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Colours of the landscape: exploring the environment through art

Updated: Aug 13, 2023

In the early days of art school, I remember having a lesson in colour theory; the idea of colours being complementary, contrasting or, erm - there must be a technical term for this but clearly I didn't pay enough attention in this particular lesson - just plain atrocious together. Then, as you get further into colour theory, you learn about the effect colour has on mood, and the symbolism that is tied up with colour. So, for example, in the Western world gold, crimson and purple are typically associated with royalty - largely as they were rare and difficult colours to produce (crimson, for example, was obtained from a rare insect). And because the colours were difficult to produce, they were reserved for the most wealthy and elite of classes. And, though now we can create these colours without seeking out rare little beetles - and thus our colour palettes have been liberated for the masses - our culture still carries echoes of these past associations. I recently created a piece, Queen of Hearts, which carried rich red rose petals against a gold background; its name came from the subconscious associations made between colour, history and cultural narrative.

Artwork of red rose petals, white cuscus leaves and butterflies on a gold leaf background
Queen of Hearts by Anna Masters

Lately it's occurred to me how the colours of the landscape change as you move from countryside to seaside to urban landscapes. And I wonder how these changes in palette affect us, both through the cultural associations we carry with us (and how this might be different for people from different backgrounds), and in terms of the emotional responses we have to colour as well. It's led me to think about our lived landscapes in a new way. The way that we have constructed our built environments has led us to exist in a limited colour palette - one dominated by greys and browns, and sometimes the blue-ish tint of shiny glass. As we enter the countryside, we see more variety in colour, though the extent to which the land is cultivated often means we see swathes of a largely flat colour rather than a variety shades and colours. And finally as we enter fully natural landscapes, we can find more subtle variations in colour - not just in the colours themselves, but in the way the light hits, bounces and shades on non-uniform shapes and forms. How colour can move and change as the wind takes hold of a tree.

It's been argued for a number of years that access to nature can improve mental health, and alongside traditionally accepted 'green spaces' a recent BBC article talks about the therapeutic and restorative quality of 'blue spaces' - those typically defined by bodies of water. They talk not just about the colour of the space, but the sounds, the subtle shifts in our environment that allow us to direct our attention without really needing to 'pay' attention. It feels like they're talking about the 'texture' of the place. As a society that is increasingly urbanised, I wonder how we can better understand the effect of colour and texture to create more liveable spaces. (Incidentally, my spell-check corrected me to 'loveable spaces', which feels appropriate somehow). Does high-rise building lead us to loose view of the changing hues of our skies? And I'm not saying that we shouldn't build high-rises - I suspect that we probably should - I'm saying that perhaps there are ways that we can do it in a way that maintains a sense of the colour and the texture of the place, and perhaps we might all feel the better for that.

Floral artwork with rose, cornflower and hydrangea petals, eucalyptus and ruscus leaves and a butterfly on a round gold leaf background
The Canopy by Anna Masters
Detail of three-dimensional floral artwork showing leaves and dried petals on a gold leaf background
Detail of The Canopy by Anna Masters

In my own art, I'm taking steps to actively explore colour and texture as their own medium. I'm trying to create works that have a little sense of that movement in them; their three-dimensional qualities mean that they change as we move and as the sun casts shadows across the works. But also I'm trying to embrace natural, 'uncultivated' compositions that might recreate some of the colour and texture of a natural landscape. In this piece, The Canopy, I've introduced Eucalyptus leaves, which is the first time I've really been able to bring green into my palette. And I wonder, how does it make you feel? Do you have different emotional reactions to The Canopy to Queen of Hearts? And to what extent do you think colour plays a part in this?

I would love to hear your thoughts on this. Pop me a message and let me know your ideas. Oh, and if you're interested in some of the stories behind colour, do take a look at the gorgeous book 'The Secret Lives of Colour' by Kassia St Clair. No affiliation, just a good read.

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