Colour is so powerful, so automated in our minds. We make associations with colour without even thinking about it. Why do we have such a visceral response? What is it about colour that makes us feel so deeply? Why does it stir these automated responses? Is it nature or nurture? Whether your ‘seeing red’, ‘green with envy’, or you’ve ‘got the blues’ ‘Colour Power’ explores why it is, that we associate colour and mood, as we take a look at the different cultural references to colours.
By Weronika Kusmider and Lauren Tighe
There are some universal associations we have with a colour, the symbology is often societally unconsciously accepted. Yet colour meanings differ dramatically from culture to culture; colour represents intangible ideas and emotions within art, design, music, film, perfume and more. In fact, there is not a single area of human life that is not affected by colour.
Jamie Ward, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Sussex, says there is a good reason for a connection between light and sound. In the earliest stages of our development as babies, our brains don’t make a distinction between where one sense starts and another one ends. So at the start of our lives, sound and colour are perceived as the same phenomenon. Alongside this, our cultural conditioning will dictate the emotions we associate with certain colours, tones and hues.
Music and colour have common emotional qualities. Certainly, most music conveys emotion. Experiments have shown that when a group of people listens to specific types of music and then are asked what colour they saw, the hues matched to the emotions we feel represented by certain colours, happy to sad, angry to calm, lively to dreary, active to passive, and strong to weak. Therefore happy sounds mean bright colours, aggressive music relates to red tones, calming natural musical sounds make us think of the greens and blues of nature, so on.
In art and anthropology, colour symbolism refers to a colour’s ability to signify meaning to a viewer. Think of the powerful greys and black in a Turner painting. The Shipwreck, for example, is all grey, blacks and dark blues, representing danger and death, the wild of nature, man, and machine against the natural world.
In classical art, colours pertain to emotions very directly, but our theories on colour and colour as a discussion point goes back to the earliest of philosophers. Aristotle maintained that the two principal “colours” were white and black – light and its absence – and that all colours derived from one of the four elements: air, water, earth and fire.
He also explained that the true primary colours, after white and black, were yellow and blue: since we “see” the sun’s pure white light as yellow, and the blackness of space as a blue sky. His theory of colours was somewhat philosophical rather than a scientific approach. But to be fair, this is actually very much the basis for many cultures when it comes to colour.
Whilst artist Claude Monet, the king of colour in art, said “I have finally discovered the true colour of the atmosphere. It’s violet. Fresh air is violet. Three years from now, everyone will work in violet”.
Or watch the film here from the artist Olafur Eliasson Room with one colour to see how our minds can be almost tricked with colour and the lack of it.
Architecture; home decoration and navigation of buildings’ colour is hugely important. Think of the hues of hospitals, white with highlights to aid navigation, whereas a shop may well choose a cooling colour to make you feel calm and encourage you to spend money. What about colours for offices that get you hyped and energised? Don’t think any of the colours are here by accident, they are not, colours have been specifically chosen to aid our senses.
Makeup is very colour orientated yet you will find there are some blue lipsticks out there, but they tend not to sell very well. In a way, fashion is the same. The designers and colour trend forecasters may as well tell us yellow is the colour to be seen in this summer, but traditionally it does not sell well as a clothing colour. Perfume bottle colours matter a lot. Brands spend time and money thinking and working out the optimal colour of the bottle that will help with sales but notice the colours of the juice inside very rarely differ, we probably wouldn’t feel very comfortable with black perfume sprayed on our bodies.
Food, we know it has to seen, be certain colours otherwise we will not buy it or eat it. You probably would never buy a box of eggs if the container was a bright blood red? Neither would you buy a pint of milk if it was in a purple bottle?
Brand associations with colours are also intrinsic to being globally known and extremely powerful. One simple example is Coca-Cola and the red and touch of white they use. Red in marketing portrays power, excitement, energy, and passion. It also stimulates the appetite, which makes it an excellent choice when branding food or drink.
Interestingly before Coca-Cola came along, the colour associated with Christmas was green. The brand was selling the drink as the American dream and a story that the Christmas holiday (a family affair) wasn’t complete without Coca-Cola. This was how red and white became associated with Christmas.
In film, think of the artist movie, Three colours red blue, and white, or in literature, the red strawberry Tess in the book (and film) Tess of the d’Urbervilles‘ is fed as a hint to sexual tension.
