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  • Writer's pictureSarah Kingwell

Colour Theory

Updated: Jul 24, 2021

Colour Psychology

“The relationship in art are not necessarily ones from outward form but are founded on inner sympathy of meaning.” Kandinsky

So how do we feel when we see a certain colour? With colour theory being both a scientific and artistic interpretation of colour, we can look at how individuals perceive colour and the visual effects of colour concerning emotions. Colour theory encompasses a multitude of definitions and concepts, in this essay I’m going to look at Wassily Kandinkskys self-expressionism in using colour in his art, and different meanings that have been applied to colours, and how when expressing ourselves creatively we can be drawn to paint in certain colours, so what does it all mean when it’s related to self-expression in art?

Colour theory can involve the non-verbal communication we use to express our internal emotional state, colours are broken down into sections, the first colour wheel was designed by Sir Isaac Newton in 1666. The colour wheel consists of three primary colours, red, yellow, blue, three secondary colours that can be mixed using the primary colours, which are green, orange and purple, and six tertiary colours which are made up from mixing primary and secondary colours, for example, blue-green or red-violet. Using the colour wheel you can separate these into warm colours and cool colours, and each can reflect different emotions, warm colours are usually associated with energy, whereas cool colours are often more calming, and can often identify a feeling of peacefulness. Colour theory is complicated as every human is unique in the way they perceive information and colour can therefore also have a unique emotion or feeling represented, cultural differences can impact how we relate to certain colours.

In Wassily Kandinsky’s book ‘Concerning the Spiritual’, his approach to colour comes from a historical view of art methods used over the years, and how art can leave a physical impression on the ‘soul’ or can be dismissed and somewhat meaningless. Kandinsky’s approach looks into the superficial impression of varied colour, and how it can relate to a chain of differentiating sensations. ‘The eye is strongly attracted by light, clear colours, and still more strongly attracted by those colours which are warm as well as clear; vermillion has the charm of flame, which has always attracted human beings. Keen lemon-yellow hurts the eye in the time as a prolonged and shrill trumpet-note to the ear, and the gazer turns away to seek relief in blue or green.’. Furthermore, in his book, he looks at the psychic effect of different colours onto the ‘soul’, arguably stating that colour can be associated differently, looking at different shades of colour that reflect a different emotional state in the viewer of an art piece, again understanding cultural differences in association with colour can deepen our understanding of what colours can mean to each individual. Many colours, according to Kandinsky’s interpretation, can be described as rough, others as smooth, and the distinction between warm and cold colours can be used to heighten other senses. Kandinsky’s art itself uses the self-expression of colour to interpret the emotions related to when we hear music, his artwork forms lines and abstract brush strokes, with colours that compliment music, as he aims to describe sounds using colours, and these colours express sounds, he believes that colour can be heard and sound can be seen.

“Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand which plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.” Wassily Kandinsky

Over the years there have been studies in Psychology that related to the use of colours, and how we can harness the positive effects of colours, each colour having a positive and negative emotional reaction. So first let us start by looking at red, what feelings do you associate with the colour red, positively this colour can stimulate feelings of energy, excitement, strength, and negatively it can portray feelings of anger, hate, aggression. Red is a powerful colour, and it can affect our physical emotional state, by stimulating us it is lively, can relate to love for many, but can be perceived as demanding and aggressive. Now, let's think about the colour Blue, for me, this colour is calming and is my favourite colour to use in my paintings, the positive emotions associated with blue are trust, coolness, calming, and negatively can resemble coldness and unemotional, blue is said to be the colour of the mind and is essentially soothing, it affects us mentally, rather than the physical reaction associated with the colour red. Finally, in the primary colours, we have yellow, what feelings do you feel when you see the colour yellow? the colour yellow is said to be emotional, and positively can reflect feelings of confidence, emotional strength and optimism, however negatively can reflect feelings of fear, depression and anxiety. The yellow wavelength is long and therefore yellow is the strongest colour, psychologically, the right tone of yellow can lift our spirits and our self-esteem.

So why is colour such a powerful force in art? For me, my art is abstract self-expression, conceptually my art is a self-reflection of my inner emotional state, and when it comes to choosing colours I usually am drawn to a colour depending on how I feel, and although many studies have stated how colours can impact our physical state and psychological state, there’s not one colour representation that fits all. As mentioned previously our feelings towards certain colours can be cultural and unique, everyone experiences life and circumstances differently to one another, and from our deeply personal experiences, colour and the feelings we associate are subjective. There are however universal meanings, for example, warm colours like red, orange, and yellow can evoke emotions ranging from feeling warm and comforted to feeling angry. Colours on the cool side of the spectrum such as blue, purple and green, are universally described as calm, but can also call to mind feelings of sadness or indifference. Artists historically have used colours in a variety of ways to evoke a range of feelings, and over the years different techniques have been applied, in the words of Henri Matisse “colour helps to express light, not the physical phenomenon, but the only light that exists, that in the artist's brain”.

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