Since mankind began using pigments, the effects of color on our psychological state have been closely examined. Color theory—a term used to describe the collection of rules and guidelines regarding the use of color in art and design—was first referenced by Italian humanist, author, and artist Leon Battista Alberti in 1435. In the late 15th century, artist Leonardo da Vinci suggested an alternative hierarchy of color, but it wasn’t until the 18th century that a detailed understanding of modern color theory emerged from mathematician Isaac Newton’s conceptualization of the color wheel, which was detailed in his book Opticks in 1704.
Every artist, advertiser, and designer has a different approach and intent for their choice of hues. For example, companies like Whole Foods and Starbucks incorporated the color green into their branding to induce a feeling a freshness, serenity, and health. Interior decorators often use touches of purple to conjure a feeling of luxury and opulence, as the hue has a long association with royalty and power.
Artists draw upon specific color palettes in drawings and paintings to prompt certain responses from audiences. Below are the unique ways in which each color affects our psychological state, and how artists developed their own color theories to evoke specific emotions from their audiences.
What is Color Psychology?
Color psychology is the study of hues as a determinant of behavior, and it depicts how color affects us in every facet of life. From cognitive performance to consumer purchasing patterns, each person has a varying degree of emotional responses to color hue, saturation, and brightness.
Human response to color is unique to each individual and is deeply rooted in personal and cultural experiences. For example, in the United States, yellow is often associated with the sun, and thus considered cheerful and bright. In France, however, yellow evokes emotions of jealousy and betrayal and was even painted on the homes of criminals in the 10th century.
Psychological Effects of Cool Colors
Blue holds a diverse array of meanings that depend on geographic location. In Western cultures, blue is generally considered a calming, serene color because it is associated with natural elements like water or sky. It has also been linked to lower blood pressure and slower respiration, which is why many interior designers choose it for rooms where clients spend a significant amount of time. Blue also evokes feelings of security, trust, and authority, which is why it’s often the dominant color of police departments and why banks and credit cards often use it in their logos.
In other cultures around the world, blue takes on a completely different meaning. In Asia and the Middle East, blue represents immortality in connection to Krishna, a Hindu deity symbolizing love and divinity. In countries such as Turkey, Greece, and Albania, a blue, eye-shaped amulet known as the “evil eye” is worn to protect its wearer from harm. In Ukraine, it is a healing color.
Blue can also evoke sadness or aloofness. Think of how the color is depicted in our language: “the blues,” “blue funk,” “blue Monday.” All these idioms have slightly dreary connotations. Similar was the case in many of Pablo Picasso’s works during his “blue period,” which lasted from 1901 to 1904. During this time, he painted monochromatic works of art in shades of blue and blue-green, seemingly reflecting his own state of melancholy. His use of dusty, dark blues communicated pain and desolation, and many of the subjects of his works during this time reflected that of outcasts.
Green is also associated with nature and coincides with lush grass or trees. This color is seen as refreshing or tranquil and can often represent luck, health, and prosperity. Actors often wait in “green rooms” to calm their nerves as it’s believed to relieve stress and have a soothing effect.
The natural, tranquil aspects of this color can be seen in many works by Claude Monet, a passionate horticulturist. This hue is especially evident in his 1899 painting, Bridge over a Pond of Water Lilies, which depicts an arched wooden bridge spanning a pond. The composition consists largely of lush green vegetation. Monet was consumed by color choice and even once said, “Color is my day-long obsession, joy, and torment.”
Purple is thought to awaken creativity and imagination. It is often associated with royalty because historically, only the rich were able to afford the expensive items made with the hard-to-produce pigment. Lighter hues tend to exude more peaceful, tranquil emotions. Purple also has symbolic meanings attached to it. “Purple prose” is described as that which is extremely imaginative and prone to exaggeration.
Artist Georgia O’Keeffe was known to use purple in many of the flowers she so prolifically painted. It’s the main color in her works Purple Leaves (1922) and Petunia (1925), among others, which showcase vibrancy of the natural hue. On the use of color in Petunias, O’Keeffe once said, “I decided that if I could paint that flower in a huge scale, you could not ignore its beauty.”
