What Colors Represent in Art

Colors have become a powerful tool in almost all aspects of our daily life. From training animals to medical science to Marketing, colors are playing a subtle but essential role today. But long before modern society, explored the use of color for its psychological effect, artists had been playing with it to convey particular messages and feelings.

Color Theory and its illusions

Artists have been experimenting with a variety of color schemes in their works ever since the intorduction of the color wheel by Sir Isaac Newton in 1666.

There are also categories of colors based on the color wheel.

Primary Colors: Red, yellow and blue. In traditional color theory (used in paint and pigments), primary colors are the 3 pigment colors that can not be mixed or formed by any combination of other colors. All other colors are derived from these 3 hues.

Secondary Colors: Green, orange and purple. These are the colors formed by mixing the primary colors.

Tertiary Colors: Yellow-orange, red-orange, red-purple, blue-purple, blue-green & yellow-green. These are the colors formed by mixing a primary and a secondary color.

Visual storytellers use different combination of these colors to please, disgust or draw attention to details using the basic principle that two colors, placed side by side, will appear differently depending on which colors are used and what they are placed next to. For example - Consider two of Van Gogh's paintings on cafe's presented very differently

Café Terrace on the Place du Forum color scheme

background of dark blue contrasts with bright yellow, almost radially opposite colors on the color wheel, to draw attention to the cafe under the night sky. The green tree would be noticed later by most as green is right next to blue on the wheel

The Night Café color scheme

Here red and green, (contrasting colors ) have been used delibratly in a fashion which would displease the brain and eye. If you look at other details of the artwork, the small door at the opposite end of the viewer or the disorganised furniture, It all wants you to hate the indoor night cafe while love the outdoor cafe terrace. (A running theme in Van Gogh's paintings).

Color as a symbol

The Primary colors along with Black and white are more widely used in art as symbols. What they represent and why they do so can be best explained through some paintings with a majorly monochromatic color scheme.

“Red as blood...”

Red due to its association with blood and fire is the color of intense feelings including passion, romance, energy, style, hunger(Hence very popular among food brands) and danger, among others. Its also associated with Christianity for symbolic reasons.

Destiny’s dance color scheme

“Destiny’s Dance” is a painting by Richard Young. This painting features a dancing woman in a red dress, while part of the background also features red. Passion, romance, style, energy and enthusiasm are all conveyed in art principally by the use of various shades of red. This artwork effectively personifies all of these feelings. An efficient combination of the woman’s stance, her disheveled hair and her dress, along with shades of red, has resulted in the said personification.

Now compare the use of the green/red color combination to Van Gogh's cafe to see how colors can be used to highlight other colors if used in a different way.

“Yellow as the Sun…”

Yellow is the color of the sun - the life support of our planet. So it makes sense that it be associated with positivity - for joy, intellect, warmth and caution. It also signifies power, for the same reason.

Ballroom Dancers color scheme

"Ballroom dancers" is a painting by Merrick Feagan. It is an abstract painting featuring a dancing couple against a colorful background. The woman is clad in a bright yellow dress, against the dark blue suit of the man.This painting is a perfect example that shows the color yellow as a medium of expression of joy and life. The couple here symbolizes hope, life and fun amidst solemnness. The seriousness of the dark blue, along with the bright cheery yellow, against a colorful abstract background gives an ideal synopsis of life.

“Blue like the clear sky…”

Blue due to its association with sky and water generally signifies the calmer emotions in life like peace, loyalty and tranquility. Blue is also often used in paintings to define scenarios of sadness, anguish and despair. Take a look at this masterpiece in which Blue plays the protagonist.

The Blind Man’s Meal color scheme

“The Blind Man’s Meal” is a famous painting by Pablo Picasso from his blue period. This painting portrays a blind and possibly poor person sitting down for his meal. Helplessness and despair are aptly illustrated in this painting. This painting is dominated by shades of blue. Mostly devoid of warm shades, this painting radiates an aura of tranquility amid the melancholic theme.The depressing monotone of the shades of blue is broken by the presence of a lone yellow pot on the table. But one question needs to be asked. Does the lone yellow pot mark the presence of the positive emotions of optimism and hope, or does its dullness convey a negative aura about the decay of happiness?

"Black Death..."

Black, as you might have guessed relates best with darkness is used to represent death, evil, witchcraft, fear and mourning.

Forest color scheme

here is upcoming artist Elicia Edijanto's watercolor painting in complete black and white. The black creates the vibe of misty fear about the forest, complemented by the faded visibility of the background.

"Pure White..."

White and its association with light is used to represent peace, purity and goodness. White has been widely used in artworks to highlight a connection with heaven or angelic qualities

The Source color scheme

"The source" painted by Fritz Zuber Buhler is a classical painting which uses white and a glow to portray the female character as divine. The saint is also in white garments, presents as pure hearted. The interesting color here however is red. In the context of the artwork, it represesents Christanity, rather than any intense emotion.

Appreciating color

Basically the symbols attached to any color, are based on what we subconsciously relate them too. When this relation is to nature, the understanding and interpretation of the color symbolism is fairly universal; But sometimes this relation changes with time and varies from culture to culture. Also artists are continuously experimenting with color combinations, hue and saturation to create different effects for the viewers. So to truly appreciate color in any image you need to understand your own reaction to it and observe the effect it has on the other colors around it.