How and why does a particular colour make us react in a certain way to a painting? Colour is the most powerful instrument in visual art; artists exploit the capacity of colour to arouse emotions in the viewer and as a powerful means of visual communication.
Throughout history, humans have associated colour with their experiences, their joys, hopes, pleasures and sadness. And many artists use colour to express themselves more forcefully than the image alone can do. This is something that both artists and interior designers understand but where an interior designer might juxtapose the smooth gloss of large white porcelain tiles against dark walnut wood furniture for contrast the artist is doing much more. An artist might express hope by a light yellow against a dark background or lovers’ passion by the radiance of the sun. But whilst a visual artist needs to study colour theory and the use of colour as a means of expression, for the viewer, a formal understanding of colour does nothing to enhance the appreciation of an artwork or affect their instinctive reaction to it.
Many articles on colour try to explain the theory of colour as if by understanding colour theory the viewer can better appreciate the art. But a human’s reaction to certain colours is a fundamental biological response. We are, of course, also influenced by colour associations from our culture and, very importantly, our own individual preferences. So an understanding of colour theory will not affect our personal response to a particular painting. And whilst the ideas and inspiration behind a particular painting are a very important element in our appreciation of a work of art, the specific colours and how they are used together are also a major part of our emotional response to what we see.
Sometimes the initial emotional response to the colours is so strong that it can make us instantly like, or dislike, a work. This is often the case when the artist has used a colour specifically to express a strong emotion rather than the natural colour of an object in the painting. Or has used an unnatural colour for a familiar object.
It is well known that colour can be used by an artist to create a calming effect, or to draw the viewer’s eye to a particular part of the composition. And everyone is familiar with the concept of “warm” and “cool” colours. Warm colours such as red and orange appear closer to the viewer and cool colours such as blue and green appear to recede.
Colour can also be used to create the illusion of movement and excitement in a painting when the artist uses extremes of colour very close together. Our eyes can also perceive a visual rhythm by the use of alternating sequences of colour. These effects are particularly apparent in the music-inspired Abstract Art of Alison Pilkington.
In visual art, colour should create a balanced visual experience. Without balance or harmony, the art is either too bland and doesn’t engage or excite the viewer or it is too loud and demanding and the viewer simply turns away. It is also important to remember that all colours can provoke positive and negative reactions depending on their context. And the experience and culture of the viewer can affect their perception of the artist’s message. Colours are capable of so many variations that making absolute statements about meaning is impossible, which is why an understanding of the artist’s inspiration and intentions in a painting add to our appreciation and enjoyment of a work of art.