational artists. They had observed that the colour of an object was not constant. Colour of an area could change with the conditions of lighting. We know our eyes adapt to light variations and correct for changing conditions of light, but that is only so to a certain extent. Full red light thrown on an object does change its colours, as compared with a full white light directed at the same object. We saw also in the chapters on the law of simultaneous contrast that colours change with adjacent colour areas. So, colour was somewhat illusionary, not constant, not really a property of the object, and the Florentines wanted to paint to the natural "truth". Line and form were constant, properties of the object that did not change. The rational Florentines preferred what did not change in various conditions, and that was line and form. Most of the early Florentine painters worked first in wet fresco painting, a process whereby colours are put next to each other on wet lime. These were grand scenes in which the design of the forms was indeed important.
Leon Battista Alberti proposed in "Della Pittura" to first draw and make a composition according to nature. He told a painter had only to be concerned with representing the things that could be seen, and then to fill in the areas with colours. Drawing came first, colouring only later. The various drawn areas were filled in with colours, and splendid colouring was appreciated, but the most important was design, the art of composition of line and forms. Painters had to be able to draw in the first place.

Arte: That is why you taught me to draw lines in the first place.

Zeuxis: Yes, but there are two kinds of lines in paintings.
We have already talked about the directions of structure in the composition and now we also have to talk about the lines of the forms.
What is the difference between these two concepts?
The directions of structure are the contours of sets of forms (such as of a group of figures), the directions along or around which the masses of colour are grouped, and the directions indicated by special features of the picture (such as the directions of lances worn high by soldiers). The directions of structure may be shown, supported immediately by visible lines, or they remain directions that the viewer has to infer, sees only indirectly like for instance in the general positioning of figures along a diagonal of the frame. The viewer is led to imagine the diagonal line, even though the diagonal is not drawn visibly. Still, by such invisible lines, which we have mainly given the name "directions", painters build their structure and hence their composition.
By the word "Disegno", the Tuscan Renaissance artists did not just mean these lines, the directions of structure. They also simply meant the true lines of the forms, the lines of the shapes of the coloured areas. Such lines of form may have to be shown in a black colour or in another colour than the ones of the two adjacent colour areas, so that then they are quite visible, apparent and do not need to be imagined. The lines of the forms are rarely however shown so obviously, even in Renaissance paintings. The lines do remain imaginary, but they can be perceived nevertheless from the boundaries created by the adjacent colour areas. When two adjacent colour areas contrast strongly in hue, tone or intensity, the lines of the forms of the coloured areas become more apparent, and are more easily evoked in the mind of the viewer.
"Disegno" meant emphasis on conceiving a painting in the directions of structure and in emphasis of the lines of forms over colour.
In "Disegno", a painter would start by drawing in black chalk or with any other means allowing him or her to draw thin lines, the lines of the forms in the painting. In simple words, the painter would start with what we call "drawing". Before doing this, the artist would of course have a strong view of the directions of structure, of his composition. Once the lines of the forms made visible, the artist could colour the areas that appeared well delineated, the areas of the outlined surfaces. While colouring, the drawn black lines would disappear, but the forms remained clearly visible as separate entities. In this way of proceeding, design and drawing came before colouring, and the forms were originally constructed by the drawing of the lines. Colour was de-emphasised in the sense that the colours came in second in the conception of the painting. Colours served only to fill in the forms that were created by lines. Colour served of course the magnificence of the painting, and colour very much also had symbolic meaning, but colour served primarily to embellish the picture and to render the structure more subtle. This way of painting, of designing a picture, came naturally in the evolution of art. Mosaic tesserae filled in the space between drawn shapes and also in the technique of wet fresco painting it was necessary to fill in with colours well defined shapes, area after area of a wall surface one after the other, in successive days. Such techniques favoured clear delineation of the areas of colour.
Another way of proceeding in painting was not to start from "designo", but to think of a painting primarily in terms of areas of colours.
The painter then would conceive his picture first in his mind as a combination of patches of colour, which would be balanced or would conflict and be in tension with each other. But the tensions between the colour surfaces would create forms, which then could be perceived by the viewer. Such a mode of constructing pictures could only be realised in its purest manifestation in abstract paintings. But when painters tired to work this way, forms would nevertheless appear, even if these might remain only vaguely recognisable. In fact, it is impossible to place patches of colour on a canvas without creating a sense of forms, of shapes, in the viewer’s mind.
Painters like Joseph Albers, Mark Rothko, Wassily Kandinsky and the so-called "Colourfield" painters sought to eliminate the perception of forms altogether from their pictures, but that effort was in vain. Even when the forms created by the adjacent colour areas were nothing natural that could be recognised by viewers, however intricate the colours might flow into each other, however broken the patterns of colour, colour without forms is impossible to create. It also did not suffice to blur the boundaries between colour areas, like Mark Rothko did. The sense of forms always breaks through colour.

