The Power of Color: Colors and Their Meanings
Colors and Their Emotions
Imagine the world without colors. The blind see darkness, yet imagine colors. We are inundated with a barrage of colors each day and yet most people rarely think about how colors affect them. Pigments are universal and they are an ever-present element in our lives. There are five primary colors, and from those, we can make more hues than the eye could ever behold. As a life-long student of art and theatre, I have always paid close attention to colors and their meanings. Colors are connected to art, music, literature, fashion, mood, psychology, cuisine, the floral industry and countless other aspects of our lives. Pierre Bonnard once said, “Color is an act of reason.”
This is a great starting point. Red has an ancient history of love and hate. Blue-reds, or cool reds, are associated with love and passion. Some of red’s positive connotations are also historical. The Chinese have used red to attract good luck for centuries. In Sweden, the wealthy wore red to denote their status. The Aztecs associated red with the heart and blood, and wore red to symbolize the miracle of life and strength. In many countries, brides have worn red dresses on their wedding day for generations. Red can symbolize sensuality, fertility, luck, wealth, power, beauty, royalty, and energy. Artists use red to attract attention upon the canvas, and often associate cool reds with scenes of passion. Red stimulates the part of our brain that triggers primal responses for both love and war.
Warm reds, including vermillion and other orange reds, signify anger and destruction. Nations and cultures have used red to demonstrate wars, armies, communism, negative energy, violence, mourning, poison and much more. Artists use reds when depicting bloodshed or sinful lust. When the Roman Catholic church used the word satyr to replace the Hebrew word se'irim (“the hairy ones or demons from the places of waste”), the satyr became their mascot for the devil. They painted him red to signify the flames of hell, as well as the sinful side of man. Regardless of its usage, no other color in the spectrum is as diverse as red. Love and hate, war and passion, Cupid and the Devil: red evokes strong reactions and inspires action both mentally and emotionally.
This is a popular color. From the vast expanse of sky overhead to the deepest depths of our oceans, this color dominates the natural world. Is it any wonder blue is associated with all that is calm, strong and steadfast? Blue is equally favored among genders. Light blues are pleasant and create a sense of contentment and well-being. Light blue is associated with peace and tranquility, spiritualism and a sense of the eternal. Dark blue is associated with intelligence, decorum, professionalism, and tact. Many cultures use dark blue for corporate and military uniforms. Mid-range blues can initiate feelings of sadness or depression, as well as sedation and complacency. Hence the musical genre which is aptly called the blues. Cobalt blue is on the par with a bright red; evoking an immediate attraction in the viewer. In many cultures, blue is associated with water and all that is nautical. Our planet is called the Blue Planet, or the Sapphire planet. Blue also represents the unknown, as in “the deep blue” or “out in the blue”. Blue is a color associated with appetite suppression, and some diets utilize this color. Raoul Dufy once said, “Blue is the only color which maintains its own character in all its tones... it will always stay blue; whereas yellow is blackened in its shades, and fades away when lightened; red when darkened becomes brown, and diluted with white is no longer red, but another color – pink.”
This is a force all its own. Yellow will make you look like a million dollars or like you suffer an illness of grave proportions. Yellow has many positive traits, none more obvious than its aid in depicting countless yellow sunshines on works of grade school art. Yellow is a powerful pigment in its own right; it takes all or nothing. On its good side, yellow triggers the part of our brain which stimulates appetite. Many restaurants use yellow because of this. Yellow also encourages communication. Yellow can create a sense of warmth and joy, even elation. In the real estate world, yellow houses outsell any other color because yellow is associated with coziness and our nesting syndrome. Yellow can be cheerful and happy. However, yellow can be easily tainted. Artists know yellow can turn ugly with little effort. Yellow can be a warning and it can be a demand. Yellow has been linked to deceit and cowardice. It can symbolize injustice. Jews were forced to wear yellow armbands during the Holocaust. Yellow is the happiest color on the chart, and yet it reminds us of the sacrifices made along the way. Artists use yellow with great consideration, as it is less forgiving than the blues and the greens. Curiously, people connect the color yellow to tastes more than any other color. Yellow and Lemon are the dominate combination! In the floral world, yellow indicates infidelity. In the theatre world, yellow costumes often represent the traitor or the infidel. For all its controversy, yellow is necessary. Yellow is Lance Armstrong’s favorite color; "Yellow wakes me up in the morning. Yellow gets me on the bike every day. Yellow has taught me the true meaning of sacrifice. Yellow makes me suffer. Yellow is the reason I am here."
