Concerning the Spiritual in Art

Wassily Kandinsky, Bavarian Mountains,

So you've read everything out there on painting you can find, from The Art Spirit to Hawthorne on Painting. What else is left? Doesn't anyone have anything to add? Well, yes. Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) - whose work began in the representational realm and later metamorphosed into abstraction - found plenty of unique ideas to work with in the pursuit of color, these being assembled in his often-overlooked book Concerning the Spiritual in Art (originally published in 1911; click links to read the books online). 

Kandinsky's ideas apply to probably almost any type of art, since it concerns color on a psychological level. He talks sensitively and in depth about the relation of painting to music, how colors "move" and what we might associate them with, and how we see and react to certain pigments. Giving a nod to the a picture is worth a thousand words cliché, he explains "It is clear that all I have said of these simple colours is very...general, and so also are those feelings (joy, grief, etc.) which have been quoted as parallels of the colours." He lists two "weapons" at the disposal of the artist: form and color. But, "the artist must have something to say, for mastery over form is not his goal but rather the adapting of form to its inner meaning." 

An excerpt on the effects of color: "To let the eye stray over a palette, splashed with many colours, produces a dual result. In the first place one receives a PURELY PHYSICAL IMPRESSION, one of pleasure and contentment at the varied and beautiful colours. The eye is either warmed or else soothed and cooled. But these physical sensations can only be of short duration. They are merely superficial and leave no lasting impression, for the soul is unaffected. But although the effect of the colours is forgotten when the eye is turned away, the superficial impression of varied colour may be the starting point of a whole chain of related sensations...As the man develops, the circle of these experiences caused by different beings and objects, grows ever wider. They acquire an inner meaning and eventually a spiritual harmony. It is the same with colour, which makes only a momentary and superficial impression on a soul but slightly developed in sensitiveness. But even this superficial impression varies in quality. The eye is strongly attracted by light, clear colours, and still more strongly attracted by those colours which are warm as well as clear; vermilion has the charm of flame, which has always attracted human beings. Keen lemon-yellow hurts the eye in time as a prolonged and shrill trumpet-note the ear, and the gazer turns away to seek relief in blue or green."

"But to a more sensitive soul the effect of colours is deeper and intensely moving. And so we come to the second main result of looking at colours: THEIR PSYCHIC EFFECT. They produce a corresponding spiritual vibration, and it is only as a step towards this spiritual vibration that the elementary physical impression is of importance.(1)"

Wassily Kandinksy, Black Accompaniment, 1927

Rather than sampling the book overmuch, though there are a lot of great passages, I'll let you read it. A few of Kandinsky's associations and relations to music:

-  The cold sensation of ice upon the finger – once removed, is quickly forgotten. The same happens with color, once you look at something else, the sensation changes;

-  One type of warm red is exciting, but a different shade of red can trigger pain or disgust;

-  "Everyone knows that yellow, orange and red suggest ideas of ‘joy and plenty’." – Delacroix

-  Painting must consider the deep relations among the arts, and especially between music and painting. – Goethe

-  Sharp colors are well-suited to sharp forms (yellow triangle); soft deep colors to round form (blue circle);

-  Warmth is towards yellow, coolness is towards blue. Yellow is typically terrestrial/earthly/aggressive, blue is celestial/spiritual/calming. Green is a restful place between yellow and blue. Yellow moves bodily towards the spectator [i.e., John Carlson's quote that "Yellow is on the tip of your nose,"] while blue moves away from the spectator;

-   White has a joy and spotless purity; black contains grief and death; gray is silent and motionless, being composed of those two inactive hues, black and white (the restfulness of gray having none of the potential activity of green). Gray made with an optical mixture of red and green, though, is a spiritual blend of passivity and glowing warmth;

-  Gray = immobility and rest. Delacroix sought to express rest by a mixture of green and red (of. Signac, sup. cit.);

-  Red – unbounded warmth, determined intensity, glows in itself maturely;

-  Yellow has an irresponsible appeal; it reaches out to the spectator more than red;

-  Light warm red (similar to medium yellow): strength, vigor, determination, triumph, the sound of trumpets. Light cool red – notes of a violin;

-   No color has so extensive a scale of varieties than red does;

-  Orange is like a man convinced of his own powers/a churchbell/contralto voice/or the largo of an old violin;

-  Violet is a cooled red in the physical and spiritual sense; Morbid, extinct quality; Worn by old women; In China it is the garb of mourning; The sound of an English horn or a bassoon;

-  Red has movement within itself = potential of motion, immovability;

-  Light blue – flute; Dark blue – cello; Even darker blue – double bass; Darkest blue of all – organ;

-  Absolute green – placid middle notes of a violin;

-  When blue sinks almost to black it echoes a grief that is hardly human.

If nothing else, Kandinsky's writing shows us new ways of thinking about color, and more arrows in our quiver, so to speak, especially since, per Kandinsky, "the artist has a triple responsibility: (1) He must repay the talent which he has; (2) His deeds, feelings, and thoughts, as those of every man, create a spiritual atmosphere which is either pure or poisonous; (3) These deeds and thoughts are materials for his creations, which themselves exercise influence on the spiritual atmosphere."


“It is evident therefore that color harmony must rest ultimately on purposive playing upon the human soul; this is one of the guiding principles of internal necessity.” -Kandinsky

"Trust your feelings entirely about colour, and then, even if you arrive at no infallible colour theory, you will at least have the credit of having your own colour sense." - John F. Carlson (1875-1947)


1. Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art