'If one says ‘red’ – the name of a colour – and there are fifty people listening, it can be expected that there will be fifty reds in their minds. And one can be sure that all these reds will be very different.’ – Josef Albers
Colour is, undeniably, a vital part of every artwork. Whether there is an abundance of colour or a lack of it, whether it’s vibrant or muted, colour is a key factor when interpreting all visual media.
Yet, not only does everyone see and interpret colour in their own way (remember that black and blue dress? Or was it gold and white …?) but actually, colour as a physical property doesn’t exist. There are, however, some tangible and practical ways to analyse colour that can help us to better understand the world around us, to interpret artworks, and even help us decorate our homes.
‘Enjoying something colourful, like a piece of art, is wonderful, but understanding and using colour can be tricky’, says expert colourist Nicoline Kinch, who invented the Kolormondo colour aid. ‘Hue and value are easy – hue means red, blue, yellow, etc., whereas value goes from dark to light, so a light red is a pink, a night sky is a dark shade of blue.’ Understanding the saturation of a colour is slightly trickier. Nicoline explains, ‘saturation could be described as the intensity or purity of a pigment, so a colour with a lot of pigment has a high saturation.’
Whilst these visual properties of colour may seem a little removed from our day to day experience of colour, as Nicoline points out, detecting and understanding colour is one of our most important, and continuously used, sensory reactions. ‘When we’re asking ourselves which apple we should choose, whether those strawberries are ripe, whether we’re seeing a wedding or a funeral, whether your artwork is a cheerful or melancholy piece, colour is the key to determining our answers.’
In many ways, we all have an intuitive understanding of colours – based upon these properties – which ones work well together and their connotations, but being literate in the language of colour gives artists a sensory tool to convey very specific emotions and associations.
For artist Henrietta Dubrey, who is represented by Bath-based gallery Edgar Modern, colour is a critical element of her practice. Henrietta has become well known for her abstract and figurative paintings, identifiable for their bold and bright blocks of colour.
She says, ‘it is colour that connects, colour that inspires and invigorates, and colour that gives life to an artwork’. For Henrietta, colour is both a technical tool and a way of tapping into a memory or emotion. She says, ‘I often draw on the properties of colour as a compositional device, using a coloured ground behind a figure for dramatic effect, or using a warm grey, for instance, to offset the neutral tones of a figure. But I also often find that specific colour combinations are evocative, reminding me of things from my past. A recent abstract painting titled ‘Sojourn’ was inspired by an antique Bedouin dress my mother owned. The bright fuchsia pink and faded indigo blue bounced up in my mind as soon as the combination appeared on the canvas.’
"It is colour that connects, colour that inspires and invigorates and colour that gives life to an artwork."
Colour can be said to transcend language, evoking memories and feelings, which is why its application is so important in art. Artists like Mark Rothko, Sonia Delaunay and Bridget Riley, may have been ahead of the curve in their investigations of colour, emotion, light and perception.
But the importance of the effect of colour on us as human beings extends even further.
There has been a wealth of study and research into how colour affects us; colour psychology is widely used in many industries from fashion to business, marketing to interior design. But, for a seemingly everyday phenomenon, it seems there is still so much to understand about the wonderful world of colour …