Like blue, green is everywhere in all its many variations. Nature is covered with green, which is why this color is associated with life and fertility. From the Celts to the Greeks, green has represented the spiritual and the honorable. Green is the only color known to possess both a warming and a cooling effect. Green is the symbolic color of life. Classrooms and doctor’s offices are often painted green to promote healing and a calm state of mind and body. Green has few negative aspects, including inexperience and jealousy. In the world of theatre, green are used to signify a character’s envy. Most cultures agree on meaning when it comes to the color green. Green is alive and well, and a pigment worthy of renewal. The “Green Movement” is about repurposing and recycling. “Going green” has a positive impact on our environment. Green thumbs make beautiful gardens. Green means go. “Green is the prime color of the world, and that from which its loveliness arises.” (Pedro Calderon de la Barca).
It is passionate if nothing else. Purple is the favorite color of royalty. Some cultures believe purple to be the perfect balance of harmony and spirituality – as it is created by combining the warmest and coolest color on the color wheel. Purple is also linked to mystery and intrigue. Purple is the color of our imaginations. Inventive and creative, purple has a history. Because purple is the rarest color in the natural world, ancient cultures took great pride in purple dyes, which is why the color was often reserved for royalty. Queen Elizabeth I enacted the Sumptuary Law, which dictated that only members of the royal court could wear purple! Cleopatra adored purple. The U.S. military issues Purple Hearts for bravery. King Arthur associated purple with wisdom. Purple is an intelligent, creative, passionate color with sophisticated connotations. Purple is the color most often associated with secrecy and magic. Rudyard Kipling wrote, “He wrapped himself in quotations, as a beggar would enfold himself in the purple of the Emperors.”
Is the happy color. Orange is bright and needs the sunny disposition of yellow combined with the love of red to exist. Orange stimulates creativity, imagination, and even appetite. Orange represents energy. Native Americans used orange to communicate a sense of kinship, while early Christians used orange to symbolize gluttony. Perhaps that is why too much orange can be a bad thing. In theatre, a character who brings about change may wear orange. Orange exudes warmth and safety, but can also extend into a warning. Next to red, orange is one of the most eye-catching colors in the spectrum. People who wear orange tend to be friendly, energetic, and talkative. Wassily Kandinsky said, “Orange is red brought nearer to humanity by yellow.”
It "is the queen of all colors” said Pierre Auguste Renoir. He knew. He was an artist who saw necessity in the color black and its relation with his paintings. Black has been treated unfairly over the centuries – often associated with death and plague. Black is the absence of all color. A little black defines the rest of the color world and acts as a stage for the colors. The negative connotations associated with black include murder, shadows or secrecy, dark magic, evil, depression, sadness, divorce, old age and so much more. Any color so dark and so heavy must be strong enough to bear the weight of assumption. Most people are all too familiar with the insulting side of black, but it also has a good side. Black is considered by artists to be a sophisticated color and its usefulness is eternal. Like Yen and Yang, Black compliments white and any other color it sees. Black has no gender. Black grabs our attention. Black words on white paper educate and enlighten. While we may be afraid of the dark, we understand it is half of the world we know. Black and white photography is a revered art form. Black is associated with justice and knowledge (look at a judge’s robes). Black makes us look thinner and even classy. Tuxedos are black. Limousines and sports cars are often black. To earn a black belt is an achievement. Black is as good as it is bad.
It is an anomaly. It isn’t a color. In the science world, white is a combination of every color in the light spectrum. This is very symbolic when you think about some of the connotations of white. People have different reactions to the color white. Some people feel exposed when they view white. It makes them feel cold or sterile, even boring. White can seem functional and unexciting. Like black, white has no variations. White is used to manipulate other hues. White has no gender. White is strongly associated with purity, chastity, and spirituality, hence the white bridal gown. White can be classical, but usually, ends up being a backdrop for another color. White demonstrates cleanliness, such as the white glove test. Good guys wear white, bad guys wear black. White softens other hues, turning fierce red into loving pink. White can equal blank, as in a blank canvas or a place to start. White animals, called albinos, are considered unique and are rare in the animal kingdom. On stage, white symbolizes a character that is chaste or holy. As Leonardo Da Vinci once said, “The first of all single colors is white…we shall set down white for the representative of light, without which no color can be seen.” Amen.