Color in Art

Desiree Maloney

ART 335

Book Review

Color in Art. By John Gage. (Thames & Hudson, 2006. 196pp.).

The idea of color may be obvious to a lot of people but there is more to it verse what people may perceive when just looking at an item. Color is produced when light strikes an object and is reflected back to the eye. Author John Gage goes into great detail throughout his book Color in Art when explaining different aspects of color in history. Gage begins by explaining how color transformed over time. He highlights how the start of using primary colors eventually lead to a great deal of color choices for artists. From there he then breaks down the different aspects that contributed to the evolution of color. For example Gage discusses the psychological, significance, language, and senses of color throughout his book. Gage does a great job at breaking down the various components of color through his chapters. Each chapter focuses on one main contribution to color. If someone wanted to learn about a specific concept on the development of color, this book is very accessible because of the way it is formatted. There are visual aids as well, so the reader can understand what is being explained within the page.  Based off the information presented by Gage, before studies were done on the concept of spectral colors, artists were forming their artwork based off what they were seeing. Artist started to shift their focus on depicting the mood to their artwork by using specific groups of colors together. Overtime, the evolution of color has helped influence the choices artist make when choosing their tonal palettes for their artwork.

One of the first aspects that contributed to the development of color was the development of the color spectrum. During the ancient Greek time period, pigments of color were the ideal go to medium for artwork. There was no formal understanding of a color wheel and its supporting factors like secondary, complementary, and analogous colors. Aristotle was one of the first philosophers to understand that color needed to be studied and not just blended as most painters did (16). Studies of the color spectrum came about during the seventeenth century when Sir Isaac Newton did his spectrum study of color. Before that study took place, the understanding of primary colors started to become noted in the 1100’s. One of the contributing factors was the use of stained glass art. Artists were using the main colors red, yellow, and blue in their work because they found that it was able to depict the naturalistic element of light best. A good example of this styled work was The Crucifixion and the Ascension found in the Pointers Cathedral (21). It consisted of a fluent use in red, yellow, blue, and small hints of green throughout the piece. Even over time, the idea of using primary colors was still favored by many artists. During the De Stijl movement artist favored the use of this triad color palette. Artist like Barnett Newman felt that these colors should be expressive rather than didactic (27). Along with his ideas of these colors came a series of artwork that showcased the true essence of the trio.

While some artist later in the century enjoyed the visual concept of using primary colors, earlier in the years, the sense of the color spectrum becoming more known excited artist like Vincent van Gogh. There first came the spectral study and then the more detailed circular study of color after that. Newton eventually took his linear spectrum and transformed it into a color circle. This was ideal for him because he needed to mathematically plot the location of mixed colors. The adaption to the color spectrum lead to many studies by artist who felt there was a relationship between different colors and how they fell on the color wheel. For artist like Frantisek Kupka, he felt as though certain colors created a vibration more than others when placed side by side. This idea brought him to create his work Disks of Newton (35). This piece portrayed the concept of circles and the use of colors that fell next to each other on the color wheel, as well as across. Now there was a formal knowledge of color starting to really develop in art. The exploration of tonalities in the different colors on the color wheel paved the way for a new approach to art. This shifted artist’s focus on psychological meanings behind color. The idea of creating a mood with a certain set of colors helped develop the deeper logic behind the artist work.

Gage opens up his chapter about the psychology of color by explaining how darkness had been an important perception of color in the real world as well as in paintings done earlier in the years (61). The use of dark colors such as black had always played a role in depicting a negative tone within art. The use of this color made it easier for artist to present a specific mood such as death, depression, or tragedy. Eventually the use of dark colors would become something that wasn’t used for negative subject pieces. The use of blacks would be paired with positive art pieces like in Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s painting, La Loge. He shows a woman and a man of high status dressed in black and white. Renoir plays with the use of light and dark in his painting, while still managing to keep an upbeat piece. Gage is starting to formulate a sense of understanding for the reader when it comes to color.  He goes into further detail by talking about Friedrich Friebel. Friebel was a Romantic Idealist educator who introduced the use of bright colors and abstract shapes in his children’s toys. It was believed that the use of the bright colors helped encourage creative play in kids. Through the study he conducted, it was also concluded that babies are able to distinguish red, blue, yellow, and green years before they even had the word capacity to name them. The use of the bold colors transpired into fashion choices as well as furniture designs. Bright yellows would be seen in things like baby cradles, due to its association with giving off high energy. During the holidays people would dress in the bold colors for the sake of the occasion. Artists began to even formulate differences in moods when it came to warm and cool colors.  Around the 18th century was when the idea of warm and cool colors gained recognition. With the understanding that color can hold a psychological meaning within a piece of art, the knowledge behind color begins to grow even more in Gage’s book Color in Art. Gage continues on into a chapter that talks about the significance in color.

Many colors tended to hold representational meanings. Overtime colors began to develop symbolic meanings behind them. Throughout the Middle Ages purple had been associated with royalty. Gage states that because this color was exceptionally laborious it was costly to produce (148). These characteristics made purple targeted for imperial households and the government. Even till this day the color purple is associated with a sense of high status. The use of color is also apparent within many of the flags seen around the country. When it comes to the green, it was believed that this color symbolizes hope. This idea was taken from the Christian theological virtues. While many different colors hold different meanings, some colors can have multiple meanings. Gage point out how red is a good example of being a color that can hold multiple representations. In this particular chapter he states how red can symbolize war, bravery, blood, authority, fire, faith, sun and many more (153). It just shows that the use of color is all in the context of the image produced. In Eugene Delacroix painting, Liberty Leading the People, one can imply that the flag being held with the red in it symbolizes war because of the setting in which the artist painted. The setting is either during or right after a battle. In the right side of the frame, a woman can be seen holding a flag that consists of the colors red, white, and blue. The development of artist expanding their knowledge of color helped shape a more versatile creation of art over the years.

Through the exploration of color, artist discovered new principles that helped form a deeper meaning within their art. More artists were able to utilize various colors in a harmonic way, thus adding to the tone of their paintings. The development of the color spectrum was the starting point that shifted the techniques artists were using. From there, the idea that color could hold a psychological meaning also created diversity in paintings. This allowed paintings to show a certain mood even better when paired with colors that complemented the specific feeling. Colors being able to hold a symbolic tone transformed the way certain objects or people may have been painted just based off of the color choice. Someone who was of royal status may have been painted with a lot of purple due the meaning behind that color. Overall Gage managed to break down the important factors that developed over time within color in a way that was effective and engaging.


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