Can an emotion be painted? Or can we only paint ideas and symbols associated with that emotion?

5 min readMar 23, 2021


“On John Green’s podcast, The Anthropocene Reviewed, there is an episode titled, “Works of Art by Agnes Martin and Hiroyuki Doi,” where John Green talks about the idea of innocence. He mentions how in art, innocence is often painted, however it’s not actually innocence itself, but rather a symbol of it. These symbols are often a baby or a nearly nude maiden, and yes, they may represent innocence but they themselves are not innocence. He then talked about a painting by Agnes Martin that was a grid made of different shades of blue that was supposed to show the innocence of a tree. John Green said that “at least to [his] eyes, it really does look like innocence.” This got me thinking if it is possible to truly capture an emotion in a work of art. Sure a painting may feel or look innocent, but can it actually be innocent? Emotions are felt in the head and heart, but can they be assembled on a canvas to be felt by the eyes?”

I asked myself these questions in this post about one week ago, now I will attempt to use the internet to answer them. I’m sure artists and people who have studied art could answer these questions flawlessly, but I will present the answers I find, from a standpoint of someone who knows nothing about art.

I used Google to search for abstract artworks. I looked for images that struck an emotion, but without an obvious symbol of that emotion. I steered clear of paintings containing objects such as flowers, fire, facial expressions, etc. that are often related to that certain emotion, in fact I pretty much stayed away from objects altogether. I chose three paintings that stood out to me and they had feelings of anger, confusion, and joy.

“Angry Bertha” by Louise Fishman

The first feeling I chose to search for in a painting was anger. I looked up “angry abstract paintings” on Google, and scrolled through them. I made sure to choose an abstract artwork that wasn’t mostly red, since red is usually associated with anger. I found this painting by Lousie Fisman called Angry Bertha. Without having learned about the author or even read the title, I took this image in and analyzed the colors and patterns. After noticing that the painting truly does feel angry to me, I tried to learn why it did. I realized that I felt like the painting wasn’t angry, but rather the artist who painted it was. Based on the harsh brush strokes, the fat straight lines, and the messiness of the painting, it seemed like the artist took the brush and slapped it across the board, smearing the colors along the canvas in rage. So through my eyes, although the first emotion I felt was anger, the painting isn’t of anger. It is the product of an angry person.

Artwork by Rodrigue Semabia

After I was finished studying the first painting, I ran a search for “confused abstract paintings”. I specifically looked for one that wasn’t extremely messy or overwhelming that would automatically confuse the viewer. I selected this painting because to me it seemed lost and confused. This is a painting by Rodrigue Semabia. At first it just seemed like some splotches of colors blended together, but then in my head, it turned into a reflection. The white and gray colors gave the appearance of a fogged up mirror or window, and the streaks of paint dripping down were like the streaks of water formed by dripping condensation. So why does this make me feel confused? I think it’s because the idea of a fogged window with little light shining through made me feel as though the world I was looking out at was cut off from me and I was lost. All in all, I would say this painting is not of confusion, but it does resemble an image that made me feel confused.

“Blue Happiness” by Christina Doelling

I followed the same process I did to select the third painting, a painting of joy. I looked for a painting that didn’t have lots of yellow or shapes that resembled flowers or sunshine. The painting I came across that truly made me happy was “Blue Happiness” by Christina Doelling. The painting uses bright shades of blue and green and has thin wavy lines randomly scattered throughout it. I do feel like the bright color scheme and the soft yet springy lines represent fun and joy. For a while, I thought that I finally did find a painting that was of happiness, but then I realized that I had just been associating the blue colors and wavy lines with the ocean, which I associated with summertime and joy.

To tie it all up, after a tiny bit of surfing the web and looking at paintings, I found three paintings that represented anger, confusion, and joy in my eyes. These paintings gave off these feelings, but only because my mind has been trained to recognize those feelings as corresponding with small details such as the shade of the color or the hard vs soft edge of a line. Therefore, I don’t think any of these paintings actually are anger, confusion, or joy. So back to my original question: can an artwork actually be an emotion? Based on what I have learned, no. Artworks can give off feelings, but these feelings are just created subconsciously from the patterns and details your brain recognizes, whether these patterns are abstract or concrete.