Color as Mood - Joy
VINCENT VAN GOGH (1853-1890)
Sunflowers, 1888 (oil on canvas)
For Van Gogh, yellow was the colour of joy and friendship. He painted a series of at least seven sunflower pictures to decorate the rooms of his 'Yellow House'. These paintings were conceived as a welcome to his friend and fellow painter Paul Gauguin with whom he dreamed of setting up a ‘Studio of the South’  in Arles in the South of France.
In contrast with the sombre mood of 'The Potato Eaters', 'Sunflowers' is one of the most joyful paintings in the history of art. Despite the fact that it has echoes of the Vanitas subjects of 17th century Dutch still lifes, as some of its blooms have turned to dead seed heads, it still glows with a radiance that transcends any hint of melancholy.
The composition of the work is simplicity itself: fifteen sunflowers sit in a vase on a table; they are arranged symmetrically and fill the canvas; the vase, flowers, table and background are predominately yellow and cast no shadows. It is this absence of complication in both the drawing and arrangement of the work that liberates its color to communicate with a greater intensity than you would expect. 'Sunflowers' radiates colour rather than using it as a descriptive element.
This is a key image in the development of modern painting and the foundations of both Fauvism and Expressionism lie within its radical concept. Van Gogh had revolutionary theories about colour. He released it from its descriptive roll in imitating nature and empowered it to express his emotions: ‘Because instead of trying to reproduce exactly what I see before my eyes, I use colour more arbitrarily to express myself forcefully.’ 
Color as Mood - Sadness
PABLO PICASSO (1881-1973)
The Old Guitarist, 1903-04 (oil on panel)
We often use the language of color to describe our emotions. We talk of being 'red' with rage or 'green' with envy. If we are feeling good we are in the 'pink' or if we are sad we've got the 'blues'. When Pablo Picasso painted 'The Old Guitarist' he was certainly suffering from the 'blues'. In fact, the main body of his work between 1901-04 is now referred to as his 'Blue Period'.
In 1901 Picasso sank into a deep depression after the suicide of his close friend Carlos Casagemas. His subsequent work reflected his sad psychological state in both its subject matter and the colors he used to paint it. One symptom of his depression was that he entered a period of self imposed social exile. As a consequence of this he identified himself with those whom society had exiled - the poor, the lonely, the infirm, the destitute vagrants and vagabonds of street - and they became the subjects of his work. He would paint these sorrowful figures mostly in tones of blue to enhance their melancholic mood.
'The Old Guitarist' is a major work that illustrates the key elements of Picasso's 'Blue Period'. There is a strong focus on the humanity of the old man whose emaciated and twisted physique not only expresses the anguish of his abject condition but also the tormented emotions of the artist himself. This is a timeless image whose style unites past and present. It owes as much to the tortured mannerism of the 16th century artist El Greco as it does to the contemporary introspection of Expressionism. Picasso's use of blue as the corresponding color of sadness is counteracted by the comforting shade of the brown guitar. Its soulful tone is the only note of consolation in this tragic image.
Color as Mood - Peace
GUSTAV KLIMT (1862-1918)
Isle on Lake Attersee, 1902 (oil on canvas)
Gustav Klimt's reputation was built on his paintings of sensual allegories and society portraits of beautiful women, all dripping with opulent ornamentation in a fusion of figuration and abstraction. Klimt was always a workaholic. His idea of a taking a peaceful holiday was to paint a different subject, in a different style, in a different place. For around sixteen years (1900-1916) he visited the Salzkammergut, a picturesque region of alpine lakes, forests and mountains where he painted landscapes as a form of relaxation. These works were almost always square shaped as he used the same small ivory viewfinder to frame the landscape. Consequently the composition of these paintings was flat and patterned as he would 'crop' the image around or below the horizon, thereby negating the effect of perspective. This allowed him to focus on the abstract relationships of the colors, shapes, patterns and textures of the woods and the lakeside.
The 'Isle on Lake Attersee' has many of the characteristics of Klimt's summer landscapes. The isle and its horizon are at the top of the picture acting like a hinge that swings your attention down to the reflective surface of the lake. There are few more peaceful pursuits than to sit at a lakeside and watch the glimmer of light and color on the surface of the water. Klimt conveys that peaceful feeling of total relaxation and contentment in the way he focuses his attention on the Impressionistic spectrum of turquoise and blue reflections that gently merge into the soft waves of yellow sunlight.
Color as Mood - Anxiety
EDVARD MUNCH (1863-1944)
The Scream, 1893 (oil, tempera and pastel on cardboard)
'The Scream' by Edvard Munch has entered the public consciousness as an emblem of anxiety. All its components combine to form an image of impending doom; it is a panic attack in visual elements. The two main colors of the painting are orange and blue, a lurid contrast from opposite ends of the spectrum guaranteed to form a tense relationship. An anxious state of agoraphobia is generated by the extended perspective of the bridge and the haunting waves of sound that echo around the fjord. A stomach churning glimpse over the edge of the handrail initiates an attack of vertigo. A deep sense of isolation and helplessness is experienced by the figure who is holding his head to absorb the phobic assault from this environment, while his path of escape is blocked by the spectral figures at one end of the bridge and the mysterious border which channels the burning color of the sky at the other.
The figure is Munch himself. In his diary of 1892 he wrote, "I was walking along the road with two friends. The sun set. I felt a tinge of melancholy. Suddenly the sky became a bloody red. I stopped, leaned against the railing, dead tired. And I looked at the flaming clouds that hung like blood and a sword over the blue-black fjord and city. My friends walked on. I stood there, trembling with fright. And I felt a loud, unending scream piercing nature."
Color as Mood - Noise
GINO SEVERINI (1883-1966)
The Dance of the Pan-Pan at the Monico, 1909-1911/1959-1960 (240cm x 400cm, oil on canvas)
We began this analysis of color in art with one Futurist painting and we end it with another. 'The Dance of the Pan-Pan at the Monico' was the large centerpiece to the first Futurist Exhibition outside Italy which was organized by Gino Severini at Galerie Bernheim-Jeune in Paris. It was painted in 1909-11, but this version was destroyed and Severini repainted it from a postcard in 1959-60.
The Futurists embraced the noise, energy and intensity of modern city life. The raucous night-life of the cabaret with its vibrant fashions and risqué dancing to ragtime rhythms, all illuminated by modern electric lighting, was the perfect setting for a vision of Futurist fun. Severini smashes this image into countless fragments which he reassembles in a dynamic composition that captures the collective consciousness of Futurism. Contrasts of opposite colors collide in a shatterproof structure that frames the fun, frolics, noise and excitement of modern entertainment.