Colour Psychology How Does It Work?

Colour Psychology How Does It Work?
Many people think that colour is just a matter of how things look and it is often dismissed as being purely cosmetic. However, the truth is that colour is light – the source of life itself; there is nowhere that colour does not exist and our instinctive, unconscious response to it is a vital element in our survival.
It is Nature_s own powerful signalling system. Scientifically, it is the first thing we register when we are assessing annything: a very simple and obvious example of that is our reaction to a fly in our home: if it is black, we will probably find it a minor irritation, but if it has yellow stripes our reaction will be different – most of us will recoil. The same instinct tells us when food is unsafe to eat and throughout the animal kingdom colour is widely used to signal sexual availability.
On a wider level, the colours of our environment affect ouur behaviour and mood. When yellow daffodils, bluebells and colourful crocuses appear, we immediately begin to feel livelier; when grey skies and rain or snow surround us we instinctively draw in and tend to hibernate.
In today_s sophisticated world it is ea

asy to underestimate the power of primitive instincts, as they are largely unconscious. Today we might be contemplating a packet of corn flakes or a new cold cure, rather than a primitive meal or a curative herb, but exactly the same instincts come powerfully into play. The colours of the interior environment wherein we live or work affects us in just the same way as those in the natural world always did. The colours that people wear still send out clear signals that we can all read accurately.
Science has always recognised the link between colour and mood/behaviour and there is a large body of scientific research into it. However, no one has written a monograph on the subject for over thhirty years and one reason for this might be that results are so often inconclusive. It is not normally part of a psychologist_s remit to study the finer points of colour harmony so colours are defined as, for example, “blue and orange” or “red and green” without much consideration of the subtleties of shade and tone. Angela Wright studied both unconscious thought processes and the dynamics of colour harmony in her exploration of colour psychology.
Everyone agrees that response to colour is
s subjective and assumes that it must therefore be unpredictable.
Not so.
Response is subjective but, when the study of colour harmony is combined with the science of psychology, reactions can be predicted with startling accuracy. There is no such thing as a universally attractive colour. Red, for example, might be your favourite colour but another person might hate it. You see it as exciting, friendly and stimulating, he sees it as aggressive and demanding. Blue might be perceived as calm and soothing – or as cold and unfriendly. It is the combination of colours that triggers the response.
The key factor that Angela Wright recognised in studying colour psychology was that, equally, there are no wrong colours; we do not respond to just one colour, but to colours in combination. You could have a grey sky on a summer day, but our reaction to that grey with the vivid colours of the summer landscape would be different from the combination of a grey sky with snow white. Even the winter landscape contains many colours.
In many ways, colour and music work the same way. As jazz pianist Thelonius Monk observed: “There are no wrong notes”.
It is important to understand that there is a gr
reat difference between colour psychology and colour symbolism. Historically, what is often described as colour psychology is actually colour symbolism – the conscious associations that we are conditioned to make. For example, cultural responses to colour derive from a variety of causes: green is the sacred colour throughout Islam, being the colour of the Prophet_s robe; in England it is considered unlucky, probably because of its association with decay and disease; in Ireland it is considered lucky, perhaps because when the world about us contains plenty of green this indicates the presence of water and therefore little danger of famine. There are many examples of colour symbolism: purple is associated with royalty for the simple reason that, until relatively recently, it was an extremely expensive dye and only royalty could afford it; red is the colour of blood and has associations with war.
These associations often coincide with colour psychology (red actually can trigger aggression) but they are by no means the same thing.
How does colour psychology work? Colour is light, travelling to us in waves from the sun, on the same electro-magnetic spectrum as radio and television waves, microwaves, x-rays etc. Light is the only part of the spectrum that we
e can see, which perhaps explains why we take it less seriously than the invisible power of the other rays. Sir Isaac Newton demonstrated that light travels in waves, when he shone white light through a triangular prism and the different wavelengths refracted at different angles, enabling him to see the colours of the rainbow (the spectrum).