Psychological Effects of Warm Colors
The color red can take on many different emotions, depending on its use. It has vibrant, intense characteristics that elicit strong reactions, and many brands and advertisers try to capitalize on its visibility and stimulation. YouTube, for example, uses red in their logo as a way to accent their brand name and attract viewers. It also tends to fuel passion, whether it be in an aggressive, angry sense, or that of love and comfort.
Expressionist painter Edvard Munch’s iconic 1893 painting, The Scream, is known for its use of red hues. Munch was known for his exploration of psychological themes, and this painting in particular was intended to elicit a sense of overwhelming uncertainty. It recreates a vision Munch had while on a walk with his friends, saying, “the air turned to blood” and showcasing the intense anxiety he felt through shades of reds and oranges.
Much like the color red, orange is also seen as an attention-grabbing hue. It’s considered a strong, energetic color, which is why many sports teams incorporate the hue in their mascots, jerseys, and branding. Though it is bright and jovial, it can also have the opposite effect when overused or displayed too harshly.
Mark Rothko often used the color orange in his work. Famous for his large, rectangular canvases filled with rich colors, Rothko’s intent was to stimulate basic human emotions from his viewers in response to his carefully selected palette of hues. In Ferdinand du Puigaudeau’s Sailboats at Sunset, the artist’s use of orange projects a vibrant, energetic tone.
Yellow is arguably the most bright and intense of all pigments, and as a result, triggers strong emotions. Though it can be cheery and warm, it can also be perceived as abrasive or cause frustration or anger when used in the wrong context. Yellow is also connected to appetite stimulation, which explains why fast food restaurants, like McDonald’s, incorporate it into their branding and marketing strategy to attract hungry travelers.
The intensity of yellow used in contemporary painter Paul Gauguin’s The Yellow Christ is complemented by bold, circumscribing outlines. The heightened, overabundant use of yellow helps convey the isolated life and piety of the peasants depicted in the painting.
Psychological Effects of Neutral Colors
Black absorbs all light on the color spectrum and appears heavy from a visual standpoint. This is why it’s used sparingly throughout art and design, though artists looking to make an impression or evoke a “darker” feeling tend to rely on generous amounts of the pigment. Generally, black is associated with power and authority. It takes on different meanings in different contextual environments. For example, in the Chinese philosophy Feng Shui, black belongs to the element of water, and it holds the energy of power in protection. Though it has a mysterious connotation often associated with death and evil, cultures in Egypt and the Middle East associate the pigment with rebirth.
Spanish painter Francisco Goya created a series of paintings between the years of 1819 and 1823 referred to as the Black Paintings. The dark color palettes and haunting imagery used in these paintings was likely a nod to the fear and anxiety that plagued Goya after the Napoleonic Wars and two near-fatal illnesses. Playing upon the fearful, ominous aspect of the hue, Goya is able to evoke feelings of panic and turmoil within his works.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, white is often associated with safety and openness. It is seen as a peaceful color that projects clarity. Similarly, white has a pure, “clean” feeling, which is why it’s often used in hospitals to produce a sense of sterility. While in Western cultures, the color represents purity and elegance, in various Eastern societies, it’s closely associated with death and used in mourning rituals.
Romantic painter Ary Scheffer painted many works focusing on Christian themes. His 1854 painting, The Temptation of Christ, showcased the use of white as a symbol of clarity and peace, imparting emotion through sentimental and pure gestures.
Colors that Affect Emotions and Decisions
As noted, color psychology is used in all disciplines and industries because each hue can affect our mental state and mood differently. Similarly, colors can have different associations and meanings in different cultures. See which characteristics each color conjures, and how color theory can apply to everyday life.
Henri Matisse, with his liberal, expressive use of color, is one of the many influential artists credited with revolutionizing attitudes towards color in art. He boldly stated, “When I put down green it doesn’t mean grass, and when I put down blue it doesn’t mean sky.” Matisse was able to evoke an emotional response and connect a feeling to the colors he used throughout his paintings, and creatives of all industries have followed suit by meticulously selecting colors with specific emotive properties.