Exploring the Power of Colour in Abstract Art
Discover the power of colour in abstract art, its impact and how it creates emotional responses through colour meanings and associations.
Colour is probably the first thing we notice in any image, photograph, painting or any other piece of artwork.
I have written several blog posts about abstract art and if you have read any of them, you will realise how much emphasis I put on the power of colour in abstract art.
Like abstract art itself, the power of colour in abstract art goes beyond its aesthetic beauty. There is something magical about colours, how we perceive colours, interpret them and their meanings and associations.
Although colour meanings and associations are influenced by culture, they also can reflect personal experiences, usually beginning in childhood. Colours we like or colours we dislike are usually a reflection of things we may have liked or disliked at a young age.
Let’s find out more about the power of colour in abstract art.
Why is colour important in abstract art?
Colour is one of the main elements of visual art and I’m so fascinated by its hidden power and its impact on our moods. Many people may not consciously realise the impact of colour psychology and how it affects us, directly or indirectly.
Abstract art relies heavily on the careful and thoughtful use of colours. I use colours to create many different shapes, forms, lines and textures. These are also some of the elements of abstract art.
Without colours, it’s impossible to create abstract art or any art.
Understanding colour interactions and how to apply them to add depth, contrast, balance and harmony to a composition can be done by understanding the colour theory.
This is important for any visual art and more specifically, abstract painting. Artists choose certain colours based on their understanding of the colour wheel and the particular meanings and associations of colours.
Here’s a great video explaining the colour wheel/colour theory in a simple and interesting style, Colour Theory Basics.
What do colours symbolise in art?
As you know, different colours can have different meanings and suggestions depending on culture and personal experience. Here are some common colour meanings in western cultures:
- Red: love, passion, power, danger, anger.
- Orange: warmth, creativity, enthusiasm, creativity, success.
- Yellow: happiness, friendliness, optimism, energy.
- Blue: trust, loyalty, calmness, wisdom, professionalism
- Green: nature, wealth, growth, wealth, envy.
- Purple: luxury, creativity, royalty, mystery, spirituality.
- Pink: femininity, innocence, love, compassion.
- White: space, peace, purity, cleanliness, purity, simplicity.
- Black: power, mystery, sophistication, elegance, mourning.
- Grey: balance, wisdom, neutrality, stability, formality.
Most of us are well aware of colour meanings and associations which we usually learn from our cultures and personal preferences. It can certainly help you to enhance your appreciation of abstract art.
I’m sure you can appreciate the power of colour in abstract art from the above colour meanings and associations.
But, perhaps not everyone is aware of colour meanings and suggestions. Here are some other possible ways that you could consider to help you appreciate abstract art:
- Look at the methods and media used: I’m always attracted to see brushstroke movements in an abstract painting. What shapes or forms do they make? I use brushstrokes to lead the viewer to other areas in the painting.
Look at this abstract painting. I used acrylics and visible brushstrokes which dominate the entire painting theme. There is a lot of movement in the painting. Movement can create a sense of energy, too.
Try to notice other techniques used in the painting. I also use a palette knife which creates different shapes and forms. Check also the type of medium used.
I mainly use oil or acrylic paints. Each type of paint has different properties and characteristics which in the hands of a professional artist can reflect stunning images.
- What about other patterns and lines in the painting? I enjoy creating non-representational shapes, forms and lines.
These are more organic and natural. Look for repeated patterns and contrast. Do these elements work together well? Can you see balance and harmony in the overall composition?
- Give yourself some time when looking at the elements and all the components of the abstract painting. Does it evoke any emotions or feelings?
You don’t need to understand the specific meanings of colours or any of the other elements in the artwork to appreciate the importance of colour in abstract art.
Look at the paintings on this page. Does any of the paintings make you feel comfortable, energised, happy, sad or angry?
- Just examine your personal connections, if any, with the colours, shapes and lines. Does the painting resonate with any thoughts or personal experiences?
- Remember that abstract art is freely open to any interpretation. Many people appreciate abstract art and find it simply pleasing just because of its visual qualities.
Even if you don’t like the artwork, that is still your emotional response, which is absolutely fine. Many people expect that abstract art must be aesthetically beautiful to evoke happy and pleasing emotions. But that’s not always the case.
I have seen many abstract paintings that made me feel angry or sad. That’s the power of colour in abstract art. It can trigger different emotional responses.
