It is only after years of preparation that the young artist should touch color – not color used descriptively, that is, but as a means of personal expression.—Henri Matisse
Color was always a critical element for Henri Matisse. Influenced by the likes of Gauguin, Cézanne, Van Gogh, and Japanese art, Matisse used color as a means of expression unlike anyone before him. In his earliest paintings, which can sometimes be difficult to find on exhibition, color is the single driving force, having eliminated any sense of shadow or perspective. As he moved toward and gradually overtook Fauvism, it was Matisse’s raw strokes of color combined with Cézanne’s sense of structure that defined the entire movement.
With his cutouts, though, color became everything, the very soul of existence in his work. Because of his limited mobility, having barely survived treatment for cancer and severe depression, he had to leave it to assistants to prepare for him huge sheets of colored paper. There are no greys or even anything too terribly dark or light in anything he did during this period. Colors are strong, vibrant, and demanding. He would cut out the shapes while confined to bed and attach them to his bedroom wall. At one point, the artist remarked that he had so many cutouts he wasn’t sure what he would do with them all.
Color does not exist for color’s sake. Color is more than just a boundary or a specific bending of light. Color is an expression of emotion, whether casual or demonstrative, that carries an image from the heart of the artist to the soul of the one viewing. When artists complain that no one understands their work, how often is it at least partially because they have failed in their understanding of color, how it breathes, sighs, angers, delights, brings sorrow, or radiates joy? Even subtle variations can totally change the perception of a picture.
Color is to the artist, and the photographer, what words are to the novelist. Even when one does decide to work in black and white, by making that tonal choice one is choosing a vocabulary for their work. If the structure of that vocabulary fails to make sense or stir emotion, viewers inevitably walk away because they are unable to understand what the artist is trying to communicate.
Colors should never be accidental. With every image, be mindful of what you say. Choose your vocabulary carefully.