The artists' guide to colour through the ages

In Byzantine art, red symbolised the flames of the holy spirit and for Northern European painters before 1400, the colour of the Virgin's robe. For Italian Renaissance painters, on the other hand, a red robe, signifying Christ's blood, denoted Mary Magdalen.

For the German Romantic painter Otto Runge, red was the colour of a mystical ethereality, while for Mondrian in the early 1900s, it was the colour of pride and sensuality. For Kandinsky red was the epitome of power and determination, and for Franz Marc it was "brutal and heavy".

For Matisse red was the pre-eminent colour in his palette - at once seductive, fiery and passionate. Under the influence of Matisse's Red Studio (1911), red became a dominant colour in the work of Mark Rothko during the late 1940s, creating in his large-scale abstractions an enveloping feeling of saturating warmth and intense spirituality.

Pink is a predominant colour in Indian miniatures. Its contrast to the muddy hues of realist painting meant it was a favourite with the post- Impressionists and it was used by Gauguin as the colour of the earth in several Tahitian paintings and extensively in the work of the German Expressionists and the Fauves.

Dominant in Picasso's paintings for the two years from 1905 to 1907, the artist's choice of rose pink was possibly induced by the effects of taking opium.

The pink of the "rose period" invokes a morbidity redolent of the sinister subject matter of the poetry of his friend Apollinaire: "The tubercular flush on the cheeks of young girls close to death."

By contrast, in the work of Matisse, pink is celebratory. Inspired by the light and chromatic simplicity of the artist's numerous trips to Algeria, when used in conjunction with lime green, pink is symbolic of spiritual renewal.

In the ancient world purple and violet were the colours of royalty. Goethe identified violet as the colour of the shadow produced by yellow sunlight. Absorbing his and other colour theories, the Impressionists saw a preponderance of violet in their landscapes as being quite natural.

Contemporary critics of their work, however, such as Max Nordau, saw this as a weakness - "an expression of the nervous debility of the painter". Monet in particular used violet in his landscapes. "I have discovered the true colour of the atmosphere," he said. "Fresh air is violet."

In Cezanne, violet is used to great effect as a vibrant counter to the vivid greens of the later landscapes. Kandinsky, however, typically contrary, set the mood for the extremes of post-Impressionism and for Jackson Pollock's violent, violet splashes, writing in Concerning the Spiritual in Art that violet was essentially "morbid".

To the medieval world blue was the colour of divine darkness. For the Byzantines it was the colour of divine light.

In Italian Renaissance painting, on account of the expense of ultramarine, blue became the colour of the Virgin's gown.

Appropriately, for Otto Runge and later for Kandinsky, it symbolished the feminine temperament, and also for the latter, "the colour of heaven". For Goethe, however, blue was a negative, cold colour and, when placed against red or yellow, the colour of spatial recession. Its effect on the spirit he considered to be one of absolute melancholy.

For Picasso, too, blue was the epitome of that "languid melancholy", which dominated his painting from 1901 to 1905.

Yves Klein invented his own "International Klein Blue". "Colours," he wrote, "always lead to associations with concrete ideas while blue, at the very most, recalls the sea."

Through the healing properties of crushed emeralds, green for the ancients became associated with magic.

For Goethe it was the colour of sensuality and memory. For his contemporary, the painter Runge, however, green was the colour of the real world. That this should have been so is hardly surprising. Green is most obviously the colour of nature. John Constable couldn't get enough of it. He became so obsessed with re-creating the exact tone of green that he observed in the landscape that he would create his own greens, often brighter than those commercially available, from blue and yellow. It is hardly surprising that green should have been abhorred by Turner.

For Kandinsky, green signified pride and for Mondrian it was an indication of jealousy. Although, in a less torpid tone it could indicate empathy.

Along with black, yellow was one of the colours identified by Hippocrates as constituting bile, one of the four humours that made up the character of man. In China yellow was traditionally the colour of the Emperor's cloak, and thus denoted regal status. In the West, though, drawing on a traditional association with evil and cowardice, during the early Renaissance yellow was commonly used by painters for the colour of Judas's robe.

Simultaneously, for the German painters of the 15th century it was the colour of spirituality.

Yellow was one of Goethe's positive, warm colours, having a serene effect on the soul. For Runge and Kandinsky, too, it was the "warm" colour of man. For Franz Marc, conversely, it was related to "the female principle", while Mondrian considered yellow to be the colour of the intellect.

For Aristotle, white was the colour of air, water and earth. For the early Christian scholars, as for Renaissance artists, it was the colour of Christ's robe at the transfiguration - in effect a non-colour; brighter even than white light. Their preoccupation was resurrected in a secular context in the late-19th century by Whistler's series of ethereal, aesthetic portraits which he christened "symphonies in white". Kandinsky, writing 20 years later, characterised white as "birth"; the opposite polarity to the black of "death".

The American minimalist artist Robert Ryman, who began painting all-white canvases in 1965, famously stated his lack of interest in white as a colour and set the tone for a generation of post-modernists. "I don't think of myself as making white paintings," he said. "I make paintings. I'm a painter. White paint is my medium."

IG

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Arts and Entertainment
Crime watch: Cara Delevingne and Daniel Brühl in ‘The Face of an Angel’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
music Malik left the Asian leg of the band's world tour after being signed off with stress last week
News
Author J.K. Rowling attends photocall ahead of her reading from 'The Casual Vacancy' at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on September 27, 2012 in London, England.
peopleNot the first time the author has defended Dumbledore's sexuality
News
‘The Late Late Show’ presenter James Corden is joined by Mila Kunis and Tom Hanks for his first night as host
news
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
photography
News
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
people
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss