Red Hen And Eggs, color as symbol ©M Stermer-Cox

Color as Symbol: Red & Green Egg Cups

Easter Eggs Painted Christmas Colors Creates Visual Havoc

Sometimes we learn best from our mistakes.  To explain, take the color combination of red and green.  The colors are symbolically associated in Western cultures with Christmas.  I decided to test my abilities to compose with color by selecting a red and green scheme for a still life.  Oh, just to make it more challenging, I added a subject matter associated with spring and fertility: eggs.

Red Hen And Eggs, color as symbol ©M Stermer-Cox

My intention?  I wanted the painting to not make me feel like Christmas.

Hmmm, do you see the inherent problem with my intention statement?

Naturally, the resulting painting does make me feel like Christmas, almost.  The color scheme does not match the symbolism of the still life set up.  What I feel is confused.

Sometimes Technique Is Not Enough

Darn it!  I thought I did such an excellent job with the paint.  I put all my skills to the test (this was painted in 2006).

I liked the visual humor of the hens on the egg cups contrasting with the eggs themselves.  There are soft places and hard edges.  I really liked the painting.

But, the confusion caused by the clash of symbols is always there.  It might be resolved if we had a strong tradition of soft boiled eggs as breakfast for Christmas morning.  But, we don’t.  So, it remains one of my favorite, odd paintings.

Lessons Learn:  Color Symbolism & Dominance

One of the issues of color that artists talk about and use in design is dominance.  With my little study, the green and the red are nearly equal in dominance.  Oddly enough, that’s how we think of red and green as symbol.

Had I skewed the dominance radically either to green or to red, say 90:10, perhaps the painting would work.  We might see a red painting, (90% red: 10% green) instead of a Christmas painting.

By using a 50:50 split of colors, the mind goes back and forth between red and green.  It doesn’t rest.

Lessons Learned:  Symbolism

Consider the symbolism of the subject and the design elements.  They need to work together to communicate the same message.  We like a clear message.

On the other hand, if you want to be noticed, confusion might just work for you.


Look at the color scheme of the next red or green painting you see.  How did the artist compose the colors?  Did the artist succeed?  Are the colors used symbolically or is there another intention?

As for me, I have not painted my eggs and egg cups for several years.  The egg cups are packed away.  Maybe one day I’ll break them out and re-try the still life.  Do you suppose I ought to do red and green again?

About the Egg Cups

I have a sentimental attachment to the eggs cups depicted in this still life.  They are from Sweden and were a gift from my good friend Ethel’s mother.   To explain the Swedish connection, Ethel was an exchange student from Sweden to my high school in New Mexico.  We became friends.  The next year I was an exchange student to Norway.  I took some time while I was in Scandinavia to visit Sweden and Ethel’s family.   Her mother made a particular impression since she was a creative tapestry weaver.  The entire family was generous; one of my best memories.

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