Colour symbolism, meanings and associations in different cultures
Here are some examples of colour meanings and associations in different cultures:
- Red in Chinese culture is considered to be a lucky colour, suggesting good fortune and happiness. It is also associated with success and power. While in South Africa red symbolises mourning.
- Blue in ancient Egypt was associated with the Nile, meaning life and fertility. Green, on the other hand, represented new life and regeneration. In China, blue is associated with femininity.
- Purple in ancient Greece was a very expensive dye and only the wealthy could afford it. So, it was associated with wealth and luxury. However, in Japan purple is associated with infidelity and evil. In Brazil and Italy, it is associated with bad luck and mourning.
- Orange is considered a holy and sacred colour in Hindu and East Asia. Buddhist monks wear orange robes. In China and Japan, orange is associated with prosperity, courage, health and happiness.
- Yellow in Japan symbolises royalty and prosperity. While in Thailand, it is associated with luck. In several African cultures, it represents status and wealth.
- Green in China can be associated with infidelity. In Mexico, it is the national colour and is associated with patriotism.
I find colour meanings and associations around the world to be very interesting. The above is only a brief but interesting example of the power of colour in our lives.
What is the power of colour in art?
The power of colour in art applies across to almost all types of visual art. And as I mentioned above, abstract art relies strongly on how colours are used in the artwork.
The power of colour in abstract art is very much linked to colour psychology. This is a very deep science subject and more studies are still needed. I will only touch on the subject briefly from an artist’s point of view without making things too complicated.
(Colour psychology and the meanings of colour play a big part in interior design. I have written an article about Wall Art and Colour Psychology if you are interested to learn more).
There are several techniques that I and many other abstract artists use not only to create meaningful artwork but also to try to evoke the viewers’ emotional responses.
Some examples include:
- Colour temperature: I’m sure you are familiar with warm and cool colours. Warm colours like orange, red and yellow give us warm feelings, excitement and energy. These are the colours of summer, sunlight and happiness.
The opposite is the cool colours of blue and green that create feelings of tranquillity and calmness.
Thoughtful use of a combination of warm and cool colours in abstract painting can create a powerful or subtle contrast.
- Colour also has different values, hues and saturation. Professional abstract artists are knowledgeable of when and how to use these elements in a painting to create certain emotions.
- Every painting is made up of several elements and where you put your colours, shapes and lines makes a difference between a good and not-so-good painting.
For example, a warm colour next to a cool colour can create an attractive contrast. Or a large cool colour shape in the background may create a sense of tranquillity, while a smaller warm colour in the foreground can create a sense of movement and energy.
Whatever combination of colours, shapes and lines you use in abstract painting, it is important to create attraction of balance and harmony.
All the above are just simple examples of some of the possible effects of colour in abstract art.
Other Facts about the power of colours
There is a lot more to the power of colour. This may seem a little digression but I think it’s interesting and worth mentioning.
- “Do You See What I See”? This is a great and very interesting article written by Dorothy Berry-Lound, an artist and writer.
Dorothy highlights a different angle of how we see and interpret a work of art. The influence of the art piece itself, the assumptions we make about what we see and an interesting subject known as ‘pareidolia’.
It is a wonderful article and can help people to appreciate art and abstract art in a different way.
- “The Hidden Power of Colour”. This is a beautiful YouTube video by Patricia Thenisch.
Patricia explains, beautifully, colours and their effects on our daily lives. Perhaps, most of us are unconscious of the power of colour that we see daily.
Something really caught my immediate attention. “The red lipstick” situation! Men and women see the colour red differently.
I had the experience of the red lipstick situation when I bought red lipstick as a gift for my wife many years ago. And she said, “thank you but it’s not the same red I wanted”.
- Colour is a reflection of light and that’s how we see colours. Looking at the different colour meanings and associations, I also think of colour as a reflection, in a way, of what we, individually, reflect and what we hold.
If you reflect love, people will see it and will see you as a loving person. If you reflect joy, people will see it and will see you as a joyful person. And so on.
What you hold back is black and people can’t see it.
This is such a deep subject and I will leave it for, perhaps, another article.
Let me know your thoughts about colours and their effects. What do you think? What’s your favourite colour?
How colour is used to create harmony in abstract art?
