Color Inspiration from Frida Kahlo

by Janet Avila 1 Comment

Color Inspiration from Frida Kahlo

photo by Linda Parduhn

By Michelle Enerson

So by now, you know the inspiration for String Theory's 2020 Mystery Knit Along was Frida Kahlo. Colors for the two kits we sold were chosen from two of her paintings. Janet asked me to delve a little deeper into the color theory and Frida’s intentions behind the colors in the two pieces: Self Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird (1940) and Still Life with Parrot and Fruit (1951)

It’s no secret Frida led an amazing life full of tragedy, sorrow, and pain but also passion, creativity, and joy.  She was forever disabled from polio as a child, she was horrifically mutilated in a bus accident as a young woman, she lost 2 children due to her poor health. By the end of her life, Frida had had 32 operations, including losing her leg to gangrene in her later years. She also loved fiercely and fought hard for her country and her strong political ideals. She painted 55 self portraits throughout her life, documenting the pain but also the vibrancy.

Frida kept extensive journals full of her personal life, hundreds of sketches, ideas, and even her personal connection to specific colors, how they made her feel or a memory they evoked.

Translation of the above page from Frida's diary:
I’ll try out the pencils sharpened to the point of infinity
which always sees ahead:
Green — good warm light
Magenta — Aztec. old TLAPALI blood of prickly pear, the brightest and oldest
[Brown —] color of mole, of leaves becoming earth
[Yellow —] madness sickness fear part of the sun and of happiness
[Blue —] electricity and purity love
[Black —] nothing is black — really nothing
[Olive —] leaves, sadness, science, the whole of Germany is this color
[Yellow —] more madness and mystery all the ghosts wear clothes of this color, or at least their underclothes
[Dark blue —] color of bad advertisements and of good business
[Blue —]distance. Tenderness ... can also be this blue blood?

She writes of greens and yellows as colors that display “madness”, sickness, and fear. These are the colors that fill Self Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, even her skin has a yellow hue. Her thorny necklace against a background of green/yellow leaves are visibly oppressive, she was using color and imagery to tell us of her pain, a prison as a body. The hummingbird instead of hovering and racing from flower to flower dangles lifelessly from the thorns, perhaps how Frida felt herself. Frida’s face is solemn, she is peacefully enduring the pain.

She was very fond of bold vivacious colors garnered from her Mexican heritage; Still Life with Parrot and Fruit is a perfect example of how her life in Mexico influenced her colors.  She dressed in these bold lively colors, it was a way to mask and hide the very real pain she felt every day of her life.  She wrote about how color can speak in ways words cannot, that there is no language for pain but that through art she could find her voice. Still Life with Parrot and Fruit was painted near the end of her life, she had lost her leg and was in extreme pain every day, she used her paints just like she used her clothes, to hide her pain and torture. The parrot correlates to her repeated imagery of birds and wings for the freedom she dreamed but could never have from her prison of a body.

photo by Susan Bartecki

Now that you understand a little of the meaning behind the colorway of your new scarf I hope you can find some inspiration in your next knitting project. How can you use color to tell your story? How can you chose a pattern or create your own that expresses your creativity in a whole new way? Let’s make Frida proud and use every moment of our lives to express ourselves and our experiences, maybe we can even use it as a whole new way to move into our newly forming world. 

Learn More
If you are interested in learning more about Frida I suggest the podcast Art History Babes. They did an amazing episode on Frida that is just full of joy and admiration for a one of a kind strong woman. I re-listened to it for this blog post and it really put a fire in my belly for strong creative expressive energy like Frida embodied. (warning, these are art history grad students and there is language and gen Z enthusiasm)

The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait, Introduction by Carlos Fuentes has some amazing essays and TONS of full-color images of Frida’s own journals. The back half of the book examines each page in detail and translates her writings to English. I love this not just as an art historian and Frida nerd but also as an avid journal keeper, it is very inspiring and a welcome addition to my shelf. For a peek inside, click here.

 “I wish…I could do whatever I liked – behind the curtain of “madness” Then: I’d arrange flowers, all day long, I’d paint, pain, love, and tenderness…I’d build my world which while I lived would be in agreement with all the worlds”
(an excerpt from Frida’s own journal)

Janet Avila
Janet Avila


1 Response

Karen Klomp
Karen Klomp

December 03, 2020

Thank you for your article. I didn’t know that Frida lived a life full of pain, lost her leg and struggled so much. Knowing this helps understand why she always looks serious and unsmiling. I admire her courage and what she was able to accomplish in spite of her extensive challenges.

I had planned to go to the de Young Museum in San Francisco last spring to see the Frida Kahlo exhibit. Needless to say that didn’t happen. I’ve always liked her style and use of a lot of color.

It’s wonderful to learn things, especially in unexpected places, like a knitting website. Thank you for including the back story. I also enjoyed learning about some of Blue Sky Fiber’s history as they make my favorite yarn-Woolstok.

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