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Color Study: Squares with Concentric Circles, 1913

Vasily Kandinsky


Vasily Kandinsky (1866-1944) used color and form to elicit emotional and spiritual responses, instead of as descriptions of reality. He left his career in law in his late 20s, when he was deeply moved by a painting by Claude Monet. During his life, the Russian artist developed theories about the power of color to influence the human psyche.

Kandinsky is part of the early 20th-century Expressionist movement. These artists were inspired by the color and emotion found in Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art. In 1911, Kandinsky and his friend Franz Marc formed a group called the Blue Rider. The name references a popular equestrian image of Saint George, whom they associated with masculinity. The group sought to use color to awaken a higher consciousness.

Kandinsky was also one of the founders of abstract art. Avantgarde artists had been simplifying compositions in the years leading up to Kandinsky’s innovations, and he brought their efforts to what many thought was an extreme conclusion: pure form and color. Kandinsky’s paintings are harmonious arrangements of shape and color.

Color Study: Squares with Concentric Circles is a small watercolor made with gouache and crayon. Kandinsky creates a grid composition (the “squares” of the title.) Within each square unit, he paints concentric circles, meaning that the circles share a central point. He believed the circle had symbolic significance relating to the mysteries of the cosmos, and he used it as an abstract form. The juxtaposition of highly saturated, vibrant colors energizes the painting. Kandinsky explores many side-by-side combinations of color relationships: complementary (colors opposite each other on the color wheel, such as orange and blue), analogous (adjacent colors on the color wheel, such as red and orange), and triad (colors spaced equally on the color wheel, such as red, blue, and yellow). He varies the intensity and value of some colors, sometimes even within the same circle. The close placement of such high-value colors makes them appear to pulsate.

The painting is a study, or sketch-like investigation into a subject. Kandinsky’s quick, freehand renderings produce lopsided and irregular geometric shapes, giving the conceptual work a living, organic feel. The watercolors bleed into one another, and the artist sometimes breaks from his formula.

He saw the formula as secondary to the study’s purpose, which is the experience of viewing color relationships. Kandinsky never intended for this study to be viewed as a finished work of art, but rather as a color aid to refer to while he worked on other paintings.


  • What was Kandinsky investigating in this painting?
    (Kandinsky was investigating the power of color combinations and how they could affect perception and emotions. He believed color could influence a person’s inner sensibility and awaken the spirit.) 
  • Find examples of complementary, analogous, and triad color relationships.
    (Answers will vary.)
  • Describe the compositional organization Kandinsky creates in this painting.
    (Kandinsky divides the painting into a grid. In each section, he paints concentric circles in vibrant contrasting and complementary color arrangements.) 
  • How does Kandinsky’s use of watercolors affect this painting?
    (The watercolors bleed into one another, creating new colors. This allows Kandinsky to explore the colors’ effects on one another.) 
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