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  • Writer's pictureUshrayinee S.

Color: How it changes the mood in art

A viewer can tell a lot about a painting at first glance. The composition, the medium, and many other small details can speak volumes as to the emotions the artist was feeling when the piece was conceived. But very few elements are as telling of the pathos behind a work of art as the colors that are employed in the piece.

Colors have had many meanings throughout the times, and can often mean very different things. Red, for instance, dually expresses love and passion, conversely, war and pain, as red is the color of blood or a rose, even. Green can show the beauty of nature, the chlorophyll of trees and plants makes green such a choice color for such, but it can also be associated with sickness and misfortune, bringing to mind the Parisian arsenic green that used to have such deadly effect on old green playing cards and wallpapers. In this way, color is something that can’t be pinned down with a singular meaning per piece, instead, it opens up a multifaceted array of interpretations.

As TERAVARNA’s color art competition approaches, now is a good time to take a look at some famous paintings to see what colors can say about the mood of the piece or even the artist.

1. The color blue in Howard Pyle’s The Mermaid (1910)

In this painting, a sailor embraces a mermaid, surrounded by water and sea foam, with what is either the moon or the sun hanging low in the sky. The color blue here evokes feelings of longing, or of a meeting long overdue, which is clear to see in the gestures of the figures in the painting. The whole piece is washed in different shades of blue, and the sky, the water, and the skin of the figures are all tinged with an ethereal-ness that pervades the painting.

This painting is interesting in that it was left unfinished by Howard Pyle, and was finished by his student.

The color blue is usually associated with sadness or melancholy, and here it’s quite fitting to see it used in a scene that seems emotionally charged for these two lovers.

2. The color yellow in Vincent Van Gogh’s Wheatfield with a Reaper (1889)

Van Gogh himself referenced the Biblical associations of the reaper being the taker of human lives in this painting. He describes seeing the man reaping wheat at the edge of the field, his grueling task laid before him. Van Gogh mentions the duality of the scene; the ominous gesture of reaping with the incongruous effect of the event taking place during broad daylight, in the shimmering rays of the bright sun.

The color yellow often represents happiness or productivity, and here it’s used quite aptly to show the reaper’s work being done in the harsh sunlight.

3. The color green in Sir John Everett Millais’ Ophelia (1851)

Ophelia’s corpse floats languidly down the river in this piece by Millais, referencing the famous Shakespeare character’s demise. Gone mad with grief for the murder of her father, Ophelia slips into the river and allows herself to die. The color green fills the frame in this painting, it’s in the surroundings and reflected onto the figure’s white dress as well. The symbolic flowers that Ophelia loosely clasps are representational of different meanings; the poppies show death, the pansies allude to love in vain, and finally, the daisies represent simple innocence. The color green usually represents verdancy and life, but here the color makes the death of Ophelia look especially out of place and calls focus to it. The living, thriving nature around the corpse only makes the viewer notice the tragedy of Ophelia even more.

4. The color red in John Martin’s Pandemonium (1841)

Referencing John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost, this piece by John Martin depicts the city that is the capital of Hell. Martin often painted apocalyptic scenes, inspired by paintings such as Turner’s The Fifth Plague of Egypt that depicted widespread chaos and death. Here, the color red is imbued with this destructive energy, apparent in the smoldering ground that flickers with molten magma, in the dress of the somber standing figure by the crack in the ground, and in the distant sky that is streaked with cosmic scale disaster. Red often denotes war when used symbolically, and here in this painting, it’s used to show how Hell is a place that is full of fire and brimstone. The less-than-welcoming aura of the painting is suffused with smoky color, asking the viewer to take a step back, both to distance themselves from the intense scene and to take in the epic enormity of scale.

We hope these examples provide you with a more comprehensive view of how color can affect the tone of a piece. In many of the pieces above the artist’s thoughts can be seen to seep into the work and make it just that much more poignant of a scene. Hopefully, you’re able to put this knowledge into use in the upcoming color art competition that TERAVARNA is hosting and use it to further the many qualities of your work.

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