While reading Denis Dutton’s The Art Instinct, I learned that predominantly blue paintings indulge my primordial tendencies and satisfy my inner Neanderthal. I was glad to hear this as I’ve been using a lot of it lately, mostly Phthalo and Ultramarine. Now I’m being apprised of new blue research at the Sauder School of Business here in Vancouver, B.C.
“Blue is the colour to choose when creativity is a priority,” says Dr. Juliet Zhu, an assistant professor of marketing who led the study. About 600 undergraduate students took part. While red might boost the brain’s attention to detail, blue is simply loaded with other benefits. On memory tasks, for example, those presented with a red background on their computer screens were able to accurately recall a list of items. Those using a blue background made many more mistakes. “People are less literal and more exploratory with blue,” says Zhu.
Exploration, as most of us know, is a key to creativity. As shown in the recent painting I gave you for criticism, mistakes are valuable.
One test in the Zhu study had pages of 20 potential toy parts illustrated in either red or blue. She asked participants to choose five parts to design a creative toy. A panel of judges found that those using red parts produced designs that were less creative. Those using blue parts came up with the more creative toys. The researchers felt the results were based on learned associations. Red, for example, is associated with ambulances, stop signs, emergencies and blood. With red you are more inclined to be vigilant and careful.
Blue makes folks think of expansive skies and open oceans — perhaps of endless possibilities — which may explain the link to creative, unencumbered thinking. Funnily, the people tested thought blue would help them with both creativity and attention to detail (66 per cent and 74 per cent respectively). Blue is liked. Blue gets a good rap.
In reality, blue helps only when the task is creative. When you need attention to detail you should go with red. Apart from blue’s obvious uses in marketing and advertising, blue does something to folks when it’s hung on a wall. Want that dreamy, distant look on your collectors’ faces? Go blue. You didn’t hear that from me.
PS: “Blue is open, free, and peaceful.” (Dr. Juliet Zhu)
Esoterica: Blues that lean toward greys are the most sophisticated and ethereal. Warming and cooling, greying and tinting, as well as neutralizing your blues by adding incremental amounts of the complementary orange, are all worthwhile exercises. Minutes normally taken for a crossword or a stock market checkup can be used to make a few dozen swatches. You’ll find yourself getting fussier. You may even find yourself getting more creative. Blue is an education.
Two magic colours
by Dwight Williams, Meridian, ID, USA
I have often been asked over 40 years of teaching how I would limit my palette if I had to. My answer is always, “That’s a no-brainer, Ultramarine Blue and Burnt Sienna.” I, of course, would never paint real red, green or yellow again. But I could live with that. Much of what I’d do would be winter. The painting is entitled Ice Pool and is along a stretch of the Boise River in southern Idaho that I have haunted for years. It’s Ultramarine and Burnt Sienna. They make such wonderful grays.
Freedom and constriction
by Brian Kliewer, Rockland, ME, USA
‘Blue is the colour to choose when creativity is a priority.’ This is very interesting to me! I recently completed my Rough-legged Hawk and Clouds and found the painting very freeing. Shortly after that, I did An Apple A Day and felt very constrained by it, though I did enjoy it very much. While painting the apples, I definitely felt a “need for detail.” Maybe now I know why.
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The influence of particular experience
by Kate Lehman Landishaw, USA
The Zhu study doesn’t take into consideration other connections to colors, such as associating a particular color with someone of enormous influence on you, such as a mother who was hugely repressing (and whose favorite colour was red, interestingly enough!) Deep-seated personal experience can affect our response to color, and our performance and behavior with it.
A blue-accented studio
by Gillian Hanington, Ajijic, Mexico
I live in Mexico and my glass studio is outdoors under a huge roof. It is painted white but “somewhat” unconsciously the other color is blue. The shelves and the lids of boxes and the flower pots etc are all blue… even my main kiln is blue. When given a choice for tools etc I choose blue. The whole environment is very peaceful. The same is true of my “other” studio, the kitchen.
It’s my favorite color but the rest of the house doesn’t have much. Now I know why.
Problems with blue eyes
by Keith Cameron, Sierra Madre, CA, USA
An interesting side to the attractiveness of the color blue. When I first arrived in Los Angeles I found myself part of an educational first, dealing with a rapidly growing population of gang members. It was an eye-opening experience, and I found a number of students felt akin to me because of the color of those open eyes, blue. Unfortunately it was only half the class that felt that way. These students became so attached to their associative colors that they were eventually banned from wearing, or working with the color. I have a number of red and blue craft items from those early days that remind me how obsessive colors can become when tied to emotion. I have learned a great deal of my color lessons from nature. The desert at dusk is an amazing palette, so too the scrub forest in the mountains here. Thanks Robert for the opportunity to talk color. I think tomorrow I will have an enjoyable blue day with a wary eye out for red.
by Sandy B. Donn, New Smyrna Beach, FL, USA
Ha, if you really want to mess with your brain, change your background color, screensaver, etc., on your computer to a new color! All of mine are some shade of blue… I’ll bet 90% or more of folks have the same “blueness” associated with their computer environment, as it comes out of the box that way, doesn’t it? They give you lots of choices, but I wonder how many of us change it and stick with that change!! What does it say about the ones who just might change it weekly, monthly, daily?
