How does colour affect our lives? Chapter two: colour in art

Many artists have tackled colour within their work such as Wassily Kandinsky and Josef Albers. Mark Rothko is famed for his large blocks of colour of similar hues. Rothko’s pieces have been given a room specifically for his work in the Tate Modern, London. Artists such as Morris Louis and Tom Phillips are less well known but have also used colour extensively in their work.

In this chapter I explore the various influential artists of their period to give an insight into the way that these artists worked with colour. Albers has been an influential artist throughout all my colour research, along with artists such as Rothko who practiced his insight into colour and composition. All of the artists in this chapter have contributed in some way to the development of colour ideas and how we perceive colour in our everyday lives.

josef albers interaction of color

Albers has been mentioned many times throughout the course of this essay, because of his understanding in the subject of colour. He was born in 1888, later moving to the USA in 1933. Between this period he taught at the famous Bauhaus school in Germany. His book, as referred to many times, called the ‘Interaction of Colour’ was published in 1963 and included the lessons that he taught whilst he was working at the Bauhaus. In this book he explored the perception of colour, which was a dominant theme throughout his life. His most famous work is a series in which he would use squares of pure colour. The squares were placed on top of each other but as the paint had been applied with a knife it gave the illusion that the squares floated independent of each other. The paint was never mixed before use and was applied directly from the tube to give the greatest effect of pure colour. His work has been a huge influence on my work and my studies into the area of colour perception and its uses.


Yves Klein was a very influential artist working closely with the Neo-Dada movement. Dada, which stands for hobby-horse, was a “nihilistic precursor of Surrealism” 03. It was created in Zurich during World War I and was a product of hysteria and shock lasting from about 1915 to 1922. It was deliberately anti-art and anti-sense, intended to shock and outrage the viewers. It was the movement behind the famous work by Duchamp of a reproduction of the Mona Lisa with a moustache. Klein’s work included paintings that were deliberately burned and paintings produced by smearing his famous ‘International Klein Blue’ paint all over naked women and dragged across the canvas under Klein’s direction, to the accompaniment of his own symphony. He was born in Nice during 1928, later to die in Paris 34 years later. Much of his work was produced with his IKB (as mentioned earlier) as blue was a very important colour to him, purveying spirituality and freedom. This blue was mixed personally and later patented, and can maintain its brilliant colour due to the addition of synthetic resin to the pigment.


Morris Louis, born 1912 and died in Washington DC 1962, used unprimed canvases within his work. He would pour thinned acrylic paint over the canvas to stain a small area of the painting. Much of his work relied on the blank canvas adding the effect of the minimal colour. He would use the unprimed canvases and thinned paint as a way of moving the paint around and letting the paint make its mark rather than having to extensively use brushes to move the paint around. This meant that his work had a more fluid look to it. He moved onto pure colour later in his life of which he worked on whilst he was part of the Post-Painterly movement, a movement that Albers was recognised for. “By this stage it becomes obvious that the late Mr Louis’ paintings happen more in the eye than on the canvas.” 04 Piet Mondrian was born in 1872 and died in New York in 1944. He spent his life working his paintings out on grid systems and adding pure primary colours to the canvas. His work was part of the De Stijl movement of which he was one of the leaders. He worked to banish the “conventions of three-dimensional space and curved lines” 05. His work is also displayed in the Tate Modern along with many other pieces of work taken from the De Stijl movement.

Dan Flavin exhibition David Zwirner by David Urbanke

Dan Flavin’s work consists of light in the form of commercially available fluorescent tubes in all nine colours and all five shapes (one circular and four straight fixtures of different lengths). His work is also shown in the Tate Modern and consists of one green fluorescent tube at a 45º angle and another piece of work that involves many white tubes at different lengths juxtaposed to create a centralised bright light. Another corner boasts a piece of work by Flavin that consists of three different coloured fluorescent lights. The room is filed with this light, but his work relates to his desire to disintegrate sharp edges and attempt to flow all corners of a room into one space. The fluorescent tubes allow Flavin to project an enormous amount of light around the room dissolving all the corners into fine coloured light and breaking up the harsh edges that make up the box-like room.

Black on Maroon 1958 by Mark Rothko 1903-1970

Mark Rothko was one of the most famous artists of his generation. His work consists of “rectangular expanses of intense colour” 06. that float upon the canvas. He blurred the edges to make the coloured masses appear to vibrate with a misty, magical quality. His work has been praised for many decades and you can purchase prints of his more famous pieces from all Habitat stores. He has become a very fashionable artist with his blocks of colour that are reproduced time and time again. Nothing quite compares to viewing his work in the gallery space that it was intended for. The room at the Tate Modern that is devoted to Rothko is very dull and grey. This gives the work even more feel to them as though they are somewhat alive. They images can create all sorts of feelings to the viewer within this space and it has become a very popular room to visit in the newly established Tate Modern.

Farbstudie Quadrate Wassily Kandinsky

Wassily Kandinsky has always had a keen interest in music and always tried to create work that was encouraging musical involvement. He thought music as a form of expression had no boundaries and thought colour should be the same. “Colour is the same keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, and the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand which plays, touching one key or another purposely to cause vibrations in the soul” 07. He has always been a predominant figure in the work of colour since he abandoned his career in law and painted his first piece of abstract art in 1910. He died in 1944.

All of the artists that I have talked about have either been huge influences on myself or they have been famed for their work with colour. Each and every one of those mentioned worked almost exclusively with the ideas that they believed in. The work covers a wide range of resources, and has never stopped at a simple canvas.

This chapter also showed that the work that was started by Newton three hundred years ago is still being explored and practiced. The effects of colour are forever changing within lifestyle and daily activity, as well as art and as Kandinsky showed, the link between music and colour is more visible than is commonly known.

End notes
03 / Page 119: Peter Murray, 1998. The Penguin Dictionary of Art And Artists: Seventh Edition (Dictionary, Penguin). Seventh Edition, Revised Edition. Penguin Books.
04 / Page Unknown: Diane Upright, 1985. Morris Louis: The Complete Paintings (A Catalogue Raisonne). First Edition Edition. Harry N. Abrams.
05 / Page 321: Editors of Phaidon Press, 1997. The Art Book. Edition. Phaidon Press.
06 / Page 400: Editors of Phaidon Press, 1997. The Art Book. Edition. Phaidon Press.
07 / Page Unknown: Anna Moszynska, 1990. Abstract Art (World of Art). Edition. Thames & Hudson.

01 Introduction
02 Chapter one: theories of colour
03 Chapter two: colour in art
04 Chapter three: subtractive & additive colour systems
05 Chapter four: science in colour
06 Chapter five: colour therapy & alternative therapies
07 Conclusion


Having worked in design for the past decade, Daniel started as a discussion of timeless, modernist product design. Trained as a graphic designer, he also has an avid interest in typography. You can follow him on Twitter @ateliertally.

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