When it comes to painting, the colors used in a work of art are just as important as subject matter. Many of the most iconic works of art are recognized by their use of color: Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel, Pablo Picasso’s The Old Guitarist, Helen Frankenthaler’s Mountains and Sea. Color is so important for certain artists that some feel a proprietary right over their favorite hues. In the 1950s, Yves Klein invented his own shade called International Klein Blue. Contemporary artist Anish Kapoor went so far as to secure exclusive rights to a matte black color he deemed essential to his body of work.
Just as fashion designers determine what colors and patterns will be popular in the coming seasons, so too have influential artists impacted the use of color across schools, styles, and movements. From the Old Masters to the Impressionists and beyond, our editors take a closer look at the color palettes that shaped the aesthetic of some of the best-known styles of art.
A Brief History of Color in Art
Throughout history, certain colors have maintained symbolic associations that are often reflected in art. In Ancient Egypt, red symbolized destruction and was commonly used when painting dangerous deities. Purple was worn by Roman magistrates and eventually came to signify royalty; European monarchs and leaders of the Catholic Church were often painted wearing purple. During the Renaissance, the Virgin Mary was typically painted wearing a blue cloak over a red dress to represent purity and love.
Though color has always been an important part of the art-making process, the range of hues available today weren’t always as easy to access. Before the 20th century, artists were constrained by the types of pigments they could purchase because most colors were made using expensive and difficult-to-process natural materials. Blue pigment was composed almost exclusively of ground lapis lazuli, which was often more expensive than gold and therefore reserved for highly sought-after artists producing commissions for the wealthiest of patrons. Vermillion, a deep red hue, was produced through a time-consuming process that required boiling worms and crushing them into paste.
The advent of synthetic colors and tubes of paint arrived during the Industrial Revolution, enabling the Impressionists and generations after to step out of their studios and paint en plein air, as well as providing a wider variety of colors at more affordable price points. This color revolution led, in part, to the shirking of artistic convention in favor of experimentation that occurred across movements during the 20th century.
Old Masters and Light and Shadow
Old Master paintings created during the Dutch Golden Age (17th century) and the Italian Renaissance (14th to 17th century) offered dynamic compositions that relied on dark colors to accentuate the small fields of light available when painting by candlelight. To create this effect, painters like Caravaggio and Rembrandt relied on a technique known as chiaroscuro. An Italian word that translates to “light-dark,” chiaroscuro is an effect created by contrasting deep, dark colors with lighter hues to deepen a viewer’s understanding of three-dimensionality in painting. Artists used a color palette including yellow ocher, sienna, umber, white, black, and a brownish or orangey red. Gold-leaf frames accentuated the luminous quality of the paintings.
Romanticism and Earth Tones
Romanticism served as an oppositional reaction to the Enlightenment, focusing on feeling and intuition rather than reason and order. The erratic and uncontrollable power of nature served as the main source of inspiration for many Romantic painters, including J.M.W. Turner, Eugene Delacroix and Théodore Gericault. As such, it makes sense that the Romantics relied on a palette of earth tones and neutrals to depict the sublime power of the natural world: sunsets, shipwrecks, and solitude.
Impressionism and Pastels
Claude Monet created several series of works that depicted the same view at different times of year. Winter scenes utilized blues and grays, while summertime scenes embraced a warm glow created with subdued orange, blues, and pale pinks. Regardless of season, Monet added white to paint colors to create the gray and pastel palette he favored. The Impressionists were interested in capturing fleeting light, and Monet was not the only artist to work with pastel tones. Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro, Mary Cassatt, and others used pastels to depict scenes of everyday life. Coupled with their signature visible brushstrokes, the palette used by many Impressionists captured an openness in their compositions and emphasized the fluidity of light as it changed throughout the day, and year.
Fauvism and Complementary Colors
Like the Impressionists, the Fauvists got their name from a derogatory comment by an art critic who called Henri Matisse and Andre Derain les fauves, which translates to “wild beasts.” Both artists were making paintings with a bold complementary palette that resulted in non-naturalistic renderings of their subject matter. This was a result of the group’s interest in 19th century color theory, which argued that colors opposite one another on the color wheel look brighter when used side-by-side in a work of art.
Pop Art and Primary Colors
Pop art icons like Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol shocked the senses with bright reds, yellows, and blues. Rather than blending, their fields of color were separated by thick black lines so that each color remained distinct. Using identifiable references like the Campbell’s soup can and cartoon character Mickey Mouse, Pop artists commented on popular culture and the commercialized nature of society.
Ancient History Encyclopedia, Color in Ancient Egypt
National Museum of Women in the Arts, Mary and the Colors of Motherhood
Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, Romanticism
Pigments through the Ages