Colours have meaning or are symbolic of specific things, situations and icons.
Every once in a while I am asked as to what is that impels artists to use specific colours. Why is that some artists prefer specific hues that eventually become synonymous with them and others then think twice before using those colours? Apart from personal choices, I think it has a lot to do with one’s physical environment.
Just the way people in Kerala traditionally wear white as there is such a profusion of colour in the environment, the same way at the sub-conscious level people are responding to light and landscape around them. Just as a pink lungi shouts in the verdure of green Kerala, for the eye is least expecting to see it amid the profusion of white clothes, same is the case with art. Artists from that region are almost uncomfortable and self-conscious in their use of high—strung colours. They can hardly be blamed, considering they are not used to seeing colour on people, and hence they tend to go overboard when they use colour. Artists from Rajasthan are so comfortable using seemingly clashing colours for they know eventually colours find their own balance.
Most European art is understated and in subtle colours given that the light in the northern hemisphere is pure and has huge tones of ultra violet leading to a different perception of colour. When the masters painted say in Venice, the colours used are so edgy that I didn’t understand it until I saw it for myself. The water colours I painted in Venice in my romantic notion of the place, looked different and brighter than did in dreary London. My application of colour itself underwent a huge change.
Ditto is the case with artists in India painting in different seasons or even the time of day or night. When I paint in the monsoon or when I paint in spring, I can be certain that my choice of hues will be different. I remember that caught up with the romance of the Indian month of Chaitra; I even painted a pink work, my only pink work so far that caught the fancy of a Japanese collector who kept calling kwai or cute. I am sure at a subconscious level he was responding to the cherry blossoms blooming in his country. In fact, I stopped painting at night completely when I found that my colours were too bright as my judgment was based on artificial light.
I asked a few of my artist’s friends, and their contention is that they go through phases when specific colours “entice them and beckon” them to find a place in the canvas. I went through a long phase when a particular shade of Prussian blue held me enthrall and I used it in so many paintings. From small to large canvases, it found its way into my works for a long time. I found it sophisticated, elegant and understated. Similar is the case with hues of red from vermilion to carmine red to scarlet appearing at different times and phases in my works.
But is it a phenomenon that cuts across the board. Senior artist Niren Sengupta says, “Colours have meaning or are symbolic of specific things, situations and icons. When I paint Krishna, instinctively I reach out for peacock blues or pitambar – a specific hue of yellow associated with Krishna. Similarly when it is Buddha that I am painting it is hues of brick red or majitha and marigold of the monks that I am drawn to.”
“I have a strange feeling when I go to buy paint, as I gaze at the shelves of mesmerising jars of colours I feel like eating some of them, that is my way of knowing what my heart wants to work with! In my case the landscapes I experience or have experienced over the years have a bearing on the colours I opt for,” says artist Manisha Gawade.
Then, of course, there are other more mundane reasons like artists tailor using specific colours for specific audiences. Like M.F. Husain used to allegedly use red keeping in mind one of his collectors. I remember asking his son Shamshad about it, and he had laughed it off.
Artist Niladri Paul uses a profusion of colour in his paintings, and they find their balance. “In a way, it is like nature. Just as in nature varied colours exist in the same place and yet don’t look out of place, so it is with colours. They find their balance, but it is up to the artist to hold the mirror to the most beauteous and gorgeous aspects of colours bestowed by nature as they create harmony,” opines Niladri. Harmony or clash of colours, it is only something those aesthetics of the times decide, which side your hue is applied!