Project 2 – Research Point: Portraits that convey mood and atmosphere

See also my research on ‘Self portraits in art history’ – click here.

The color blue:

=> Blue was and is considered at times as the colour for the human emotion of melancholy. Although in christian iconography blue means devine and stands for Saint Mary. In other times it is considered as an erotic color. Or just to convey a sense or nocturnal atmosphere.

One of my favourite artists who depicts mood quite strongly is Edvard Munch (1863 – 1944). His paintings and prints of various moods and human psychological conditions are simple but bold in its expression. At times he used perhaps symbolic colors but mostly the shapes and the stance of the human figure conveys the respective mood.
– ‘Sick Child‘, 1907. [Online image] Available from: [accessed 12 Aug 2016]
– ‘Melancholy III’, 1902 [Online image] Available from: [accessed 12 Aug 2016]


Fauvism (1899 – 1906)

The following painting of Matisse by Derain is to me a very representative example of the style in painting in the early 20th century: Use of saturated and complementary colours with bold brush strokes. An influence of Van Gogh can be seen. The color blue is quite dominant.

André Derain 'Matisse', 1905

André Derain ‘Henri Matisse’, 1905

Personal expression alongside an emotional response rather than representational depiction of nature was key. Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Paul Cézanne, Georges Seurat were main influencers at the end of 19th century. Especially ideas from Synthetism and Cloissonism (group Les Nabis around Gauguin and Emile Bernard and Louis Anquetin as main contributing artists) merged with the new rather bold expressive approach. Paul Gauguin who proposed to use the symbolic color vocabulary to convey various emotional states of mind.

A short overview of one convention of symbolic associations of color (Available from:, accessed  15 Aug 2016):

  • Red: Alongside fire and blood as danger, anger, violence. But also love and passion (example: Paul Gauguin ‘Vision after the sermon‘, 1888)
  • Orange: Creativity, change, energy, endurance. (Example: Mark Rothko ‘Orange-Yellow‘, 1956)
  • Yellow: Life, energy, happiness, hope, and wisdom (example: Vincent Van Gogh ‘Sunflower‘)
  • Green: Nature, health, growth, but also envy and inexperience (example: Paul Cézanne ‘The Bridge of Maincy‘, 1879)
  • Blue: Heaven, gods, Virgin Mary, freshness, purity, and hygiene, but also sadness and melancholy (example: Picasso ‘Blue series‘)
  • Purple: Royalty, wealth, power, luxury
  • Brown: Earth, wood, stone, craftsmanship, earth virtue (example: Vincent Van Gogh ‘Shoes‘, 1888)
  • Black:  darkness, death, evil, witchcraft, fear, mourning (example: Käthe Kollwitz ‘The Widow‘, 1922-23)
  • Grey: metals, stone, ashes, dust; boredom, decay, old age (example: Pablo Picasso ‘Goat Skull, Bottle, and Candle’, 1952)
  • White: peace, purity, goodness (example: Kazimr Malevich ‘Suprematist Composition: ‘White on White‘, 1918)

I am not convinced about those conventions. I think those associations are over time more learned associations as truly felt my one own’s inner feeling and emotions. I do believe that different people, especially form different cultures in a global world, do associate their feelings and emotions with different colors. As an art therapist I experienced more than ones that learned and adapted associations do rather hinder one person to express them freely. As without those social conventions one could see at times different coloured paintings. I find that interior design with the selection of wall colors can be at times useful to understand emotional response of a color on the mood. Red-Orange-Yellow energies, more pale and less saturated colors have a calming effect. This might be connected with some external and mostly natural sceneries (e.g. sea coast) (Available from: accessed  15 Aug 2016)

Main Fauves were: Henri Matisse, André Derain, Kees van Dongen, Maurice de Vlaminck, and Raoul Dufy. A main aspect guiding the Fauves was the total separation of color from a representational purpose. Colour became an independent aspect supporting rather a certain mood or structure rather than description the world around. The artists used rather saturated primary colors with bold application. Flat areas dictated the overall composition. The paintings were dominated by bold and strong contrasts in color and shapes.

The Fauvism movement ceased after individual artists moved on with different styles, avoiding use of saturated primary colors and experimented with other aspects. The Cubism movement emerged especially with late Fauve joiner Georges Braque and at times also André Derain. Another direction was Symbolism (Odilon Redon and others)

The following painting by Kees van Dongen in warm colors is a good examples of a combination of color and texture/patterns. A small spot of blue keeps the eye on the woman enhancing the orange hue of the face. The patterns in the bottom right corner contrasts with the lighter and flater background to the left – it seems to me as if a dialogue between both is occurring.

Kees van Dongen 'In the Plaza Women at a Balustrade', 1911

Kees van Dongen ‘In the Plaza Women at a Balustrade’, 1911

German Expressionists (1905 -1920)

The German Expressionism movement was first established in North Germany with the group ‘Die Bruecke‘: Ernst-Ludiwg Kirchner, Erich Heckel, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Emil Nolde, Christian Rohls and Paula Modersohn-Becker. Later Otto Müller and partly Max Pechstein joined the group. One of the founder was Ernst Barlach – a sculptor. One theme the groups were interested was the human life in stressful times with at times more focus on the psychological conditions. The group was quite provocative, at times more esoteric. The paintings  were mostly characterised by use of pure colors, expressive strokes, bold outlines and simplified but assertive shapes. At times they applied symbolic colors.

The term ‘Expressionism‘ was used in Germany more as a spirtual ideology than as a style.

Another group in South Germany (Munich) ‘Der Blaue Reiter’ was established: Wasily Kandinsky, Gabriele Münter, Alex Jawlensky, Franz Marc. For them the ‘inner mystic world’ and the spiritual aspects in art were most important. They moved more towards abstraction, inspired at times by music (Kandinsky). The used subtle color palette with rich tonal values, contrasting to the rather expressive color application of ‘Die Bruecke’.

Another artist using color and form in a quite atmospheric expression if Kaye Donachie (b. 1970). I collected a few of her paintings on Pinterest: Also available from: She combines at times landscape elements and narratives. By that she adds mystic layers of meaning with some utopia direction to her paintings.


Overall I can discern the following aspects for mood and atmosphere creation:

  1. Color: Specific and at times symbolic use of colors. Complementary colours enhances contrast as bold tonal values contrast can do
  2. Emphasising or distorting shapes: highlighting body features as a ‘visual effect/cue’ of the human mood
  3. Viewpoints e.g. looking at the back or from top on a human figure
  4. Blur: for deeper atmospheric interaction of human figure and surrounding space


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