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The Power of Color in Abstract Art


Are you seeing red? Have you ever been green with envy? Or maybe you’re just feeling blue. We’ve long associated colors with our moods and emotions, which gives you a good idea why color is such an important design element of abstract painting.

Color gives energy to an artwork. Artists use color to create a mood or to convey their feelings. Combinations of colors play off each other and affect the overall feeling of a piece. In his famous color study, “Squares with Concentric Circles,” Wassily Kandinsky explored the power of different color combinations on perception and emotions. Kandinsky divided the painting into a grid. In each square, he combined concentric circles with different vibrant and complementary colors to show the effect of colors when they are next to each other. Red next to green or blue looks different than when it’s next to yellow or orange.

For some abstract artists, like Ad Reinhardt, described by New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMa) as “one of the most relentless defenders of the purity of abstraction,” color was an obsession. Of color Reinhardt said,

“There is something wrong, irresponsible, and mindless about color,

something impossible to control."

Reinhardt, along with other artists, such as Mark Rothko and Clyford Still, were part of a movement that emerged in the 1940s and 50s known as Color Field Painting. This style of abstract art was characterized by simple compositions characterized by large fields of color spread across the canvas, with little or no variation in tone, and independent of line and figuration. Color Field painters used color rather than the brushstroke as their means of expression.

In "Night," the painting featured in this post, ask yourself the following questions about the use of color:

  • How do the light and color affect your reaction to the painting?

  • Do the light colors suggest a room filled with bright lights?

  • Do the colors project a sensual feeling?

  • Do the colors in the work evoke an emotional response?

  • Does the overall color field present a room that is peaceful or agitated?

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