Research point: Mood and atmosphere in portraits

Updated on 11 March 2017 (Harvard referencing and changes to content).

14 August 2016. This subject is unchartered territory for me and I think that, had I been asked the same question at the start of the course, I would not have understood the question in the intended way. It is not just about reproducing what I see, but about what I would call a resonance among the colours in a painting. The painting reproduced on p. 87 of the study guide (Open College of the Arts, 2011), “Head in Blue” (1912) by Alexej von Jawlensky (1864-1941, Russian-German expressionist painter and co-founder of the “Blauer Reiter” movement, (Arts Experts, n.d.)) pointed me to the fact. For me it was the first time ever to see the colours before the subject, a weird and unexpected experience and I will be trying to test this in my next exercise.

But first, to set the scene, what is mood and what is atmosphere? To me, mood seems to be a characteristic that is tied to objects, not just human beings, nor even animals or other living organisms, but anything present in the visible world. Mood, of course is a human concept and the interpretation of what we see or feel is invariably connected with being human and our individual experiences. Atmosphere, on the other hand, appears to be the sum of radiated moods and by reciprocal action may influence the mood of someone or something within its reach. Therefore I think, but I may be totally wrong here, that as a painter I should be unable to capture a mood without capturing an atmosphere. In order to provide a portrait with both I need to feel carefully this radiation and should eventually be able to trace it back to the mood of the portrayed person.

How does colour come in here? It will most certainly not be enough to call on colour symbolism and paint a green face to portray envy or a red face to convey anger, or whatever. A person is never only the stage for one feeling, but “mood” seems to be the sum of feelings felt at a moment in time, as a result of intrinsic sources and in resonance with the atmosphere. I think that it is only possible to capture mood and atmosphere by letting oneself to be guided by the messages picked up by intuition.

So, how do other artists use colour here? Because of the strong impression left by the first encounter, I decided to stay with Jawlensky and see whether I could find out some principles by comparing some of his works.

First, his “Head in Blue” (Fig. 1):

Figure 1. Alexej von Jawlensky: “Head in Blue”, 1912, oil on cardboard. Source: Alexej von Jawlensky (1864-1941) [Public domain] via Wikimedia Comons
My impressions in short:

  1. Outline of head and surroundings are both more or less the same colour, so the person seems to be in resonance with the surroundings
  2. The strong lines, bold blocks of colour and shape of the facial features suggest a strong character, who shows it at the moment of painting: she is alert, but in a “cool” manner
  3. The chosen colours remind me of the image produced by a thermal camera, although the result would in reality be somewhat different. Interestingly, this observation ties in with my concept of mood and atmosphere influencing each other by means of “radiation”. The red – warm – areas I interpret as those active in radiation and re-radiation: The person is active in taking in her surroundings by vision and smell, less so by hearing, little by touch, but not at that moment by verbal communication

When comparing the above with other portraits by Jawlensky, e.g. “Frauenkopf” (1911), the difference in colour between surroundings and head act to leave the impression of an introvert character. The somewhat erratic brush strokes defining the outline seem to indicate a conflict with the environment and the eyes, although open, do not seem to make contact with anything in particular. When looking with my thermal camera I detect the hottest, i.e. most active, areas on the forehead, cheeks and the back of the neck, as if he were struggling to keep up some appearance. Most senses and verbal communication seem not to be too active.

To me, one of the most impressive of Jawlensky’s paintings was the portrait of the dancer and actor Alexander Sakharoff :

Figure 2. Alexej von Jawlensky: “Portrait of Alexander Sakharoff”, 1909, oil on cardboard. Source: Alexej von Jawlensky (1864-1941) [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
Body posture, outline, choice of colours and surrounding brushstrokes make the whole canvas a vibrating whole. To me, the dancer’s true mood might be hidden behind an air of overt professional provocation directed at the painter, enhanced by the stage dress: Here, the most important connections seem to be the eyes and their colour repeated by the environment and the red of mouth, rose and dress. While the latter send an “invitation” (red standing out from the picture plane, hot area for the thermal camera), the former seem to say “Let me see you dare” (turquoise standing back,  cool area for the camera). What a clever composition.


Arts Experts (n.d.) Alexej von Jawlensky (1864-1941) [online]. Arts Experts, New York. Available at: [Accessed 14 August 2016]

Open College of the Arts (2011) Painting 1. The Practice of Painting. The Bridgeman Art Library, London, New York, Paris, p. 87.

von Jawlensky, A. (1909) Portrait of Alexander Sakharoff [oil on canvas] [online]. Lenbachhaus, Munich. Available at: [Accessed 14 August 2016]

von Jawlensky, A. (19119) Head of a Woman [oil on millboard laid on plywood] [online]. Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh. Available at: [Accessed 14 August 2016]

von Jawlensky, A. (1912) Head in Blue [oil on cardboard] [online]. Buchheim Museum der Phantasie, Bernried. Available at: [Accessed 14 August 2016]



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