Yet move to floriography (the meaning of flowers), red and white flowers mean blood and bandages which is why you should never send these colours together to someone in the hospital. Whilst yellow is a bright, happy colour, in the world of flowers actually means jealousy.
Colours also vibrate, they have energy and power. Our most important energy source is light. The entire spectrum of colours is derived from light. Sunlight contains all the wavelengths, consists of the entire electromagnetic spectrum that we depend on to exist on this planet.
And of course, colour is used in healing therapies. Chromotherapy is an alternative remedy that uses colour and light to treat physical or mental health by balancing the body’s energy centres, also known as chakras. This concept dates back to ancient Egyptians who used sun-activated solarium rooms constructed with coloured glass for therapeutic purposes.
There is a range of cultural influences that affect one’s view of a specific colour. From political and historical associations to mythological and religious associations, and even linguistic associations which we will explore here.
There was recently a new black created that is now considered the blackest black available. Black represents for many, fear, rebellion, and death. Here at .Cent we are a little rebellious so we don’t use black in our colour palette. In many cultures, black symbolizes sophistication and formality, but also death, mourning, illness, and bad luck.
In the Middle East, it represents rebirth and mourning, associating black with life due to the rich, black soil that flooded the Nile. It was also the colour of the god Anubis (ruler of the Underworld), who took the form of a black jackal and offered the dead protection against evil. In Africa black is related to age, maturity, and masculinity.
Black is also seen as the colour of the universe before God created light. It also refers to the Devil; the “prince of darkness.” Kali (the Hindu goddess of time, change, and death) is portrayed with black or dark blue skin. Her Sanskrit name translates into English as “She Who is Black” or “She Who is Death.”
In India, black is also the colour of protection against evil. Sometimes a black dot is painted under a person’s chin or behind their ears to protect against the evil eye.
The Japanese associate black with mystery, with all that is supernatural, unknown, and invisible, including death. In the 10th and 11th centuries, it was believed that wearing black could bring misfortune, so only renegades or those who had renounced material possessions dared to wear the colour in court. It’s also commonly viewed as the colour of experience, as is evident in the black belt in martial arts, the highest rank one can achieve.
Our immediate associations of pink with femininity are likely caused because of little girls’ toys being mostly pink, thus embedding the association into our psyche from a young age. Surprisingly prior to WWII, pink was thought to be a more masculine colour because of it being a hue of red which has associations of danger and anger etc (see red), even so, both baby pink and baby blue were used interchangeably without regards to gender, until after WWII, when it was decided that pink was for girls. Obviously now, gender norms about colour aren’t followed as rigidly and people are much more fluid when it comes to gender, but the subconscious colour associations remain.
Pink is often associated in Europe with femininity, friendship, childhood, kindness, and love. Whereas in Japan, pink relates more to men than women, although it’s worn by both genders. In Korea, it symbolizes trust, and in Latin America, it’s symbolic of architecture. For many years, pink was an unrecognized colour in China until it emerged into the culture due to increasing Western influences, the Chinese word for it translates as “foreign colour.”
Purple represents wealth, power, luxury, and royalty. This was because of the colour’s rarity in nature, thus making purple-dyed fabrics more expensive and often only affordable by royalty or the very wealthy. However purple can also signify loneliness, sadness, healing, sentimentality, wisdom, and spirituality.
In Chinese symbolism, purple stands for divinity and immortality. In modern times, purple is being used to represent love or romance in China just as red colour does in the West.
In many cultures, purple is the colour of death or mourning. Thai widows wear purple, as do devout Catholic mourners in Brazil. Italy also strongly associates purple with funerals. Therefore, Italians consider wrapping a gift in purple paper poor taste, and brides avoid the colour when planning their big day. It’s even considered bad luck to wear purple to an Italian opera. In the United States, purple—the symbol for honor and courage—is represented by the Purple Heart, the military’s highest award given to soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen for their acts of bravery.
Cleopatra and Julius Caesar swathed their palaces and their bodies with it. Impressionists like Claude Monet became so obsessed with the colour, they were accused by critics of contracting “violettomania.”
In the book ‘The Colour Purple’- the plot follows the life of African American women in Southern US; poverty stricken, violence, abuse, racism -completely opposite to our associations of purple and wealth.
