March 21, 2016

The Emotional Resonance of Color

Henri Matisse, Memories of Oceania

Soon there came to me, like a revelation, the love of materials for their own sake....I felt growing within me a passion for color.
Henri Matisse, quoted in The Unknown Matisse by Hilary Spurling. 

It is impossible to stand in front of one of Matisse's late cut-outs and not have a powerful response to the color, color which carries within it feelings of openness and joy, and pulsing energy. The marriage of shape and color seems a perfect one, but it is the color which most entrances.

Matisse, Maquette for Jazz

Matisse spoke of a childhood memory of illumined color that I can picture in my mind; I imagine that it stayed with him as a kind of magic:
The second shop window was the best: twelve tubular glass bottles, drawn up in battle order on a stand and filled to the brim with colours whose very names made me feel proud. They were, in order, pale chrome yellow, dark chrome yellow, cadmium, cobalt blue, ultramarine, Prussian blue, milori green, English green, rose madder, Austrian vermilion, Turkey red and pure carmine. 

Josef Albers, Color Study, Platinum

Josef Albers' life work in painting and in teaching was centered in the relationships of colors:
In visual perception a color is almost never seen as it really is
––as it physically is.
This fact makes color the most relative medium in art.
Albers, Interaction of Color
Regarding color memory he wrote:
If one says "Red" (the name of a color)
and there are 50 people listening,
it can be expected that there will be 50 reds in their minds.
And one can be sure that all these reds will be very different.

Albers, Study for Homage to the Square, Night Shades

Those different colors in our minds also come along with different feelings. Looking at the two Albers studies above, the moods they evoke are of bright day and of evening. Albers himself, in using the title Night Shades, understood how dark hues, close in value, remind us of the time of day when color and form are subdued and sink into near formlessness. Does that make us sad, or nostalgic, or touched with another feeling? As in thinking of red, we each will bring our own response.

Lyubov Popova, Painterly Architectonic

I love that Popova, in the era of Russian constructivism, chose red and pink for a two of her paintings of 1917; the high seriousness of this revolutionary period in art is tickled with the unconventional color choices.

Mary Heilmann, Garden of Allah, 1986

Intense candy colors vibrate and glow against their surrounding black. Heilmann's color surprises and brings forth physical sensations––a juiciness in the mouth, a brightness in the eye––and a memory of neon emerging from the warm dark.

Golu, The Lover Prepares to Depart

The artists in this post are ones I often turn to when I'm looking for color ideas for my own work. Indian painters have a rich sense of color relationships. Colors are pure and direct and can show mystery and opulence and sensuality....

Early Master at Mandi Court, Gopis Pleading with Krishna

....or a lovely delicacy. The pale minty greens are a delight as contrasted with the dark greens and the warm-colored flesh of the poor Gopis whose clothes were stolen by Krishna.

Osservanza Master, Saint Anthony

Beautiful grays describe the desert of Saint Anthony, but his halo repeats the vividness of the evening sky and the distant church; those bright colors are of the shining spirit.

Goethe, in his Theory of Colors, ascribed emotional attributes to color, such as for green: "The eye experiences a distinctly grateful impression from this color." Brainpickings has assembled several quotes. We can read Goethe and see if we agree with his assessments, or if we think it is too simplistic to assign a feeling to a color.

Leftover wool from textiles 

I've been thinking a lot recently about how color affects us. My choice of colors for my textiles is often based on what kind of mood I want to evoke; the same composition using red and black would have a very different effect in pink and green. When I sit at my work table staring at a just-fired, pure white porcelain relief sculpture, I have to figure out what color to paint it. The form may ask me for a certain color, or the feeling I want to achieve may demand a certain color, but it's not at all obvious. (You can see two painted reliefs at this link.) The world of color is complex and wide and deep, and exhilarating.


  1. Miraculous that vision works. At all.
    Memory helps even in trying to name colors. What a dream-job: naming colors in a paint-factory!
    Ever "see" the back-program that "they" think is continuously running in the visual-cortex? Those of us blessed with "pain-free migraines" or "migraines with aura" get to see some of it occasionally.
    We all see basically the same things: starting with a tiny shimmering crescent, red and blue sparkling chevrons, spreading of the crescent, until all of the central focal-area is obliterated by sparkling, shimmering light, blinding us except peripherally...about 20 minutes later...gone.
    The Wonderful World of Color!
    living color
    (emotional resonance)

    1. How fascinating, JBS; I had no idea.

    2. Scary as all get-out 'til you find out what it is! I made a drawing of it, and years later thought to do an image-search...turns out others have recorded it, too, and it is all very similar...
      another reason to hang-on and enjoy the ride.

  2. After our conversation about grey/gray, I thoroughly enjoyed this post and your clear descriptions. Especially loved the Hielmann. Thanks!