Inspiring Painters: Color

While color is by default the domain of virtually all painters, there are a few artists whose work really pushes the boundaries of what can be done with color. Here are four painters whose application of color inspire me to use it better.

Two Approaches to Color

I’ve noticed there are two main ways of thinking about color (and all art, really). One is the analytical view, which deals with our perception of color and how colors work together. The other is the emotional impact of color, how exaggerating it can create something more “real.”

Analytical Color

Josef Albers

Josef Albers did a lot over his career, but what really stands out for me is his series “Homage to the Square” that explored color relationships within a simple standard framework.
Albers initially taught at the Bauhaus in Weimar. After Hitler shut down the Bauhaus, Albers emigrated to the United States and taught at Black Mountain College and later Yale. He long had an interest in architecture and graphic design, which informed his work. Perhaps his most famous series of paintings is Homage to the Square, which use nested squares to explore how colors work together. In 1963 he published a book, Interaction of Color, that has now been adapted to an iOS app, which at the time of this writing, is free!

Several of Albers’ paintings of nested squares that explored color relationships.
My own college professors mimicked Albers’ methods for teaching color theory. We did this exact exercise. The two little squares are the same color, but appear very different from each other due to the surrounding colors. The same for the gray box inside the mint green and aubergine rectangles.

Claude Monet

I’ve mentioned this before. Monet painted more than 30 studies of the Rouen Cathedral in 1892 and 1893, exploring the effects of light, weather, and atmosphere on color. Monet essentially used the scientific method since he worked with a constant — the same building viewed from the same vantage point — and saw the effect of variable weather conditions to produce a different color outcome every time. I imagine this later inspired Andy Warhol’s screenprints of such stars as Marilyn Monroe.

Emotional Color

Vincent van Gogh

Color had immense emotional weight for Vincent van Gogh. When he uses blue, it’s calm, peaceful, and sometimes a terrifying void. His reds are hot and oppressive and muggy and dangerous. His yellows portend something ominous.

Mark Rothko

Rothko painted in fields of color on an immense scale, using a technique where brushstrokes were not visible. He painted the inner reality of emotions by way of color. His abstract paintings were often six or eight feet tall.

I have yet to see a Rothko in person, but I have heard it is a truly transcendent experience to be in the presence of his paintings. Someday I hope to visit the Rothko Chapel.

I’d also love to travel to London to see his Segrams Murals at the Tate.

Applying All This

There’s so much of color theory to learn from painters like Albers, and so much to learn of emotional impact from Rothko. I hope to someday be as masterful of color as the painters I mentioned above. In the meantime, I can study their work and apply what I’ve learned from them.

Who are your favorite artists in terms of color? Please share in the comments, or shoot me an email.