Creating harmony in abstract art is as important to create harmony in any visual art. Balance and harmony are some of the main principles of abstract art.
There are several reasons that an abstract painting should be made with harmonious colours. I will just mention a few examples:
- Aesthetics: because abstract art, particularly non-representational art, doesn’t rely on depicting real objects, colour harmony becomes so important in creating a sense of balance and visual interest. It projects the feeling that all the colours are working together cohesively in the artwork.
- Emotions: understanding colour meanings and associations, helps the artists to paint a clearer story or a message. A story that could help the viewer to create their own emotional response.
Several of my abstract paintings may give the feeling of a busy chaotic theme. I call it a “positive distraction”. It is a simple diversion of attention that may help to overcome negative energy.
I’m conscious of using colours to create a sense of tension and unease, but I always include feelings of hope, tranquillity, peace and the possibility of space and a new beginning.
- Creativity: creating colour harmony is such a deep subject. When you master it, it could open up endless possibilities for artistic expression. This is one of the main differences between a good abstract artist and a great artist.
(Creativity in art is such a fascinating subject and requires a lot of experience and skills. I have written about it in this article: How Can I be More Creative).
- Professionalism: professional abstract artists use colour as the vocabulary for painting a balanced story. In a way, it reminds me of writing a beautiful poem or a great novel. Every single word has its meaningful place.
- Communication: probably this is the most important result of all the hard work an artist puts into creating his/her abstract painting. Have I been able to communicate successfully with my viewers? And it’s not always about my story in that painting. Have I been able to evoke an emotional response that the viewer can interpret the way they wish?
Does abstract art need colour?
We are surrounded by colour. Even on a cloudy dull day like today here in the UK, there are still many colours. Grey may seem to be the dominant colour today, but it is still a colour.
I created many abstract non-representational paintings with two colours, black and white. However, changing the values of colours can create several other hues. So in reality it wasn’t made just in two colours.
Without getting too technical, colours travel in certain wavelengths. We see colours as a reflection of light on an object. We see white colour because the light falls on an object and it reflects all visible light wavelengths off it.
When we see black, it’s because the object absorbed all the light. When we see red, the object absorbs all the colours and only reflects red.
I’m sure you get the idea.
If you wish to find out more about “colour as light”, have a look at this article: How To Make an Abstract Painting.
It’s quite interesting to learn the differences between colour as a pigment, as light and as ink.
Let’s look at some of my abstract paintings and examine some of the effects of colour in abstract art.
The colours in the above painting (left) are full of warm colours, mainly yellow and red. These are fantastic energy colours and I’m sure you could feel such energy. The yellow colour is painted in the background. I added other layers of red on top and a few brushstrokes of blue and then black.
The blue and black brushstrokes help to tone down the tremendous fiery energy of yellow and red. An attempt to create a sense of balance between warm and cool colours. But, the overall effect is great positive energy full of enthusiasm, optimism and hope.
Working in layers gives several artistic effects. For example, depth can create a sense of 3-dimensional on a 2-dimensional surface.
Looking at the above painting on the right is completely the opposite. The dominant colour is dark grey, almost black. Adding a few brushstrokes of lighter colours created enormous depth in the painting.
The placement of the lighter colours may indicate that there is a source of light on the left-hand side of the painting.
This painting was a great challenge for me to make. I actually worked at night in dim light, ironically, to see it better!
It received so many comments from several people. Each interprets it differently the way they saw it or felt it. One interesting comment said that it felt like a journey into a large dark cave! Interesting and a great interpretation, well, I think.
I’m sure we all know how we feel on a warm sunny summer day vs. a cloudy cold winter day. Especially here in the UK!
And that is a simple example of the power of colour in abstract art, or any other art or in life altogether.
A final word about colour in abstract art
Colour in abstract art can have a tremendous effect on the overall painting and its story. There are more than just bright warm colours that can make us feel more cheerful and energetic or cooler colours that may make us feel calmer.
Life is full of colours and colours can definitely influence our perception of an artwork. Certain colours can evoke certain feelings or even memories.
We all like colours and some of us are fascinated by colours. I know I am.
In the art world, colour can be used to express ideas, tell a story or even create a powerful visual statement.
So, colour in abstract art plays a major part in the artist’s expression and the viewer’s emotional response.
Let me know your thoughts about colours in the comments section.