3: Using Colour to Describe Objects

I mentioned Itten earlier, who taught at the Bauhaus school in the 1920s, with his thoughts on contrast. He distinguished 3 purposes for colour:

  1. for an impression (visually)
  2. for an expression (emotionally)
  3. for a construction (symbolically)

These are not mutually exclusive and should all be present to an extend for a good – or harmonious – work of (coloured) art. Let’s see what that could actually mean with a couple of examples.

Colour to create an impression

Pierre Bonnard: Morning in Paris. Oil on canvas, 1911 (122 x 77 cm)

Pierre Bonnard: Morning in Paris. Oil on canvas, 1911 (122 x 77 cm)

Bonnard (1867 – 1947) was a french painter and contemporary to Picasso who – according to the FT article last weekend said about Bonnard’s paintings they were a “potpourri of indecision”. I would be kinder though, as he was great in pastel-coloured glowing scenes, that feel sun-lit and rather calm.

Looking at the Morning in Paris the image is quite striking in its colour use. We got yellow as a primary, but it has a slightly greenish tint. The shadows are pretty bright purples and then there is this donkey carriage in a much less saturated grey-green, which stands out in it’s colour, since by right it should be the same shade colour (i.e. purple) for everything in the scene. I find that quite interesting visually. So we have 2 complementary colours – yellow and purple as the dominant colours, plus some small areas of muted green and brownish red (also complementary).

I still feel the painting is relatively calm, despite all the movement that is taking place. Maybe that comes from the limited palette and the pastel-colouring? Can there be strong movement captured in pastels only?

Colour as an expression

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938): Self-portrait with Model. Oil on canvas, 1926

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938): Self-portrait with Model. Oil on canvas, 1926

Kirchner’s use of colour with the strong orange/yellow and blue stripes of the painters coat against a red and pink background is rather exciting for the eye, sexual, agressive, full of energy.

However the model herself wears a neutral grey dress – calming among all the assertive colours.

Compare this to Kirchner’s portrait of Ms Schilling below and there seems to be much less agression, despite the tension and vividness of the green and red contrast, but both are slightly muted and feel “softer”.

Now let’s move on to the vibrant Matisse Odalisque below, who’s colours convey a feeling of freshness, of being alive and “ready to pick”. Almost all colours are saturated but very little primary colours are used, but rather secondary ones, like green, purple, orange, plus a relatively natural skin tone of the nude.

The fresh, relaxed green cloth on which she rests is very similar to Kirchner’s background of Ms Schilling.

Not all colours are saturated though: Apart from the skin, there is also a relatively calm background with only a few highlights of purple and orange. The model’s clothes are rendered in white and purplish grey.

But the overriding impression is that of saturation, of vividness.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Portrait of a Woman (Gerda Schilling). Oil on canvas, 1911 (80.6 x 70.5 cm)

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Portrait of a Woman (Gerda Schilling). Oil on canvas, 1911 (80.6 x 70.5 cm)

Henri Matisse (1869-1954): Odalisque with Magnolias. Oil on canvas, 1923 (65 x 81 cm)

Symbolical use of colour (construction)

Colours of clothes used to be highly symbolic in past centuries, partially due to the pigment costs, which made expensive pigments a status symbol.

Itten mentions that in China the most luminous yellow was reserved for the emperor to wear. In Europe poor people were mostly confined to blues, blacks and browns or undyed clothes, and even there they found a creative way of adorning it beautifully as can be seen in the white on blue reserve printed indigo dyeing traditions that emerged with this confinement to colour.

But if you think colour coding in clothing or other items is a thing of the past, you are so mistaken. Having a son of 11 months who is very much into bikes and tricycles of all kinds – he frequently gets comments from people if he is mesmerized by pink bikes. “Getting in touch with his feminine side, ey?”

Or look at the corporate world. Say you are a banker. Have you tried going to the office in a super chique orange suit?

What about colour symbolism in art?