A blue dominant painter
by April Jarocka, County Claire, Eire
I was fascinated by the relevance of blue to creativity as it’s a colour that has dominated my palette over the last two years, a period which has been my most creative! People who have bought my paintings also seem to find the dominance of blue calming, even when I am painting plain old stones.
Ecclesiastical history of red and blue
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada
Red and blue are significant colors in the Orthodox Christian’s iconography. Red symbolizes the “human” while blue symbolizes the “Godly.” In all Orthodox icons you will recognize Christ by his red under-robe and blue over-garment. It’s the opposite for the Virgin Mary. Their primary qualifier is what they wear on the outside. I find it interesting that red was selected as the colour of humanity and familiar to the people, while blue was for the ethereal and idealistic. That somewhat fits with the Zhu theory. As centuries went by, this demarcation has been followed more and more loosely. At the time when precious lapis lazuli came to Europe, its value was huge compared with cheap earthy reds. As a result, the rich church benefactors wanted their saints to wear blue, and that was the end of that convention.
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Pecuniary reason for using blue
by John Ferrie, Vancouver, BC, Canada
A few years ago, I painted an entire exhibition titled “Cobalt.” Having painted with all different shades of blue, in the sky, in the ocean, in the misty water colour memories, I used blue. I have come to one conclusion and one conclusion only about Blue, BLUE SELLS! I am currently working on a new exhibition and I know some paintings will sell more than others. I know paintings with a predominant blue tone will sell. It is a colour that works and a colour that matches. People respond to it because it was the colour of their tunic in pre-school or the colour of their lunch box. Blue is a colour that people are sympathetic to, or they feel sorry for it, or they just identify with it. Bottom line, BLUE SELLS…
Bliss and blue light
by Marney Ward, Victoria, BC, Canada
Blue and Red are at opposite ends of the colour spectrum — red has the longest waves and blue the shortest, well next to violet. Ultra-violet and infra-red are just beyond the human ability to detect. So quite probably the calming effects of blues and the stimulating effects of red are related to their physical properties and the way those wavelengths of light are perceived and processed in the brain. The red ones seem to promote physical action while the blue ones seem to promote spiritual contemplation. I don’t understand the mechanisms but I do know that I tend to finish most of my paintings with blues. Perhaps it’s the last lingering of my consciousness on the painting, the desire to connect its spirit to my spirit, the ultimate bond of intangible blue spirit before I release the painting forever. All I know is I love blue, and that when I meditate I reach a level of pure consciousness that is characterized by both bliss and the most beautiful blue light. From the earliest times and throughout many different cultures, blue has been a colour associated with tranquility and spirituality, while red has been associated with energy and passion. They are two banks of the river of human experience.
Comfort and red light
by Bruce Ervin Wood, Rockville, MD, USA
For those working in accounting or perhaps for the tellers at National Institutes of Health Federal Credit Union where I work, having a computer screen with a red background might reduce error rates in processing financial transactions. (I wonder if the sub-prime lenders — NIHFCU was one of them — might have benefitted from more red and less blue as they considered some past mortgage loans.)
I have always particularly loved using red glass in my stained glass panels. I often wondered if there is a deeper basis for our feelings toward the color red. As a child, I’d sometimes play with a flash light. Ever covered the lens of a lit flashlight with your palm? The most intriguing shades of pink and red are the result. You get a similar effect if you look at the sun with your eye lids closed. I often wondered if, in the womb, fetuses experience a similar redness as the light filters through their mother’s belly. Even with eye lids closed, I wonder if there’s still that pink/red light. If so, it’s no wonder human beings associate certain emotional, comfort states in the presence of red light.
In praise of Ultramarine
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA
Ultramarine blue is a color I can’t resist. I got a thrill recently when I acquired a whole fifty pound bag of it! As a pastel maker, I find the dry pigments I use often have a powerful effect on me. When I carefully cut open the thick paper and and pulled it apart, a shaft of sunlight went down into what seemed the limitless depth of this magical color. Wow, it just stopped me in my tracks! Pthalo blue doesn’t have the same effect at all. In my years selling at galleries, I have noticed that paintings loaded with pthalo seem never to sell. It has a harsh dominating quality and the greens it produces are garish and unnatural, like steamed broccoli. Cobalt Blue is another exciting color that has just a tweak of a greenish character. It’s lovely but doesn’t have the magic effect on me the way pure ultramarine does. I always associate ultramarine with the dreamy fantasy paintings of Maxfield Parrish. He managed to create the most dazzling blues and I have often wondered how he did it. In my pastels, I love to add a stroke or two of pure ultramarine in my darkest values. It’s like adding an ice cube to a glass of ice tea. It’s cold! It intrigues me to think that in the early days of painting, artists would have to grind up the precious gem lapis lazuli to make ultramarine. Naturally, every bit of the resulting color was highly coveted and used sparingly. I read that Titian used to boost the quality of the blue in his paintings by using lots of warm brown throughout his paintings. This created the ultimate contrast possible and made the blue really sing. Ultramarine really sings!
