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How to Engage your Audience with Colour in Art Discussions

How to Engage your Audience with Colour in Art Discussions



Today I’m focusing on colour.
Colour is one of the 7 elements of art along with shape, line, form, texture, value and space. It’s a vast subject – but today I don’t want to focus on colour theory or the science of colour.
Instead, I want to get you thinking about how you approach colour with your audience during an art discussion.
I’m going to look at different ways you can create discussion about colour with your groups to get them engaged in artworks.
Colour is important because it can make you feel something, even if the painting itself doesn’t at first glance. Colour is the hook to get audiences curious about artworks and wanting to know more.
So, listen in for some different ways that you can engage your audience – any audience – in discussion about colour.


One of my favourite thinking routines to start a discussion about an artwork or object is Colour Shape Line. This thinking routine asks you to observe the artwork in 3 different categories, all elements of art. This thinking routine starts with colour and asks the group to describe what colours they see.
That sounds simple enough.
And it is – it’s an easy entry point into an artwork and works wonderfully with abstract or conceptual art that may be more challenging for audiences to engage with (or even know where to start).
I quite often ask the group to be as specific as possible when describing the colours – so, instead of just saying red, they might suggest blood red or postbox red or cherry red. This encourages descriptive language and you could even collect up the responses – or make them visible on a portable whiteboard and create poetry out of them afterwards.
A variation on this would be to ask the group ‘What colours stand out?What colours do you notice first? What colours are repeated in the work?’ Or even ‘What colours are missing? What colours have not been used?
You could also ask the group to name 3 colours that are most easily visible or the 3 colours that the artist used the most.
You could then split participants into small groups and ask them to choose ONE colour in the artwork each to focus on.
Then I ask them to think about how their chosen colour contributes to the mood or the power of the artwork, or how it contributes to how the artwork feels or the story of the artwork.
Or even, how about imagining what that artwork would be like without that particular colour. Encourage your participants to use their hands to physically block out that colour and to look at the painting anew without it.
Another way of approaching this is to ask ‘How would this painting have changed if, instead of red, the painting was composed entirely in shades of blue?’ Just insert your colour of choice. Would it have conveyed the same mood?


So, colours affect your emotions – whether you realise it or not.
A bright yellow painting will make you feel differently than a dark, cool, blue painting for example.
A simple activity is to ask your group to describe the colours in an artwork and then ask how the colours make them feel – whether they feel happy or calm or sad, for example.
But an even better activity to do with participants is to let them choose and compare two different artworks with different colour palettes and ask them how each of them makes them feel.
They could also choose an artwork that stands out for its use of colour – and then they could describe what emotions the painting evokes in them.
And you’ll find that participants may have different responses and connections – some colours may make the group feel more energy and activity whilst other colours may make them feel calm or relaxed.
These activities give your participants agency to make some of the choices themselves during their time with you and will interact with you more as a result.


So, some artists use colours that reflect what we see in nature to show the world as realistically as possible. Many artists embrace colour in a different way and use colours that we wouldn’t see in everyday life. A great question to ask after asking your group to describe the colours is ‘How are they different from what you see in nature?


And colour can show time and weather too. So, take Monet, he liked to paint the same subject – buildings, haystacks, waterlilies, his garden, cathedrals – over and over again.
He painted them at different times of the day and in different weather conditions. If you look at these paintings you can see the way he used colour.
You could explore what time of day it might be – by the brightness of the sunshine or the shadows we see on the canvas.
You could explore how different weather conditions affect colours too – think about how mist or fog makes the colours look.
You could ask what it would feel like to jump inside a misty painting or to swim in a stormy sea.


When you think of Van Gogh, you usually think of bright, vivid colours. But his first paintings weren’t so bright. His colours changed over time from dark to bright.
This is something that the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam illustrates beautifully with its chronological layout – you can literally see the colours changing in his palette as you progress throughout the museum.
A lovely activity would be to explore one of his earlier paintings (without perhaps letting the group know who the artist is at first) and then getting them to describe the colours and to think about what kind of mood or atmosphere they create.
Then you could share the name of the artist: ‘What if i was to tell you that this is a work by Van Gogh’ Does that surprise you? Why does that surprise you?’ And get them to think about the way Van Gogh has used colour in this earlier, darker painting. You could also use thinking routine See Wonder Connect to compare and contrast the colour in an early painting with a later one.


Van Gogh liked to use complementary colours too – this is when two colours, placed next to each other appear differently depending on what colour they are placed next to.
For example with red and green, or orange and blue, if you focus on the edge between the colour you will see a slight vibration – and the effects can be quite jarring to the eye.
Have a discussion with your group about the colours and specifically about complementary colours and what effect they have on the artwork. How do they create contrast and tension?

VG was constantly using the power of complementary colours to heighten visual effects in his artworks. He uses complementary colours to create clashes, contrast and tension.


Other suggestions are to share the title of the artwork with the group and involve the title in the colour discussion too by asking ‘How does the colour scheme reflect the painting’s title?

And finally you can wrap discussions about colour by asking some of the following questions: ‘What new ideas do you have about the work of art? What did you see that you didn’t see before? What more do you want to know? What are you still wondering about?

And as a final tip, if you’re interested in finding artworks in certain colours, you need to head to Google Arts and Culture.  On the Art Palette page you can play around with different colour palettes and find artworks and objects with similar palettes that you could use in an art discussion. You can upload an image and then it will analyse the colours in it and find artworks with similar palettes. There is also a Colour Explorer and you can explore and find artworks in different colours – for example, green or blue 
So, there you have it – some simple ideas for how to create engaging discussions around colour in artworks. I’d love for you to give them a go. If you do, share with me how you get on. 
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