Expressions of Emotion
Have you ever wondered how artists choose their colours? This month for our colour series, we dive into the psychology behind colour symbolism. Join us as we explore the impact of colour through an exclusive interview with three diverse artists, and participants in the Fire Station Artist in Residence programme.
What colour symbolism means to us
The symbolism of colours is interspersed within our daily lives, and our reaction to colour is something very personal. Based on our culture and experiences, we use colour to express specific emotions and concepts. For example, white can represent purity and innocence and be worn at weddings in certain cultures. Still, in others, it is a symbol of mourning and is worn at funerals. Blue can represent melancholy and loneliness, but it can also highlight peace and calmness. Psychologically and emotionally, the colours that surround our every day hold value and meaning to us.
Art is the best example where colour is used to represent our expressions of emotion. From the artist’s personal relationship to the colours they select, to the way we feel when we see those artworks - colour triggers a psychological response in us.
Artists and their relationship with colour
Muna Al Bader
“Blue is the strongest colour linked to the emotions that I want to portray” - Muna Al Bader
A well established Qatari artist and Qatar’s art ambassador, Muna Al Bader, is a current resident within the Fire Station Artist in Residence programme. For the past 10 years, Muna’s paintings have explored ways to express intrinsic human emotions, specifically, the intertwining nature of happiness and sadness. Like yin and yang, these emotions cannot exist without each other. Whenever there is happiness, there is sadness behind that. To Muna, the equation of life is the recognition of this concept - that these two powerful emotions are inseparable.
Initially, Muna used a very colourful palette to represent these conflicting emotions as her paintings would explore the theme of traditional dances at Qatari weddings:
“My paintings were very colourful because they represented the happiness the couple felt towards their marriage, along with the sadness of leaving their past lives and starting a new journey.”
But in the last two years, Muna’s work and research have led her to one specific colour: blue. Muna’s recent paintings explore traditional folklore dances and songs which have been inspired by the sea and the sky on pearl diving journeys. The pearl divers would spend three months alone at sea enjoying their adventures and making the most of their idle time by performing dances and singing songs to each other. However, their happiness was tinted with sadness, as they had left their families behind and were uncertain of returning to them safely.
What better colour to represent the conflicting emotions of the pearl divers than the colour blue? Signifying opposing emotions, in Qatari culture, this colour is considered a ‘happy’ colour. Representing peace, calmness, and the sea and sky - both the source of Qatari livelihoods through pearl diving and hunting. But in other cultures, blue represents immense sadness. Taking this into account, Muna uses monochrome hues of blue in her Folklore Dance series to express the intertwined nature of happiness and sadness.
Behind The Process
“I start with spreading the ink on the canvas and allow the uncontrolled shape of the ink to mimic the sea waves. Taking advantage of the uncontrolled fluidity of the ink, I start to draw my figures, focusing on emotion and movement. I concentrate on the emotions of the face because here, you can see whether they’re happy or sad. Normally, I don’t draw them as complete figures because what I know comes from the stories I’ve heard of the pearl diving period and from my research - I have not lived this moment. It’s a representation of my imagination. Sometimes, you can start to feel the traditional music itself flowing through the fluid movements. You start diving through the blue colour, reminiscing the traditional stories heard from our grandfathers and grandmothers. The paintings invite you to start living inside these folklore tales.”
An intriguing fact about Muna’s paintings is that she only uses two colours - one shade of blue and one shade of white alongside the ink. Allowing these three materials to interact with each other, she creates an array of shades and tones of blue.
Sarah Al Ansari
A skilful painter, illustrator and printmaker, Sarah Al Ansari was a resident at Fire Station from 2018 - 2019. Born to a Qatari father and an American mother, Sarah has always felt caught in the middle. The theme of exploring identity has always been at the forefront of her work. This is best highlighted in her final paintings exhibited at the Infinite Dimensions exhibition. Here she painted figures submerged in a galaxy of vivid ink splatters, outlined through geometric Islamic patterns and detailed with metallic beads.
