More Than Paint - Our Response to Colors

More Than Paint - Our Response to Colors
Artists feeling blue? What about black and white not technically 'colors'? (according to physics). Historically, artists have used these three 'colors' magnificently. Who used them best? I'll discuss.

Blue is the color of the sky and sea - sometimes calming, sometimes sad. Pablo Picasso's "Blue Period" (1901-1904) reflected his emotions during that time when his friend committed suicide and he was a 'starving' artist. The paintings are somber and painted in blue and blue-green.

Black - the absence of light and color - is often used in an artist’s palette to convey shadows and 'dark' meaning. White is the culmination of all colors.

In 1914 Russian artist Kazimir Malevich began working on a new radical abstract style called Suprematism. He favored basic geometric shapes and black and white as his color palette. Malevich's "Black Square" (1915) is the center of the movement which he called "the face of a new art."

'Black' was the beginning phase for Malevich and others, followed by the 'white' phase. "White on White" (1918) would be one of Malevich’s masterpiece paintings.

When I think of the use of 'white' in art, I immediately think of Johannes Vermeer and his extraordinary use of lead white - one of the oldest man-made pigments - used by the Greeks and Egyptians.

The Dutch were known for their superior quality of lead white paint. Vermeer deliberately used white to lighten, highlight, or illuminate a model's complexion.

It was an memorable moment to see Vermeer's "Girl with a Pearl Earring" (1665) in person at the National Gallery, Washington in 1997. The girl's gaze, the blush on her cheeks, is uniquely and masterfully executed by the Dutch artist. The girl’s pearl earring was painted with lead white and her headdress with the ultramarine pigment.

Ultramarine - the world’s costliest color (more precious than gold) is from the lapis lazuli stone - originally used in ancient Egypt for jewelry and ornamentation.

Beginning with the Renaissance, ultramarine’s prohibitive cost would restrict the artist to discriminately use it when adorning Christ or the Virgin Mary.

Titian would splendidly use ultramarine for the sky and drapery in "Bacchus and Ariadne" (1520-1523) which I have seen at the National Gallery in London.

In contrast, Vincent van Gogh used the pigments (in order of cost): French ultramarine, cobalt blue, Prussian blue for his "Starry Night Over the Rhone" painting.

When visiting New York, be sure to visit the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) to see Vincent van Gogh’s painting "Starry Night" painted one year later in 1889. Van Gogh used these three blues on both paintings, of which neither were sold in his lifetime.

Ultramarine blue, lead white, and black are all powerful colors purposefully used by artists throughout the history of art to evoke emotions.

You can own the book "Black Square: Malevich and the Origin of Suprematism" by Shatskikh, Aleksandra, available here from

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