Giotto: Kiss of Judas (1304–06), fresco, Chapel, Padua, Italy

Giotto: Kiss of Judas (1304–06), fresco, Chapel, Padua, Italy

Medieval paintings feature colour symbolism much more so than modern paintings, probably because of their mostly sacred content. For example the Mary was often shown in a blue robe, a colour linking heaven and earth, while Judas is often depicted wearing a yellow robe, as in Giotto’s Kiss of Judas.

Fra Angelico (1395-1455): Annunciation. Tempera on wood, c. 1433-1434 (150 × 180 cm)

Fra Angelico (1395-1455): Annunciation. Tempera on wood, c. 1433-1434 (150 × 180 cm)

Jan va Eyck: Arnolfini Wedding. Oil on oak panel of 3 vertical boards, c. 1434

Jan va Eyck: Arnolfini Wedding. Oil on oak panel of 3 vertical boards, c. 1434

One could argue that depicting certain Biblical characters with distinct colours should have also made it easier for the congregation to identify who’s who. As most people were illiterate at the time, pictures were there to visualise Christian stories.

Object and colour symbolism continued in Renaissance Europe. For example, it has been suggested that in the The Arnolfini Wedding by Jan van Eyck (c. 1395-1441) the bride’s green dress symbolises hope – maybe for a child or a healthy child.









  1. The art of color: the subjective experience and objective rationale of color. By Johannes Itten
  2. Color and culture: practice and meaning from antiquity to abstraction. By John Gage
  3. Color and meaning: art, science, and symbolism. By John Gage

2: Colour Theory and Practice

Project 1: Colour Mixing from primary colours and adding black/white

Colour mixing from 3 primary colours (cadmium red, cadmium yellow and ultramarine)

  • I used acrylics, plenty of brushes and had to clean the water almost after each colour
  • all my blue colours (ultramarine and worse cerulean) are not a great quality – they are not very opaque, but rather see-through (and  a bit slimy – maybe they are old) and needed several layers for achieving any opacity, even when mixed with other colours
  • cadmium red + ultramarine blue gives a brownish dull violet
  • all the colours mixed with white at stage 2 result in creamy pastel colours
  • all the violet-darkening stages (added black in stages)appear very dark/black, almost like an enhanced black

Project 2: The colour circle

Colour circle and saturation/contrast projects

Colour circle and saturation/contrast projects

  • colours next to each other are considered harmonious, whereas colours from the opposite sides (complementary) placed next to each other would increase excitement/contrast in a picture

Project 3: Tone, Saturation and Contrast

  • my yellows in theory should have been allocated to a grey tone in between white and my lightest grey
  • The reds seem very deceptive – in daylight they appeared lighter than they actually are, or maybe just more “popping” which I confused with lighter? Interesting
  • the saturation exercise mixed complementary colours with each other – always resulting in brown – however a very different one depending on which complementary colour I used (Purple and yellow gives an ochre and some straight dark browns, while mixing red and green results in a medium tone red-brown, and mixing orange and ultramarine creates muted earthy oranges and very dark and deep browns with some oomph

Project 4: How Colours affect each other

Colour combination experiment

Colour combination experiment

  • saturated colours pop out, making less saturated ones look almost greyish. E.g. a dark green from yellow and purple appears dark grey against a saturated blue (see middle of lower 3)
  • red-based and yellow (light) colours pop out
  • large tonal contrast (dark/light) make the squares pop, if the smaller square is dark – it looks even more “solid”
  • the same size square looks bigger when surrounded by a lighter colour

Project 5: Optical Illusions

Optical illusions (the "dotty" exercise)

Optical illusions (the "dotty" exercise)

  • I guess if you are further away and the dots are smaller and tighter, the optical colour mixing works better
  • although I agree that the luminosity of the colours is higher – as most of them are unmixed, I cannot see how this works well compared to what I see in nature – say green – replacing it with blue and yellow dots
  • no idea why Seurat was so obsessed with this, just because you CAN do it it doesn’t mean you have to – especially since he – being a slave to this method – always seemed to end up with really stiff looking paintings that are a bit … lifeless maybe

What have I achieved

Although this colour theory part seemed a bit dry when I read it and – slightly uninspiring – when I finally started the exercises it was quite enlightening. It will definitely give you a better grounding for mixing colours if you really sit down and consciously mix colours one by one. I never knew how many browns you get by mixing complementary colours.

Got contrast (continued)? … what photoshop can teach you

Tone and depth in detail (A3 in sketchbook, various pencils)

Tone and depth in detail (A3 in sketchbook, various pencils)

As I was opening this photograph of my sketchbook picture in the editing software, I clicked on auto-contrast, because the photo looked more wishy washy than my actual drawing. I tried to adjust the picture settings so that it would accurately depict the drawing and its contrast.

The black from my pencils is pretty much a dark anthracite. The darkest parts are certainly not a jet black. And let’s compare that with what the software thought the contrast SHOULD look like below.

... what and increased contrast means

... what and increased contrast would change (ah, the miracles of photoshop)

I readily admit the software has a point here. A few shadows in rich black (i.e. increasing the contrast with the software) really makes quite some difference.

What do we learn from that? If my graphite pencils are not producing a dark enough tone, then I need to add a different medium, e.g. an ink wash or dip pen hatching or gouache on top.

But stop: As I was just writing these words I was wondering if that could actually be true, because I have seen graphite drawings with great contrast. It dawned upon me that I was probably just using it wrongly. And I did! The darkest 8B pencil does indeed create something much darker than I had in my original drawing (see top). … in which I have obviously not used the very darkest/softest pencils.

When I added the 8B pencil marks it looked like the Photoshopped version. Ok, back to work now. Humbled.

2. Exercise: Exploring coloured media

Exploring coloured media

Exploring coloured media from top left clockwise: 1) water colour pencil + water 2) water colour pencil dry + crosshatched 3) pastel pencil on wet paper 4) poster colour (gouache) - dry and wet 5)-8) 4x coloured inks (3 colours) and a mix of them 9) pastel pencil 10) single box on right is graphic duo pen washed over with a brush

Exploring coloured media - oil pastels

Exploring coloured media - oil pastels

Oil pastels – just like pastels and coal seem to be a bit of a struggle for me. You need to think big – which is tricky for me, but worse still – I keep making this mistake of trying them on white paper. It just doesn’t look good. Why don’t I just stop doing that, ey?

Note to myself: Colour the background with a wash first after the initial pencil drawing and see how that goes. Or make an underpainting in ink or watercolour.


Which of the media you have experimented with did you find most expressive?

Probably ink and gouache (poster colour) – maybe because with ink the colour is really vibrant, so that it pops out just like with watercolours. And gouache has this solid matte property that gives it a feeling of solidity, like you can touch the painted object. I also quite like No 10) in terms of potential expressiveness (graphic Staedler duo pen brushed over with water. It looks weird but interesting. And because one of the 2 tips is shaped like a firm brush the line is so much more varied than the metal scratchy ink pens I used – for example for the coloured inks in No 8). Those are good for detail, I am sure but they are not expressive in the way I applied them.

Which medium do you think lends itself to very detailed work?

No 8) as just said above. But ink in general, applied with an dip pen. Just that my metal tips feel so very unsmooth. They scratch along the paper. Do you have to polish the tip  to suit the angle that you are holding them? I had a calligraphic pen once where you had to do that. Hmm, I’ll find out.

Which techniques, tools and effects do you particularly enjoy? Make notes about your experiments.

Gouache and the runny ink applied with gusto (not watered down so much) as well as the graphic black duo pen probably count as my favourites so far.

Got contrast?

Reading Itten’s point that artwork should have a variety of contrast I wanted to make a test with an earlier line drawing. I thought the subject was quite interesting but couldn’t understand why it turned out so fantastically boring.

