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."


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