Arte: All right, all right, Zeuxis. So, colouring without creating forms is impossible, but creating forms with lines without colouring the areas is quite easy - obviously. You will agree with me that it is tempting to conclude that lines and directions come before colour, thus are more important than colour, especially when one makes abstraction of the purpose of paintings.

Zeuxis: Gee, Arte, was that a defender of colour speaking?
Do not forget that as expression of the feelings of the artists, as communication of those feelings, colour has as much weight as lines and directions. Isn’t that why you were attracted to colours in the first place?
A painter can easily imagine a general mood and think firstly of a uniformly coloured background or of an overall temperature of colour before thinking of the forms of a picture. He or she may first conceive his or her picture as a tension of coloured areas, and afterwards only think of distinct forms or of distinct content such as figures, plants, or objects.
"Disegno" does not need to come before colour, even though it is so in most paintings. Colour is not subordinated to the design of lines and hence forms. Still, the art of colouring without creating a sense of forms in the mind of the viewer is impossible.

Arte: Gee, Zeuxis, was that a defender of lines speaking?

Zeuxis: Eh, well, I believe, Arte, that lines and colour form the art of painting to equal value.
To continue with history: somewhat later than the Renaissance Florentines, the Venetian school, as the first, started to explore the qualities of colour. The first Venetian painters still drew delicately and wisely with great skill, but their paintings acquired a sense of smooth colours so that the lines faded and the colours slid into each other. There is a tactile, sensuous quality to Venetian colours, and Venetian transition of colours.
Gradually, the Venetian painters also evolved to warmer colours than the cool, pure colours of the Florentines. The late paintings of Tiziano, for instance, are made in dark brown or grey colours out of which a subdued red or yellow or green emerge.
In the nineteenth century, schools like the Impressionists, Pointillists and the Fauves completely favoured the glory of colour over line. Patches of various colours, often in high tonal keys, are delights for the eye. These artists really discovered colours, experimented with them in various ways, and applied the colour techniques we have spoken of in previous chapters. But even in that century, critics devoted to colour could state like Charles Blanc (1813-1882), "Colour, which is under fixed laws, can be taught like music. And it is easier to learn than drawing, whose absolute principles cannot be taught".
Line continued however for a long time to be perceived as the nobler art over colouring.
Over the centuries, the two schools, two ways of considering what was important in paintings, have continued to exist, and the polemics between either trends is not finished. Academies usually preferred line and composition of forms to colour, whereas individual painters have time and time again preferred wild combinations or harmonious variations of colour areas to line and form.

Arte: I would have preferred colour over line, Zeuxis, but I realise that line and form are important for viewers to recognise something familiar in paintings.

Zeuxis: Now I want to continue with our lessons on colour and tell you about energy and mood in a painting.

Arte: Go on, Zeuxis!


Zeuxis: Energy is a quality of a painting that expresses the amount of emotion a viewer receives.
These emotions are generally violent, and rapid for dynamic pictures. But energy is also in the surprise of an unusual theme, and then the feelings do not need to be so intense in perception.
Lines already can bring about energy by themselves, as shown in the jagged lines of the forest scene of Natalia Gontcharova’s Rayonist style. Energy seems therefore to be in oblique lines, like in the slanting composition of Rubens’ "Descent from the Cross". Oblique lines represent movement, and movement is one of the characteristics of energy. But a quality of acceleration, of change in speed needs to be associated for movement to become energy, as energy is work performed in a unit of time.

Zeuxis projects a Delacroix painting on his magic screen.

-> Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863). Arab Horses fighting in a Stable. Le Musée d’Orsay. Paris. 1860.

Zeuxis: Energy is in the movement that the picture represents as in Delacroix’ painting of the prancing Moroccan horses. Here we have movement and speed of a moment of action combined. So, energy can of course also be in the content, in the subject of the scene.

Zeuxis continues: Energy is in the way forms are composed and presented on a canvas.
For instance, energy is in a triangle that is placed on its top. The viewer knows that energy was necessary to bring the triangle in that position, and energy is necessary to keep it there. Such a position has high potential energy, whereas a square that rests on its sides has minimal energy. Energy also is in a progression of floating or slanting such forms, which indicate movement.
Energy is already purely in colours, when the colours render a feeling of movement or when colours clash as in so many paintings of Wassily Kandinsky.
Some colours are more energetic than others. Bright yellow and bright pink are colours that seem to radiate more energy of light to the viewer. Violet and brown are more passive colours. Energy lies in the contrast of these colours and the contrast is often pleasing, and energising.
Energy can be shown in the rapidity of the brushstrokes on the canvas. When the sweeps of the brush or the drips of the paint can be seen on the canvas, the viewer can sense some of the action energy of the painter and thus the viewer also receives an impression of that energy. This is often the case for Expressionist paintings, where the strong black lines are apparent. These evoke in the viewer simultaneously feelings of movement and of the rapid action of the brush or knife over the canvas.
The energy of the "action painting" jumps from the canvas out to the viewer.
When these elements coincide, that is movement in oblique lines and variegation of forms, movement in content and when highly contrasting colours compete against each other on the canvas, then the painting shows a high amount of energy, which is the immediate impression of that energy on the viewer.

Zeuxis: What would you say of nice, quiet paintings, Arte?

Arte: Quiet paintings have sweet, picturesque content. They may be idyllic landscapes of slowly sloping hills and green pastures. They may be landscapes without figures in winter scenes. Sweet scenes are the peasant boys of Esteban Murillo playing in the street, or his images of the Virgin Mary.
Many of these scenes are static, based on strong vertical or horizontal directions. Painters use in quiet paintings the contrast of analogues that Chevreul liked, with hues that are of the same colour and that slowly change. Painters then can apply a rich palette, but of the same hue, and those hues are often brown or ochre or a darker yellow.
Energy is contrast of complementary colours and in the conflict of lines, shapes and colours.
The figures of quiet paintings stand or are together in poises that seem to be able to be fixed for eternity, whereas energetic pictures always convey feelings of transitoriness. So there is always a sad element in energetic pictures and they not always cope well with changing feelings about style in viewers, whereas quiet pictures seem much to remain to be appreciated by the audience.

Zeuxis: Energy is a powerful feeling for viewers. It is a powerful tool for painters to excite emotions in viewers and thus to interest viewers in the work of art.


Zeuxis: Where energy is a measure for the amount and for the power of the emotions evoked in viewer, these emotions can be of many kinds. The kind of emotion that a viewer receives instantaneously we call the "mood" of the painting.

Zeuxis: A picture can evoke a mood in the viewer that corresponds to all the various emotions a human can feel. The mood of a painting therefore can be one of sadness or of joy, of mystery or of dignity. A picture can be wild or peaceful, cheerful, controlled and cool, warm and empathic. It can be heroic or majestic. It may seem funny, sentimental, naughty, sensual or apathetic.
The content or subject matter of course creates mainly the mood, as the viewer perceives first and most rapidly the overall content of a scene.
Thus Jacques-Louis David’s "Rapt of the Sabine Women" has a heroic and epic mood. Gino Severini’s "Landscape at Civray" has a peaceful, idyllic mood. Sir Everett Millais’ "Blind Girl" is sad and arouses our empathy. George Stubbs’ dragoons show a picture that is disciplined and cool.
Remark how in these paintings the mood is also created by the elements of the form of painting, by the composition of lines or directions and by the shapes in the pictures. The form helps to create the mood as much as the content does. A painter must make a decision on the mood he wants to convey with his picture.

Arte: Abstract paintings rely on form alone to evoke emotions in the viewer, and thus they rely on form alone to create the mood of the picture. Don’t they, Zeuxis?

Zeuxis: Yes, Arte. Colours help most to induce feelings in the spectator, but then also the other elements of form.
Piet Mondriaan’s fixed structures of horizontal and vertical lines call to the viewer a sense of rationality and of cold, immutable order. When the artist used warmer colours such as red or green for his lines, these colours added touches of empathy in the picture.
Kasimir Malevich’s constructions of rectangles and triangles give equally a cold impression, as well as impressions of unrest. Here we find a mood of distance, of strangeness and even of alienation.
Wassily Kandinsky’s paintings are often warm, somewhat naturally chaotic. Their mood is one of dynamism, and of wandering through a space of varying feelings.
Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings and also Mark Rothko’s pictures are all mood. Mark Rothko once demanded of his pictures "that they would force viewers to fall on their knees and to break out in tears". G86 . Rothko’s paintings indeed often have a dark, menacing, heavy and gloomy mood.

Zeuxis: A viewer starts looking at a picture and he or she will perceive even at first glance the mood of the picture. This mood, as created by the colours and other elements of design, may be emphasised by the details of the scenes as the viewer discovers these. This will be most often the case, so that the painter re-enforces the mood by more intricate detail of symbols or by other more subtle content. Sometimes, however, the details contradict the mood so that irony, and even cynicism enter the picture mood.
Examples of these effects are not so rare. They were used especially in Surrealist paintings. The clash between the primary mood of the picture and its content at a second layer of meaning always puzzles the viewer and enhances the interest – sometimes regrettably also, the repulsion of the spectator.
Abstract art can be explained partly as an art that did not want subject matter (objects, natural views, human figures) to interfere with and to distract the viewer from the intrinsic mood of the picture. This is one of the aims of abstract art among many others. Artists like Kandinsky, Pollock and Rothko certainly showed the power of abstract art to evoke emotions without the need of subject matter. Their work is based on not all but on just a few of the elements of form in painting – barred subject matter – but with just these - and maybe because of this restriction - they delivered pictures of a very strong mood that continue to appeal to viewers.