But the title undoubtedly comes from a passage near the end of the novel, in which one character says that she believes that it “pisses God off if you walk by the colour purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.”
Across the globe, blue is associated with the sky and sea, therefore it brings a sense of calm and stability. Blue has many hues and symbolises health, serenity, healing, softness, and religion (the Virgin Mary is portrayed wearing blue). Deep blue hues can also represent knowledge, seriousness, and power. Airplanes interiors are often blue, to comfort anxious flyers. Perhaps it’s also the reason why the United Nations (an intergovernmental organization that aims to maintain international peace) chose light blue as the colour of its flag.
The Nazar is a blue glass bead also known as the Evil Eye. Its origins trace to ancient Egypt, where the eye of the god Osiris was believed to have protective powers. It’s now worn as a protective talisman intended to ward off evil and bring good luck in a number of countries, including Turkey, Greece, Pakistan, and Iran.
Navy is the colour of power and authority. Dark blue shades are serious and professional, yet they might lead to the suppression of emotions.
Van Gogh’s Starry Night is probably one of the most known paintings in the world. Surprisingly, navy is a colour of power and authority, yet Van Gogh painted this in 1889 in a mental asylum.
Wally Gobetz – NYC – MoMA: Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night // Flickr
Blue is an important colour in Judaism, it stands for holiness and divinity. In Hinduism, it is the colour of Krishna, the most highly worshipped Hindu god, who embodies love and joy and destroys sin and pain.
“Anything which is larger than your perception tends to be blue because blue is the basis of all-inclusiveness. It is based on this that so many gods in India are shown as blue-skinned. Shiva has a blue skin, Krishna has a blue skin, Rama has a blue skin. It is not that their skin was blue. They were referred to as blue gods because they had a blue aura”.
The Blue City of Jodhpur India. People paint their houses blue to show differentiation in the caste system. Brahims (considered the purest Indian caste) still paint their homes blue, despite the weakening of the caste system.
Then of course there is International Klein Blue (IKB). It is a deep blue hue first mixed by the French artist Yves Klein. A blue colour the artist patented.
“Klein’s love affair with blue began when the artist was seduced by the deep cerulean skies of the French Mediterranean. As early as 1956, while on vacation in Nice, he experimented with a polymer binder to preserve the luminescence and powdery texture of raw yet unstable ultramarine pigment. He would eventually patent his formula as International Klein Blue (IKB) in 1960.” Picasso of course had his Blue period between 1900 and 1904, inspired by Spain, but painted in Paris, reflect his experience of poverty, grief, instability. Depicting street urchins, beggars, the old, frail, and blind.
Sending blue flowers means that you are expecting to keep the romance burning and alive for years. Since blue flowers also represent trust. Yet a Blue Moon means hardly ever.
Green has a multitude of associations, both good and bad. The most prominent association with green is nature. We associate green with something positive; green means ‘go’. It can represent hope, life, and luck; in Ireland green is associated with St Patrick, leprechauns (mythical creatures) and the shamrock (which also has religious references). Emotionally speaking, green holds a healing power, and is the most restful colour to the human eye, giving feelings of growth and hope. However, there are some negative associations with green, such as greed (the American dollar is green), sickness; if someone has ‘gone green’ it usually denotes a stomach bug, and envy.
Our association of the colour green with jealousy or envy dates back to the 1600’s when William Shakespeare coined the term ‘green-eyed monster’ to describe the feelings of envy, in his play ‘Othello’.
‘Green-Eyed-Monster’ Othello YouTube
In Chinese culture, wearing a green-coloured hat for men is taboo as it suggests the man’s wife is cheating on him. After gaining its freedom from Spain in the 19th century, Mexico chose to display green in its flag to represent independence.
The traditional colour of Islam, green is associated with paradise in the Quran. This holy text states that the people of paradise wear green and sit upon green cushions.
Mostly associated with love, you know all those hearts we sent on Valentines. Regardless, red also represents lust, powerfulness, and anger.
Red on Maroon by Mark Rothko is one of the most iconic art pieces one can ever see. How can one be so passionate about one colour? Rothko was one of the pioneers of colour field paintings. The movement focused on simplicity. Red on Maroon looks like a painting of a window. So simple, yet with such a big meaning, meaning different things for everyone. Rothko was a human representation of the colour red, his way of painting made other artists interested in his persona. John Logan wrote a play about him called Red which shows Rothko’s personality and how his brain worked.
