Thursday, September 13, 2018

The Power of Color: Conveying Emotion

'Mother's Hour' Cory Jaeger Kenat, 1998
In my view, color is the best--and the most difficult--aspect of making art. Color is such a strange thing, especially when an artist is attempting to convey a mood. Brilliant crimson can be the petal of a soft fragrant rose or the slash of a knife. An indigo blue can signal an ominous storm, or simply be the color of a shadow on a white-hot adobe wall. I guess it always boils down to context when it comes to color. A piano always has the same keys, keys that can be used in certain combinations to play a swinging jazz tune or a Mozart minuet. So much depends on loudness, quietness, the story, style, and pace in the melody, and maybe even whether the piano is located in a bar or a cathedral. I think emotional color in painting is probably a lot like that.

I have learned a lot about color over the years, but not much of it has stuck. I have a background in psychology, and part of my independent studies involved color. I was fascinated with how various hues (red, green, and the like) affect our moods. I even conducted my own experiment, where I had people describe themselves and then select their favorite color, and see if the personality and color choice correlated at all. For example, a person who saw themselves as shy might prefer subtle blues, because supposedly according to psychologists blue conveys a sense of cool quiet and privacy. However, I really didn't get significant results when it came to the people I studied--and it certainly doesn't go that way in art.

Does the painting below, done in pale, shy blues and an almost monotone color scheme seem quiet and peaceful to you?
'Predatory Blues' Cory Jaeger Kenat 1999

In one book I read, I do remember it being said that jail cells are painted in pastel colors because it is reduces aggression. And I do remember other more bizarre claims that stated that orange is a color associated with salesmen (for whatever reason I don't know) and that hot-pink is a color of repressed passion. It was all somewhat interesting, in a sort of 'fortune-telling' type of way, but I can't say that any of it helped my painting.

Artists capture life experience. And life is full of color, overflowing with it, sometimes saturated to the point of madness with it. Even the most neutral scene is filled with grays tinted with whole spectrums of color, pink-grays, green-grays, yellow-grays. Many of us in art school know the lesson where we are assigned to paint something white--such as eggs--and find ourselves using an entire paint palette to create something we think of as 'colorless'.
'Nestled' Cory Jaeger Kenat, 2010

 And on top of that... not only is there is the boggling range our eyes observe in the outside world, but even more than that are the colors we feel inside, our feelings about what we see and absorb. This kind of complexity simply cannot be broken down into just a few random psychological 'tricks'.

 Truly, it's overcoming this major balance between inner and outer world that creates art, not just making a copy of something intriguing that we see before us. And, unless we are going to work solely in black and white, color and its challenges, are inescapable. 

The pet formulas sometimes taught about emotional color really fall flat so much of the time that they probably should be discarded...or at least left only for interior designers. It's often assumed that bright colors are always 'cheerful'. Does the painting below, loaded with candy-bright colors feel 'happy' to you?
'After Monet' Cory Jaeger Kenat, 2009

I am reminded of how clowns are supposed to be oh-so-delightful and funny with their painted faces and rainbow-colored attire. And yet, I am certainly not alone in being quite phobic of these fiercely grinning creatures, and arguably Stephen King tapped into that collective fear with the creepy book, "It". So, although color might have a slight effect on how we view artistic expression, it is only an ingredient, but certainly not the whole enchilada. 
I have always been an artist interested in exploring uncomfortable emotions of isolation, anger, and repressed secrets.  Some of my paintings have sometimes made people weep, or write me long, personal letters about how they have been affected, so I imagine I must have been doing something right.

Here are a few ways that I use emotions in my work. Color choice seems to follow naturally from that.

1.) Avoid focusing solely on the physical nature of the object or scene you are painting, especially if you aren't painting strictly from your imagination and are painting from concrete objects you are observing. Of course, paying attention to what is front of you is hugely important, but if you want to tap into emotional qualities you also need to have a notion about the mood behind what you are depicting.  Is the mood behind the painting ominous, joyous, calm, furious? How is what you are seeing affecting you?  Even getting a vague idea of this will go far to direct your subconscious in the way you want to go.

'The Night Cafe' Vincent Van Gogh,1888

2.) Be confident about your vision and your process. Only you can make your work. When Van Gogh did the piece at right, entitled 'The Night Cafe', he said that he wanted to depict a place  where 'a man could go mad.' Note how he takes yellow, typically a 'sunny' color, and creates a glaring atmosphere where the light is almost an oppressive force of its own, almost like a noxious gas. I believe he is so successful at this because he believes so much in what he is doing, and this is very, very personal to him.  He really doesn't give a whit that yellow is also the color of perky little daisies.

Picasso created haunting and vaguely disturbing paintings during his Blue and Rose
'Garcon a la Pipe', Pablo Picasso, 1905
period that are done in such gentle colors they might be suitable for a baby's nursery. And yet these paintings register as pretty and sad and just a wee bit nightmare-ish. Use the colors that deeply resonate in your gut. Let the painting tell you what your next step is, and trust that. Pay attention to what is disturbing you about your work, and what is thrilling you...and don't be afraid to ask yourself why.

3.) Focus on the sensuality of the paint, the way it glistens and glides beneath your brush, the way that when two colors come together, magic happens. There are many, many films about artists where inevitably there is a scene of the camera cutting to the artist smearing lusciously passionate strokes on the canvas. Sometimes when I am particularly struggling, I try to envision one of those movie scenes or I'll even sit down and re-watch it. Below is the clip from 'Pollock' that I've probably seen twenty times and every time feel like I'm at the beginning of a rock concert. Other movies like 'Basquiat' and 'Great Expectations' (the Ethan Hawke version)  are wonderful for this, also. Note how these artists are dive-bombing into spontaneity, pushing their emotions and subconscious to direct them. I know that modern art is certainly not to everyone's taste; I think that this same process can be gleaned from movies like 'The Agony and the Ecstasy' about Michelangelo, and 'Lust for Life' about Vincent Van Gogh.

4.) Music--find some that touches your heart with a pleasure that is so keen it almost feels like pain.  It will make your brush strokes dance.

I would be interested to hear about how you handle emotions and color in your work. Fear not, the subject of color is a huge one, and there will be more posts on it in the future.

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