Arte: When you talked about Delacroix’ Arab horses, Zeuxis, I could not but remark however, how colours need to be in line with the subject of the picture. Can you say some more on that?

Colour and Meaning

Zeuxis: Painters distribute their areas of colour over the canvas so that these evoke naturally and spontaneously emotions in the viewer. When a painter uses colours that are naturally associated with the subject, such as green for grass and orange for the sun, then viewers have sensations of rapid recognition of subject and colour.

Arte: But colours however do not have to be "natural", Zeuxis. They always evoke particular feelings in viewers. You taught me that. This effect happens whatever colours are used, as long as the colours support the desired effect, and the painters have absolute freedom to apply the colour combinations that suit their purpose.

Zeuxis: Right, Arte. We discussed the psychological value associated with most colours. Painters play on the intrinsic values of colour to better convey and express their inspiration, and to evoke special feelings in the viewer. The colours that painters use can be entirely chosen to produce these feelings and these effects are analogous to the patterns of tones of music. Painters can however also subordinate colours to other means of expression and aims. Then they may use colours that are not in harmony with the image, colours that are not naturally associated to a form. The colours specifically express feelings, and viewers maybe remark these exactly because the colours do not adhere to the form. Thus painters can paint trees blue to evoke emotions of surprise and distance.
In the earlier centuries of the art, before our "abstract" twentieth century, painters imitated nature as well as they could. Nature bears particular colours, the ones viewers perceive everyday. By using the natural colours, painters made viewers feel at ease. The viewers experienced the familiar feelings of natural colours and could marvel at how well painters rendered nature as realistically as humans could perceive that nature daily. Painters of course interpreted the colours of nature and modulated these colours to a certain extent but then only to suit reality better than the eye might see exactly. The artists had a particular problem in that they had to work within the constraints of the natural colours and still cope with the obligation to evoke emotions in the viewers, but the best painters managed to reconcile limitations and freedom of expression.
During the centuries that Christian religion pervaded European thought, magnificent contrasts of pure, light colours were applied to evoke feelings of spirituality. Colour was subservient to a cause, which was to show nature in a way that inspired in viewers a feeling for the transcendence and immateriality of the divine world. The religious figures were glorified with bright, ethereal colours. In these centuries, colour also was used for its symbolic meaning, and a whole set of conventions on colour as to be used in pictures existed, and was known by viewers. Jesus Christ wore a red robe of love, the Virgin Mary was in white of purity and blue of distance, Judas had red hair and he wore a yellow cloak. In the Middle Ages, in religious pictures, the colour blue was mostly associated with God the Father, and yellow with the Holy Spirit, although sometimes we see these colours alternatively used. The scheme of colours was not always so consistent. But red was always associated with the Son. Colour thus emphasised the meaning of the scene and had as much value as the icons or the symbolic images of the pictures. Although the colours had particular meaning, the combinations of colour intensities and tones were chosen in such a way that balanced effects or subtle effects of exception were still shown.
It was only from the twentieth century on, that colours came to be used exclusively for their expressive quality. Expressionist art needed tension and antagonism in its expression, in its images and in its use of colour. So this art applied colour contrasts that were not harmonious anymore. Colour was used to make the forms oppose each other and to clash. The Expressionist artists used hard, fully saturated colours and interspersed these with broad black lines and borders.
Thus, colour can be used basically in various ways. Colour can be used to depict objects with the colour of the moment these objects are seen. We know these colours change with the changing light that is thrown on the objects, but these colours are still perceived as natural to viewers. And painters can use colours for their symbolic value. Colours then can convey meaning, as well as forms and content. Finally, colours can be used to evoke emotions directly. In this case any combination that suits the purpose, whether harmonious combinations or not, may be applied. Viewers can reflect on what use a painter has made with colours in a particular painting.

Arte: I understand quite well now, Zeuxis. So, what is the next subject of our lessons?

Zeuxis: It is far too hot for more lessons today, Arte. I would like to stop here. It was a short lesson, but that is appropriate, since we also have finished studying colours now. It does not mean that we have finished with the effects of light, and colours will come back in various themes of our next lessons, but the fundamentals of colour theory and the special effects of colours should be no more a secret to you.

Arte: You are right, Zeuxis. Let’s go for a walk then and go home slowly. I need a drink. Thank you for the shortness of this lesson.

Zeuxis offers his arm to Arte. After a short hesitation, she accepts gladly. Arm in arm, Zeuxis and Arte walk towards Arte’s home.

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: August 2010
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