Elements of Art/Life: Colour

Photo by  Amanda C  on  Unsplash

Photo by Amanda C on Unsplash

To kick off the new year, let’s continue learning about and applying the Elements of Art by moving on to perhaps the most fun element: Colour!

I don’t know about you, but I’m obsessed with the beginning of the year. OBSESSED. The week between Christmas and New Year’s is my favourite week of the year, followed closely by the first week of January. New beginnings! The air is ripe with energy and possibility! (Or maybe that’s just the smell of everyone exercising for the first time in months…)

In any event, give me the beginning of the year over the middle of summer any day (particularly because I live on Vancouver Island, so the middle of winter is still really nice). People are so keyed into who they are and what they want right now. God I love it.

And all that makes this the perfect time to talk about our dear friend, Colour. Colour is said to be the element of art that has the strongest hold on our emotions, and no wonder – every colour of the rainbow carries richly nuanced meaning, understandable by anyone anywhere. Plus, Colour is so incredibly, well, elemental… it’s natural properties are so powerful that artists from all branches of the fine arts have an enormous number of tools and techniques through which to stimulate the senses, evoke the entire range of human emotions, and even conjure inexplicable magic. Let’s dive in, learn the technical side of Colour, and also think about how we could “colour” our lives in a more dynamic way in 2019.

Vincent Van Gogh,  Irises , 1889

Vincent Van Gogh, Irises, 1889

Colour Theory Basics

You probably remember a few things about colour from childhood art class. First, you’ve got the primary colours: yellow, blue, and red. Those three are elemental – they just exist. You can’t mix any other colours together to make yellow, blue, and red, they just are. If you mix those in the three different possible pairings, you get the secondary colours: orange, green, and purple (all of which feature prominently in Van Gogh’s Irises, above). And finally, if you mix the secondary colours with the primary colours nearest them on the colour wheel (below), and you get the six tertiary colours (like red-purple, blue-green, and yellow-green… also known as magenta, teal, and chartreuse). Put all those bad boys together and you’ve got the complete (tertiary) colour wheel:


Complementary and Analogous colours: or, why some people just bring it out in you

You might recall from elementary school art class that colours across from each other on the wheel are called Complementary. You might not remember that colours next to each other are called Analogous.

Lets pause for a moment to talk about complementary and analogous colours. Here’s what complementary colours always make me think of. Have you ever been around someone who was literally your opposite in every possible way? Someone who made you shake your head all day, thinking “God, how do you function? How do they even live like that?!” We’ve all known those people whose decisions and lives we just don’t get. And love ‘em or hate ‘em, for me, these people always make me crank up the volume on the things that do make me, well, me (and NOT them). They bring out the me-ness in me. That’s how complementary colours work.

By putting polar opposites right beside one another, artists magically make both colours more intense. Check out this famous example of complementary colours and see what you think:

Henri Matisse ,  The Green Line , 1905

Henri Matisse, The Green Line, 1905

In the glorious Matisse above, do you see how red and green – complementary colours that fall straight across from one another on the colour wheel – make each other pop just by being together? The green is so much greener, and each different red has so much depth and personality. The line of green down the face is positively stunning – an almost shocking hue that pulls the face forward and really brings the figure to life. I usually think of red and green as enemies (think about a non-Christmas outfit where you try to mix red and green… it’s no easy feat). And, indeed, the juxtaposition of the two on this canvas make for a certain intensity that just wouldn’t exist without the contrast. But, the contrast makes both colours positively hum with richness and depth… so next time you’re with that person who kind of makes your skin crawl because you are their exact opposite, have a little notice at whether you’re shining a little brighter because of them.

On that note, let’s move on to analogous colours. Analogous colours always give me the warm fuzzies. For an example, let’s turn to one of the greatest masters of colour, Claude Monet:

Claude Monet,  The Water-Lily Pond , 1899

Claude Monet, The Water-Lily Pond, 1899

Monet basically cuts out a slice of pie from the colour wheel and paints almost exclusively from that little piece. Analogous colours are like best friends or really great partners: they have a lot in common, but they also have a few differences, which keeps things interesting. I always feel like analogous colours are pulling one another together – like there’s a magnetic force drawing them nearer and holding them close. They just feel so at ease with each other, but in a way that is intimate and comfortable, just like a great friendship or a lasting romance. Do you have this with your own partner? What about your best friends? Are you just different enough that you don’t kill each other, but also similar enough to be of one mind a lot of the time? Notice your similarities and differences next time you’re together – it’s so interesting, and can be totally illuminating.