by Nancy Davis Johnson, Durham, NH, USA
Your analysis of the psychology of the color blue is a comforting affirmation and explanation of my need to paint predominately blue-hued paintings. It is a visceral need. A few years ago I tried to paint a vivid fall scene dominant in ochres and siennas and reds, etc. and found myself feeling distinctly nauseous in the process. Finally ripped it up. Learned my lesson — you can’t fool (your) Mother Nature.
And in agreement with your comments, many of my buyers and viewers have remarked how my work is ‘soothing,’ ‘quiet,’ ‘thoughtful,’ etc. Some might take offense at these descriptions, but I can’t because that’s how I like to feel when I’m painting them. I enjoy looking at others’ bright, colorful, energetic work, but it’s not my thing. That’s what is so wonderful about art: Its infinite variety.
The painting Matriarch was created from my collective memories of years walking in the forest, no doubt more blue than the scenes remembered.
by Ursula Kirchner, Stuttgart, Germany
In Germany, blue is the romantic colour par excellence. I am sure that you know that German poets were seeking die Blaue Blume (The blue flower), especially in Heidelberg. One of our outstanding poets, Eduard Morike, wrote a famous fairy tale, Das Stuttgarter Hutzelmannlein. A shoemaker wanders from Stuttgart to Blaubeuren in two different shoes. In Blaubeuren there is an enormous pothole, in which a mermaid lives. She is doomed to stay there, because she never laughs. Her husband lives far down at the mouth of the blue Danube (Donau so blau, so blau!). Once a year, he swims up the Danube and up the river Blau to the Blautopf (Bluepot) to see if his wife has learned to laugh. It is the story of how ordinary people get her to laugh 5 times. One of them is the shoemaker. When he leaves Stuttgart, he sees the blue wall of the “Schwabische Alb,” a jurasic mountain range in a distance of about 30 km from Stuttgart. Now, there are people who say that the Alb is not blue, but we know better, it is the “Blaue Alb” for every good Swabian. And our painters paint it blue.
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Heaven is here
by Barry Forman
I love blue so much too. I could just swim in it. I have been abstract realist and use the different blues to outline. With a warm red back ground it makes anything pop off the canvas. And if I concentrate for days on one I can go so far as to use the blues together in that warm vs. cool contrast. I love art so much. I love to work way too much too. Work is the desire I have anymore. The nice thing about being an artist self-employed, you get to decide what to work on, and create work. I finally have control over my own output. Oh, heaven is here. It has been perfect all along. I am an optimist! Things look perfectly imperfect.
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Edna Hildebrandt of Toronto, ON, Canada, who wrote, “Beautiful blue skies and oceans remind me of my home sweet home in the Philippines of more or less seven thousand islands. Our national hero Dr. Jose Rizal called it “Pearl of the Orient Seas.”
And also Gloria Wick of Powell River, BC, Canada, who wrote, “I definitely have a tendency to paint blues and greens and completed a blue painting a couple of months ago that I titled Endless Possibilities.”
And also Liron Sissman of New York, NY, USA, who wrote, “It’s interesting how different cultures associate different attributes to colors, in this case to the same color: Blue. While in English blue is associated with melancholia, in Hebrew an X-rated film is known as a ‘Blue film’ and a ‘dirty mind’ is a ‘blue’ one.”
And also Carol Barber of Gainesville, FL, USA, who wrote, “Blue may make the collectors go into dream land but red makes them buy. Red reaches out and grabs them. When I used to work on designing textbooks, the marketeers used to say, “Make the type red.” “Red sells.” Red is the color of passion, red will get everyone’s attention.”
And also Liz Nees of Long Beach, CA, USA, who wrote, “I just finished reading Blue: The History of a Color by Michel Pastoureau. It was a marvelous read. Check it out.”
And also Mark Wood of Duarte CA, USA, who wrote, “Your letter was a refreshing break from all the Go Green propaganda we are bombarded with everyday.”
And also Judi Birnberg of Sherman Oaks, CA, USA, who wrote, “I found Alexander Theroux’s Primary Colours delightful. He goes through every connection, connotation and denotation of the primary colors. You will find history, sociology, psychology and, as they say in advertising, “much, much more” associated with the three colors. He is erudite and entertaining. I’m betting you will love it. If not, I will be carmine in the face and feel ever so indigo.”
Enjoy the past comments below for Feeling blue…