Color is a powerful tool in an artist’s toolkit. The ways artists use color can create different moods, convey meaning, and draw the viewer’s eye across a canvas. Some artists become famous specifically for their innovative and impactful use of color. In this article, we will explore some of history’s most influential colorists and look at what sets their techniques apart.
Why is color importante for artists?
Color is one of the seven elements of art, along with line, shape, form, texture, space and value. It is a vital component in painting, drawing and design. Color has the power to convey emotion, create emphasis, and build visual interest in a work of art. The thoughtful and strategic use of color is what separates masters like Monet and Matisse from more amateur painters.
Some key reasons color is so important for artists:
- Conveys mood – Warm colors like red and orange feel energetic and exciting, cool blues feel calm and tranquil.
- Provides emphasis – Using brighter, more saturated versions of a color makes certain elements stand out.
- Defines shape and form – Color contrasts help differentiate between figures and ground.
- Directs the viewer’s eye – Artists plans color to deliberately control the viewer’s gaze.
- Makes a lasting impact – Vivid, unexpected colors are memorable for viewers.
For all these reasons, color should never be an afterthought. Truly great artists think carefully about their color choices before applying a single brushstroke to the canvas.
One movement that made revolutionary use of color was the Impressionists during the late 1800s. Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir, and others reacted against the muted, brownish colors of previous painting. The Impressionists aimed to capture the fleeting effects of light and color.
Claude Monet became famous for his color studies. He would paint the same subject like a haystack or cathedral facade multiple times under different light conditions. His quick, visible brushstrokes of unblended color aimed to capture the momentary impressions of color and light. His paintings of water lilies almost vibrate with layers of green, blue, pink and purple.
Auguste Renoir is another Impressionist renowned for his use of color. Like Monet, he abandoned mixing colors on a palette and instead juxtaposed separate dabs of vivid color directly on the canvas. His paintings radiate with bright colors like azure blue, lemon yellow and blush pink. He expertly captured the way sunlight dissolved forms and gave surfaces a shimmering, luminous quality.
The Impressionists inspired later artists to continue to exploring the possibilities of color.
At the start of the 20th century, a group of modern artists took Impressionist color to the next level. The Fauves (meaning “wild beasts” in French) were known for their bold, eye-popping color choices.
The leader of the Fauves was Henri Matisse. His color choices were bright, pure hues applied in thick, sweeping brushstrokes. Unlike the Impressionists, Matisse was not interested in capturing natural light. Instead, he used unnaturally brilliant colors in unexpected combos for their emotional power. His painting The Green Stripe features a woman in a green-striped dress against a riot of red, orange, and blue background.
Another key Fauvist was Andre Derain. His paintings like Charing Cross Bridge splash vivid colors across the canvas in a disorienting way. The Fauves flattened and distorted space. Their goal was not naturalism but emotional intensity through vibrant hues.
The Futurist artists of Italy were fascinated by modern technology and the power of motion and speed. They sought to capture movement and dynamism in their art.
A seminal Futurist painter was Giacomo Balla. Paintings like his famous work Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash simulate speed and blurring action through mainly abstract forms. But the streaks and swirls of color – blue, orange, black, green and brown – are central to conveying the subject’s energy.
Fellow Futurist Umberto Boccioni also pioneered motion in art with color. In his striding, bronze-colored sculpture Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, the human figure seems to lunge powerfully through space. The different colors of material help communicate a sense of forward momentum.
Vincent van Gogh
No discussion of influential colorists is complete without looking at the Post-Impressionist master Vincent van Gogh. He transformed color into a means of channeling emotion. Works like The Starry Night and Sunflowers have become icons thanks to van Gogh’s thick, energetic brushwork and intense, unusual color harmonies like yellow and green.
Whereas previous artists mixed colors on their palette, van Gogh layered separate slashes of pure colors directly onto the canvas for a more vivid effect. He wrote, “Instead of trying to reproduce exactly what I have before my eyes, I use color more arbitrarily so as to express myself more forcefully.” For van Gogh, color was personal and evocative.
In Mexico during the early 20th century, artist Frida Kahlo became known for her symbolic self-portraits that drew on her cultural roots. In paintings like The Two Fridas, Kahlo depicts herself and her experience with an inventive use of color.
Kahlo used the vibrancy of Mexican folk art in brighter, bolder colors that clashed. The unnaturally saturated greens, oranges, purples and blues heighten the emotional intensity of her introspective subject matter. Her unique coloring aimed to reflect her inner world. As she said, “I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best.”
Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky was one of the first purely abstract painters. He believed music could be translated visually through color and form. Kandinsky’s color choices were based more on intuition than observation.
His swinging, swirling shapes in shades of yellow, red, blue and more aimed to convey emotions directly onto the canvas. Works like Composition VII have little resemblance to real-life subject matter but still feel lively and resonant thanks to Kandinsky’s mastery of color interactions. He showed how color can suggest sound, rhythm, and human emotion.
American Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko created contemplative color field paintings meant to envelope the viewer in an experience of color. His signature style features large rectangles of luminescent color floating on a colored background.
While the rectangular fields may seem simple, Rothko carefully layered color to create subtle variations in tones and textures. Works like Orange and Tan feature close values of rich oranges, reds and browns that pulse and shimmer. The edges between colors are softened to invite prolonged viewing. For Rothko, proper color combinations could inspire reverie, ecstasy and the sublime in the viewer.
German-born American artist Josef Albers was both a painter and an influential theorist on color. He is best known for his series of abstract paintings Homage to the Square.
In these works, Albers explored how color is perceived in relation to other colors. He layered squares of different hues that seem to shift and interact. Albers showed how placing colors in proximity allows them to optically mix and produce illusions of transparency, vibration and space. His color studies demonstrate the mutability of color based on context.
Contemporary British artist David Hockney has become renowned for his vivid, pop-inspired swimming pool paintings like A Bigger Splash. Created in California, these works depict leisure scenes of LA life using highly saturated colors applied in a graphic style.
Hockney uses intense shades of azure, emerald and turquoise to capture the strong sunlight reflecting off swimming pools. His colors have a synthetic, electric charge to them. Hockney intentionally pushes color to the point of near-abstraction, resulting in otherworldly scenes of distorted space and color. He makes color the predominant element in conveying mood.
Throughout different eras and movements, artists have developed innovative ways to harness the power of color. From the Impressionists’ light studies to abstract artists like Rothko and Kandinsky, color has been used to move beyond mere visual description and create experiences that transmit emotion, energy, and meaning.
The great colorists highlighted here show how color can convey a sense of motion, express inner feeling, and take the viewer into new imaginative realms. Their bold experiments continue to inspire artists today in pushing color to its limits as a tool for visionary expression.
- Color is a vital element of art that can convey emotion, create emphasis, and direct the viewer’s eye.
- Impressionists like Monet used revolutionary broken color techniques to capture fleeting light effects.
- Fauvists such as Matisse used arbitrary, expressive color combinations for emotional impact.
- Abstract artists like Kandinsky explored how color could visually suggest sound and feeling.
- Contemporary painters such as David Hockney use color in a graphic, pop-inspired way to depict scenes and spaces.
- Throughout history, innovative colorists have shown how color can transport the viewer and unlock new ways of seeing.