The Language of Colour – Theo Van Leeuwen

The Language of colour

P3 ‘colour meanings are not necessarily understood naturally, without the aid of authoritative explorations’

P3 ‘colour meanings are not necessarily understood naturally, without the aid of authoritative explorations’

Pastoureau (2008: 16) ‘colour is defined first of all as a social phenomenon. It is the society that ‘makes’ the colour, that gives it its definitions and meanings, that constructs its codes and values, that organises its customs and determines its stakes’

Therefore my paintings can be received differently by many people. their colourful language is not universal but unique to my understanding of colours social construct. On an even more personal level, the language that creates a meaning that is unique to me. But this does not mean that it can only be interpreted by me. A yellow next to a blue may remind me of the sea, or the beach, which bring memories back into focus. Whereas these same colours might provoke a very different response to another person who takes the time to look at them.

P8 ‘The human face is yellow, red, green, blue and violets. The pallor of women gazing in a jewelers window is more intensely iridescent than the prismatic fires of the jewels that fascinate her… The time has passed for our sensations in painting to be whispered.’ ( -the futurist painting, technical manifesto)

Due to the mass manufacturing of childish products in garish colours the colours I select echo this. While unintentional it is possible to consider that my intentions are to re-imagine and allow audiences to re-discover this childlike state. To be overwhelmed by the beauty of colours do not whisper subtly. The demand attention, to be noticed, to be enjoyed. Visually stimulated an audience without forcing intellectual provocation by memories.

‘announced’, ‘joy’ and ‘exciting’ colours in art and everyday life.

P9 ‘early psychologists saw colour as a highly immediate, individual feeling’

My colour palette is a side affect of the “chemical” child toy colours as that is what stimulated me. I explore and look for these extreme colours in nature. In flowers, and sunsets and smaller things like the shell of insects or the colours of rust.

Stephanescu-Goanga ‘colour as a matter of nerves’

‘blue can calm… and red excite’ = chromotherapy

Modernism and these artistic ideas have brought more and more colour into the world, arguably also breeding a need for professions such as graphic design who utilise techniques surrounding colour and form in order to create works the visually engage. The simplest method of which includes colour selections. Although in our modern, capitalist would do these bright colours really engage our attnetion? Or are we now mostly desensitised to these techniques.

‘children’s toys and books that teach children basic visual concepts, tied to generic words – and do so in vivid, sensual colour. A car might be visually defined by its basic form, a bubble with four wheels, and labeled, simply, ‘colour’ – but all this is done in bright, primary colours. The conceptual combines with the aesthetic and sensory’

How is this any different to what the art world is constantly trying to request from artists. Artists create aesthetically beautiful works but are expected to attach concepts to them. While some are logical in the development of the art world, others could be seen as desperate attempts to portray an intellectual appearance when little skill has been utilised. The art world is so desperate to appear on a higher level of understanding than the common man… when in actual fact their natural appreciation for beauty could be seen as more pure and positive than forcing concepts unnecessary. A product of having an elitist art community that still tries to undermine and exclude the general population.

P11 ‘Colour is also used to convey ‘interpersonal meaning’

‘colours are very powerful and can reduce or raise stress levels, believes Lilian Verner-Bonds, author of colour healing…’ (The Guardian 3rd Sept 2001)

P12 – Three metafunctions = ideational function, interpersonal value and textual cohesion. Must happen simultaneously to create unity.

P15 ‘The same colour can express many different meanings and the same meanings can be expressed by many different colours’

‘despite the efforts of psychologists to construct universal psychological meanings for colour, there does not seem to be a single ‘language of colour’. Instead, there is a multitude of codes, conventiual associations and uses of colour’

 There is no transcultural truth of colour perception. (Pastoureau 2001, 8)

Colour symbolism, colour naturalism and colour as affect and effect

P16 colour used for ‘symbolic expression of idea and values’ =religon, secular values (or chivalourous)

colour to identify characters = Virgin Mary is in pale blue

Faith = White, Hope = Green, Charity = Red (Ambrogio Lorenzetti)

P20 ‘In the art of [a] monochrome world, colour not only because ‘secondary’, an embelishment… What mattered now was not what colour meant but now it could help artists create an illusion of reality’

P21 ‘Isaac Newton’s discovery of the colour spectrum would officially abolish ‘black and white’ and ‘colour’ that is still with us.’