Peonies, line drawing, sepia and brown ink and dip pen

Peonies - adjusted line drawing

I used a different dip pen to redraw the leaves of the bouquet.

The improvement is quite a good case in point, when it comes to this line contrast.

Research point: Itten’s theory of composition

Johannes Itten: Group Of Houses In Spring 1916 (oil on canvas)

Johannes Itten (1888-1967) was a Swiss artists, designer and educator who stood at the core of the new German Bauhaus school in the early 1920s. He implemented the highly innovative “preliminary course” at the school to familiarize students with the basics of material characteristics, composition, and color and free up their creativity to find their unique voice.

The basis of Itten’s theory of composition was his theory of contrast. (source 1, p12) That meant that a good composition to him made use of various kinds of contrasts. He thought of contrasts in a very free way, here’s a list of the ones he mentions in his book Design and Form.

  • large-small
  • long-short
  • broad-narrow
  • thick-thin
  • black-white
  • much-little
  • straight-curved
  • pointed-blunt
  • horizontal-vertical
  • diagonal-circular
  • high-low
  • area-line
  • area-body
  • line-body
  • smooth-rough
  • hard-soft
  • still-moving
  • light-heavy
  • transparent-opaque
  • continuous-intermittend
  • liquid-solid
  • sweet-sour
  • strong-weak
  • loud-soft
  • 7 colour contrasts

Let’s try out some of them consciously in the next works.


  1. Johannes Itten: Design and form: The basic course at the Bauhaus and later.

2. Project: Detailed observation (Line drawing and tone and depth in detail)

Exercise: Line drawing detail

Peonies (A3 sketch, soft felt tip pen)

I drew these peonies which were stunning in their pink abundance. It took me some time of just looking at them to find the lines of which there were so many as the petals were layered very tightly. The point was, that I didn’t HAVE to draw each single petal to give the impression of a flower at its peak.

What was very insightful from a composition perspective was that the 3 peonies are all in a different position, so it is very easy for the eye to imagine a real flower. It is as if the same flower was drawn 3 times – and therefore I can understand its full shape. Had it just been for example the view of the peony facing the viewer, I don’t believe the idea of its fullness had been as clear.

I added the broad even hatching to the leaves as I thought the drawing lacked contrast but I didn’t want to be messy, as the lines were already pretty wriggly.

Papaya (line drawing, A4, soft felt tip pen)

For the 2nd line drawing I drew a papaya with it’s shiny seeds. I guess I wanted it all, not quite sticking to the task of just drawing in line. I added a big fat shadow and pressing the felt tip pen sideways I tried to capture a bit more of the round papaya seeds. It was rather tricky to keep the pen line uninterrupted with the abundance of seeds.

Peonies, iris and tulips (line drawing, sepia and brown ink and dip pen, A3)

More flowers at my mum’s from the garden. Note: Before drawing more lines on each leaf (the leaf veins) the picture looked very confusing as it wasn’t clear which shapes are real and which are the negative/empty shapes. I guess it makes sense to try to capture the essence of the texture of each object – also for the tulips and the iris with it’s colouring. There was suddenly much more life to the drawing.

Exercise: Getting tone and depth in detail

Exercise: Getting tone and depth in detail (A3, variety of pencils)

Last evening’s drawing. I noted that the background needs a lot of variety – even if it appears to be the same tone/area. Otherwise it looks fantastically dull and drags the whole picture down. So I tried to vary the directions crosshatching after realising the uniform angle of my first hatching looked rubbish.

I added some marks of the table cloth, but as a whole the vase and shell still look really forlorn. So I didn’t fill the paper in an interesting way. Not quite working yet, but anyway – this exercise was also about tone and depth and about 1 single object.

I noticed I had to be quite conscious about diversity – as I tended to just stick to one type of pencil and of technique when something worked fine. So more experimentation please, mademoiselle!

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