What is it?
Arbitrary color refers to a choice of color in an artwork that has no basis in the realistic appearance of the object depicted (think purple cows, yellow sky, pink sun, etc.). When painting, many artists choose their colors with the intention to portray the realistic appearance of their subject. However, sometimes an artist will change up the colors of what they are depicting, often with an emotional or expressive significance, but sometimes for the pure sake of playing with color!
Examples from art history:
Arbitrary color is widely seen in today’s art, from all areas of the world, but the Europeans were a bit later to join in with the use of it. Arbitrary color was not commonly seen in Western fine art until the 19th century, but it has certainly appeared in the art of many other areas of the world for a long time, with Aboriginal art, Mesoamerican art, and Asian art serving as only a few examples. As European artists began to broaden their spheres of influence, painters like Paul Gauguin were greatly inspired by the bold use of color found in Asian art, such as the brightly colored woodblock prints of ukiyo-e artist Katsushika Hokusai from 18th century Japan.
Gauguin’s work began to reflect the influence of Japanese art like that of Hokusai, and works like his painting “The Vision After the Sermon” mark the introduction of the arbitrary color trend into European art.
As it took a foothold in European art, the use of arbitrary color appeared more frequently, particularly in the brightly colored works of the Fauvist movement, as well as the Expressionists. Picasso’s famous “Blue Period” is also full of excellent examples of the use of arbitrary color for emotional significance.
Examples at Principle Gallery:
Once again, a prime example from Principle Gallery comes to us from the feature artist from this month’s solo exhibition, GC Myers. Asian woodblock prints are one of many influences seen in his beautiful landscapes, and examples of arbitrary color can be found everywhere. Sometimes, it appears that the choice of color is tied to the emotional symbolism of the work, while in other examples, it appears to simply be part of his rich explorations of color harmonies. Either way, enjoy some of these gorgeous examples of the use of arbitrary color, and check out our website here to see the whole “Native Voice” exhibition!