‘Sciences which looked at colour as an objective phenomenon, separate from the subjective, human world; on the other hand, the emerging psychology of colour, which gave a central place to human subjectivity’

Goethe controdicts Newton does return the subjective to the convosation.

‘[colour] is immediately associated with the emotions of the mind’; the idea that colour can express ‘character’; the idea that people have innate colour preferences; and the idea that colour can have direct, unmediated effects on people.’

P23 ‘An application [of colour] coinciding with nature may be called symbolic, since the colour would be employed in conformity with its effect, and would at once express its meaning’

P25 ‘the central idea continues to be that colour is effective, a direct unmediated feeling, and that colour can have involuntary effect, and it continues to play a key role in western colour discourse’

to have an audience that agrees on a meaning for colour ‘requires an audience of shared cultural experience’ (P25) Hornung – distinguishes (like Goethe) ‘symbolic colour associates’ from ‘colour meanings’ … ‘colour meaning seems to spring from a psychological relation to physical experience’

P29 ‘in the past mixing has often been seen as a dubious practice, a kind of contamination, affecting the ‘purity’ of colour’ Plitarch: ‘ mixing produces conflict, conflict produces change, and putrefaction is a kind of change’

And so I have returned to these purer colours with only minimal tonal changes. While the materials were rare and expensive colour mixing is even more precious. Thus unlikely to be mixed, especially considering the colours needed were specifically found in nature. When alternative pigments were discovered the artist palette was reduced (Leonardo da Vinci) and then mixed to achieve the desired colour. This meant that paints were no longer precious and possibly not as appreciated.

P30 ‘ As a medium, colour is, therefore, a more or less unordered collection of material substances, paints, dyes, inks and so on, each with theory unique histories and qualities, a ‘language’, you could say, which only has a vocabulary, and no grammar.

A creative language similar to music. Colour is searching for its own melody. And with these suggestions, it is possible to understand synesthesia. The fear in the modern age is that paint loses its materiality due to computers ability to produce colour and so painters might now strive to regain that materiality in the same way that photography developments limited the need for art as a documentation tool.

P30 ‘strictly speaking, primary colours are colours that cannot be obtained by mixing – red, blue, yellow. More broadly, they are colours that are regarded as fundamental and irreducible in the context of some theory of colour and some way of classifying colours.’

Leonardo da Vinci colour palette – Red = Fire, Blue = Air, Green = Water, Yellow = Earth

Modern colour mixing gives us the three primary colours and then secondary and tercary colours are added form there. This also means that there can be a variety of blacks made from the primary colours.

There are so many debates on what is the considered a primary colour and despite what is commonly taught there is an argument for green, black and white as primary colours. The debate becomes more complicated when it is considered that it is not the mixing or lack thereof that makes a primary colour. Similarly, white and black may or may not be considered colours, but simply tools for tonal and saturation changes. While these may be debated by the scientists I believe that it is all to the benefit of the artists who are able to utilise a much larger toolkit of colours, But does this give too many options nad over complicates artists possibilities, of course, the design of the colour wheel does alter the artist’s palette slightly. Also, I would suggest that the availability of colours in tubes has meant that artists have practically returned to a time when pigments had to be selected, not to be mixed, but without the appreciated or monetary value that the colours once held.

P33 ‘While artists choose their own primaries and colour theories derived from the practices of painters’

In my mind the photography and digital colour theories are separate from painting theories because what can be used by both is different and how they are used is different.