When it comes to creating a colour palette, Sarah’s choices are very intuitive. She links her selection to the emotions that she is feeling that day, that week or that month. You will never get the same painting twice as Sarah works with the initial raw feelings that bubble up inside and spill through her colour choices. For example, Sarah picked the colours of a fiery sunset for her painting “Born with Fire and Gold” because she was angry at someone that week. The vivid shades of red, orange and yellow were a direct response to the anger that she felt in that moment.
Sarah’s artistic process involves an intimate relationship with colours that encapsulate her emotions. Preferring vivid colours over pastels she particularly loves intergalactic blues and purples and hates painting with greens. Sarah’s colour palette personalises her artwork, documenting snippets of her personality and emotions through each piece.
Her ink splatter paintings are a homage to a dream that she had, highlighting her inner conflict:
“Nearing the end of my residency, I had this dream where I was submerged in water. I wasn’t drowning, but I wasn’t coming up to the surface either. I was caught in the middle, and this symbolised how I felt caught in the middle of my two cultures, unable to express myself.”
Behind The Process
Sarah’s technique and choice of colours and materials worked to recreate the essence of this dream as she submerged her figures into the fluid ink splatters. She took the ink and dotted it from above and then used a big brush, dunked in water to splat the canvas and spread the ink. She softened her colours with sponges and paper towels. Creating both translucency and mimicking the etherealness of her dream. She also splattered metallic ink and embroidered metallic beads in some places to allow a sheen to peek through. Representing the glittering streams of light reflected in the water in her dream. The geometric Islamic art patterns outlining the figures were used to create tension, and Sarah played with the idea of illusion by submerging and intertwining the figures with each other.
“Colours that we see in nature; the yellow sun, the green plants, the colour of the sand, can carry with them meaning that has been with us for millennia” - Michael Perrone
A passionate painter and assistant professor at VCUarts Qatar, Michael Perrone was a resident at Fire Station from 2018 - 2019. Inspired by the landscapes around him, Michael’s abstract paintings bring colour to the forefront and represent his experience of the different locations he has visited during his travels.
Structure and psychology intertwine when Michael is choosing his colour palette as some of the colours reflect the landscape he observed, while others reflect his emotions and thoughts:
“I start with colours that reflect a specific aspect of the subject. For example, with these paintings, I began by using some earth-tones, the tan, beige, ochre, sand, browns. Then it becomes a conversation between me and the painting, sometimes more obvious and other times more intuitive. My process becomes a series of moves - choosing and then changing colours, painting over shapes, changing this colour which then leads me to change another colour and so on. I like to leave the process open and to allow it to exert its influence.”
Michael’s process also includes transferring the colours in nature from the landscape around him as he adds elements such as sand and cement to his paintings. Sometimes Michael’s choices are dictated by his knowledge of colour theory, which he teaches his students. Such as Josef Albers’ ‘relativity of colour’ and Johannes Ittens’ ‘seven colour contrasts’. These can consciously and subconsciously determine the colour choices made, such as placing contrasting colours like red and green next to each other in his compositions. Other times reality plays a part in the decision-making process, and Michael’s colour choices are random and dictated by the availability of certain colours at hand.
Behind The Process
Both these paintings were created by painting over older works giving a nod to the way landscapes erode, build up, and change over time. “Um Bab” was made after Michael and his wife took a short trip to the Um Bab area on Qatar’s South West coast. The area that he visited was used by the construction industry, with mounds of sand and clay collected across the land. While the ground had been excavated, large protruding hillocks where trees were growing were left untouched, creating a very surreal landscape. “Petra #1” in contrast was created after a week-long trip to Jordan and Michael wanted the abstract painting process to reflect his experience of being there.
When words do no justice to the complexity of our emotions, colours can step in. As these artists have shown us, colour symbolism is a uniquely personal and powerful tool we can use to represent our expressions of specific emotions and concepts.