In East Asian stock markets, red signifies a rise in stock prices, whereas it signifies a fall in North American markets.
The Japanese flag is a white rectangle with a central crimson-red disc. Perhaps this is why most Japanese children often draw the sun as a large red circle.
Red carries a handful of negative associations in the West — “caught red-handed” (caught in the middle of a wrongdoing) and “red flag” (referring to a warning sign).
Meanwhile, South Africa associates red with mourning. The red section of the country’s flag represents the bloodshed, both in terms of violence and sacrifice, that occurred during the country’s struggle for independence.
Orange, not only as a colour, is a combination of red and yellow, but also in its meaning. It is a mixture of red’s energy and yellow’s happiness. Orange represents joy, creativity and wellness.
Here at .Cent we are all about creativity, in any way, shape or form. Roelof Louw’s Soul City (Pyramid of Oranges) is what the title states. It is a pyramid made out of oranges. People were the main part of this piece of art, they were welcomed to take an orange. This would either keep the pyramid or break it. This makes an emotional connection between art and the participant, and that is what art is about. This connection that makes art, art.
In Southeast Asia (namely Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Myanmar), Buddhist monks of the Theravada tradition wear saffron-colored robes. Monks chose this hue centuries ago mainly due to the dye available at the time, but the tradition has continued into the present. So, these countries now associate what is sacred and holy with the colour orange.
There’s a phenomenon in the Netherlands called Oranjegekte (orange craze) that occurs during major sporting events, the F1 Grand Prix, and an annual holiday that celebrates the king’s birthday. When the orange craze takes over the Dutch wear orange clothing and decorate their cars, houses, shops, and streets in orange.
Roelof Louw – Soul City. Courtesy Richard Saltoun Gallery // Flickr
Probably the brightest colour that exists. Yellow makes us happy, hopeful. Makes us think of sunshine, summer, warmth. It is one of the colours that is highly used in advertisements for children’s products because of how vivid and easy to spot it is. But do not paint your child’s room yellow, studies show that babies cry more in yellow rooms.
Meanwhile, in the United States, Canada, and Europe, surveys have found that people tend to associate yellow with gentleness and spontaneity, but also with greed and duplicity. People in the United States also associate it with cowardice. Some believe the phrase “yellow-bellied” is a term for those who are cowardly. May have originally come from an association with acting like a chicken, an animal that startles easily and runs away in fear. The rich yellow of a chicken’s egg yolk may be how the colourful name came to be.
In China, yellow has strong historical and cultural associations. The first emperor was called the Yellow Emperor. After the Song Dynasty, which ended in 1279, only the emperor was allowed to wear bright yellow. Distinguished visitors to China were honoured with a yellow carpet. In current Chinese pop culture, however, a “yellow movie” refers to films that are adult in nature.
Yellow is a sacred colour in Polynesia. It is considered to be the colour of the divine essence. In local languages, the word for yellow is the same as the name of the curcuma longa plant, which is thought to be the food of the gods.
In Christian lore, yellow and gold are often used interchangeably. The colour is said to symbolize faith and divine glory. Golden halos adorn saints in religious paintings.
When thinking of white we think of purity, innocence, sometimes a new beginning, a blank page. Similarly, to blue, white is often seen on religious characters where it represents their innocence. In paintings, white is used to prepare the canvas and to ensure that colours are as vivid as the artist wants them. It is also used to create new colours, or to brighten up darker colours. Bridge by Robert Ryman (as a painter he is identified with the movements of monochrome painting, minimalism, and conceptual art) is a pure white canvas, which was sold for $20.6 million.
However, not every association with white is pleasant. In many cultures, it’s the colour of death, ghosts, and phantoms. As expressed in the English saying “pale as a ghost”. White also represented death in ancient Egypt because of the colour of the lifeless desert that covered much of the land. On the contrary, to most beliefs, White should be worn to a Jewish funeral not black.
So, now you know when you feel blue or been so angry you saw red, you know those references, they are a powerful way in which colour can describe intangible ideas and emotions. Colour is so much more than a visual element. It can change or enhance your mood, form part of a tradition, embody luxury, or even depict gender. Colour Power runs deep and is entwined with what makes us human, where ever in the world we come from
If you enjoyed reading ‘Colour Association’ you might also enjoy ‘Build with Colour’ Here.