P34 ‘Russian art critic Tarabukin argued that immaterial colours themselves have an autonomous aesthetic value which is not exhausted by hue’ – music depends on the materiality of the instruments.

My paintings take these into consideration and develop a pattern similar to musical patterns or language vocabularies that can be recognised by an audience. And then I mix the pieces to create a varied form of pattern developing a play of colour, temperature and languages. The depths of colours will also be utilised when they are placed together, contrasted with the foreground white and pushed back black markings. While the paintings would at first appear flat they are not, both because of their textures and because of the qualities in colours that means that the eye reacts to them differently either foreground or background colours based on tonal quality and temperatures.

P48 ‘Why could Homer use the same colour word, leukos, for the colour of snow, water, metallic surfaces and the sun? Not because they are white, but because they are all reflective, shiny or luminescent. Why could he use the same word, chloron, for yellow as well as green things? Not because the Greeks of his time could not see the difference between these two colours, but because the things he called chloron (leaves, honey, sand etc) were all pale in colour, light and somewhat desaturated. In Homers time, lustre, luminescence, saturation and value were somehow more important, more fundamental for the characterisation of colour than hue, difficult as that might be to understand today, when hue is used as a key classifier of objects.’

P55 ‘people’s colour choices are not, or no longer, ‘instinctive’, but tutored, conscious and explicit… discussions of colour meaning are increasingly based on cultural and historical references rather than on affect – laden adjectives and the psychology of personality’

P56 ‘A key difference between these two approaches is that colour preferences and the personality traits the are systematic of are supposedly deep-seated and hard to change, while the cultural and historical references of particular colours, on the other hand, are easier to change, because any given colour can be linked to a wide range of cultural and historical referenced’

P58 ‘It is important to emphasise that colours have meaning potentials rather than specific meanings, and that these meaning potentials will only be narrowed down, made more specific, in specific cultural and situational context.

P65 ‘Artists and theorists alike have always seen colours as interactive, brightening or dulling each other, harmonising or clashing. In a letter to his brother Theo, Van Gogh explained how he had expressed ‘the terrible passions of humanity’ by all means of ‘clash and contrast of the most desperate reds and greens’

P65 ‘The Mondrian colour scheme of pure red, yellow and blue (plus black and white) came to characterise modernity’

P68 ‘Nevertheless, interpretation will emerge from, and be motivated by, a detailed and exhaustive analysis of the way colour is actually used, rather than being based on a selection of just those features that fit a pre-determined idea’

P73 Seurat ‘The means of expression is the optical mixture of tonal values and colours (both local colour and the colours of the light source, be it sun, oil lamps, gas etc.) that is to say, the optical mixture of lights and their reactions (shadows) in accordance with, the laws of contrast, graduation and irradiation’

P75 ‘Kandinsky taught his students abstraction, ‘precise observation, not of the outward appearance of an object, but of the constructive elements, the tensions of forces’

P75 De Stijl abstracters ‘As the sought to reduce the forms of reality to a small vocabulary of abstract shapes, to these artists also sought to reduce colour to a small set of basic colours, often drawings on the scientific colour theories’

P76 ‘Abstract colours were given abstract meanings. Two sources of meaning were particularly important, colour psychology and theosophy… (Huszar… ‘nothing is more subjective that the reaction to colour, which depends on the nature of the individual)… but for artists like Mondrian and Kandinsky colour, was not just psychological, it was also, and above all, ‘spiritual’.’


P77 ‘Abstract Expressionism relates on the one hand to abstraction, to reducing colour to the basics and the universal and, on the other hand, to expression, to using the full meaning potential of colour for the expression of subtle and complex feeling and symbolic  meanings.’

P78 Newman ‘I was confronting the dogma that colour must be reduced to the primaries; red, yellow and blue.’


Published by

Jessy Plant

A Brighton born artist, now studying a Fine Art Degree at Cardiff Met Uni.

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