Reflection and Absorption

As you may remember from high school physics class, colour is vibration. White light contains the full spectrum of colours (which is why, when you shine a white light through a prism a la the cover to Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon or those ugly Swarovski butterflies your grandma has up in the kitchen window, you get a rainbow). When we see an object and can identify it’s colour (“nice orange sweater, Linda!”), what’s actually happening is light hitting the object, the object absorbing some of the light, and the object bouncing back or reflecting the rest of the light. What gets reflected is an object’s colour. No light, no colour (hence, why everything looks black and grey when you get up in the dark in the middle of the night).

Let’s pause to chew on THAT for a minute. No light, no colour. Hoo lord. Have you ever gone through a period in your life where you felt like everything was just grey? Where things around you just kind of hit you and fell to the floor, or went right through you? Maybe this felt like a “no light” time – where everything felt colourless and joyless and sad or scary or just blah. Conversely, did you ever have exactly the opposite? One of those times where, maybe you were in love or maybe you’d just gotten an awesome new job or maybe things were all just working out for you, and everything seemed so colourful. Do you notice how you can conjure up that grey, colourless feeling, as well as the bright, vibrant feeling in your heart and body? Which one feels like it has more light in it? Which one feels like it really vibrated?

I find all the arts, but especially visual art and classical music, to be deeply healing in those times when everything feels colourless. Even just to look at a piece, like the famous Picasso below which represents the horrors of fascism, and sit in sadness for a moment. Art isn’t only there to cheer you up and make you feel amazing; it’s also there to help you process your feelings, sit with them, find peace with them, and then – when you’re ready – transition through them. There’s a reason Picasso – master of colour – chose a black and white palette for Guernica: because sometimes, when things are terrible, they feel awfully colourless.

Pablo Picasso,  Guernica , 1937

Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937

On the other hand, when we are feeling open and inspired and letting that beautiful pure white beam into us and allowing that rainbow of expression to come out – well, that is truly the triumph of the human spirit, and the ultimate peak of the human experience, is it not? And so much art captures this incredible feeling of being lit up, aligned, excited, in love, and just plain enthusiastic about living.

For me, one of the most incredible examples of this in visual art are the Matisse (back to that colour buddy!) Cut-Outs. During the last decade of his life, Matisse was physically weakened by cancer, and used a wheelchair. His body was frail, but his mind and spirit were wildly vital. He began making gouaches découpés, or, as we call them today, the Paper Cut-Outs. He would paint pieces of paper a solid colour, then cut them into beautiful, organic shapes, then have assistants pin the large cuttings up on the walls of his studio in glorious patterns. The works are so creative but also so simple that – I feel, at least – they speak directly to the purest, most beautiful part of my own heart. They evoke so much beauty, and also the interminable will to create. See what you feel:

Henri Matisse,  The Parakeet and the Mermaid , 1952

Henri Matisse, The Parakeet and the Mermaid, 1952

Using Colour Language for Self-Discovery

Aside from what works of art that use colour in magnificent ways can tell us about our own experiences, we can also take from the world of art a wonderful set of colour-related words to use when thinking about our personal expansion and development.

For example, colour has three main characteristics: hue (green, blue, red etc.), value (how light or dark the colour is), and intensity (how vivid or dull the colour appears). Building on the theme discussed above, we can think particularly about value and intensity for our own self-reflection. If your life is a canvas upon which you are painting your masterpiece (and it is), how light or dark are the many colours in your palette of experience right now? Are you bringing a lot of gloomy, dark influences and people in – and are they overwhelming the whole composition? Or, is everything a bit too light, perhaps feeling superficial or “one-note.” And what about intensity? Does everything feel just the right amount of intense, or do you need to crank up the volume by leaning into each facet of yourself and making it more pure, more vibrant, more at the forefront? Perhaps, instead, everything feels a little muddy, or dull, or filtered.

As many of you know, I’m also a huge fan of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurvedic principles, and I’ve found the central themes of balancing warming and cooling foods, behaviours, and thoughts to be so incredibly healing and empowering. Along those same lines, think of your life as a composition made up of warm and cool colours. Does anything strike you as too cool – maybe too methodical or removed or business-like. Or maybe you feel too warm, with too much go-go-go building heat in your life or too much fire in a romantic relationship. Do you crave more warm, or more cool? Balance your composition, and lean in to whichever one is calling to you.

Helen Frankenthaler ,  Mountains and Sea,  1952

Helen Frankenthaler, Mountains and Sea, 1952

I hope this has brought you a little closer to the world of colour and set you up for some annual self-reflection and intention setting for a beautifully balanced, gloriously you creation that will be 2019. Your life truly is your masterpiece, so take this week to reflect on where to crank up the colour.

And if you get stuck, might I recommend a solo sojourn to your local art museum.

Until next time!