When light strikes any coloured object, the object will absorb only the wavelengths that exactly match its own atomic structure and reflect the rest – which is what we see. Turn this around and it is easy to understand how the colour of anything is a clear indication of its atomic structure or, in simple terms, what it is made of. When light strikes the human eye, the wavelengths do so in different ways, influencing our perceptions. In the retina, they are converted into electrical impulses that pass to the hypothalamus, the part of the brain governing our hormones and our endocrine system. Although we are unaware of it, our eyes and our bodies are constantly adapting to these wavelengths of light.
Colour is energy and the fact that it has a physical effect on us has been proved time and again in experiments – most notably when blind people were asked to identify colours with their fingertips and were all able to do so easily.
There are only eleven basic colour words in the English language, and yet there are literally millions of colours. Computers will give us sixteen million and the human eye can distinguish more than any machine. After the basic eleven, we borrow words, such as avocado (is that the flesh, or the skin?) and grape (is that deep purple or green?) to describe the myriad of shades, tones and tints. This inevitably creates confusion in colour communication. People often ask, “Do we all see colours the same?” Who knows? The point is that in colour psychology it does not seem to matter what we think we are looking at; the effect of colours on us is caused by their energy entering our bodies. Colour-blind people are also sensitive to colour psychology.
The eleven basic colours have fundamental psychological properties that are universal, regardless of which particular shade, tone or tint of it you are using. Each of them has potentially positive or negative psychological effects and which of these effects is created depends on the relationships within colour combinations. Click here for further clarification of this important point.
There are four psychological primary colours – red, blue, yellow and green. They relate respectively to the body, the mind, the emotions and the essential balance between these three. The psychological properties of the eleven basic colours are as follows:
RED. Physical Positive: Physical courage, strength, warmth, energy, basic survival, _fight or flight stimulation, masculinity, excitement. Negative: Defiance, aggression, visual impact, strain.
Being the longest wavelength, red is a powerful colour. Although not technically the most visible, it has the property of appearing to be nearer than it is and therefore it grabs our attention first. Hence its effectiveness in traffic lights the world over. Its effect is physical; it stimulates us and raises the pulse rate, giving the impression that time is passing faster than it is. It relates to the masculine principle and can activate the “fight or flight” instinct. Red is strong, and very basic. Pure red is the simplest colour, with no subtlety. It is stimulating and lively, very friendly. At the same time, it can be perceived as demanding and aggressive.
BLUE. Intellectual. Positive: Intelligence, communication, trust, efficiency, serenity, duty, logic, coolness, reflection, calm. Negative: Coldness, aloofness, lack of emotion, unfriendliness.
Blue is the colour of the mind and is essentially soothing; it affects us mentally, rather than the physical reaction we have to red. Strong blues will stimulate clear thought and lighter, soft blues will calm the mind and aid concentration. Consequently it is serene and mentally calming. It is the colour of clear communication. Blue objects do not appear to be as close to us as red ones. Time and again in research, blue is the world_s favourite colour. However, it can be perceived as cold, unemotional and unfriendly.
YELLOW. EmotionalPositive: Optimism, confidence, self-esteem, extraversion, emotional strength, friendliness, creativity.Negative: Irrationality, fear, emotional fragility, depression, anxiety, suicide.
The yellow wavelength is relatively long and essentially stimulating. In this case the stimulus is emotional, therefore yellow is the strongest colour, psychologically. The right yellow will lift our spirits and our self-esteem; it is the colour of confidence and optimism. Too much of it, or the wrong tone in relation to the other tones in a colour scheme, can cause self-esteem to plummet, giving rise to fear and anxiety. Our “yellow streak” can surface.
GREEN. BalancePositive: Harmony, balance, refreshment, universal love, rest, restoration, reassurance, environmental awareness, equilibrium, peace.Negative: Boredom, stagnation, blandness, enervation.. Green strikes the eye in such a way as to require no adjustment whatever and is, therefore, restful. Being in the centre of the spectrum, it is the colour of balance – a more important concept than many people realise. When the world about us contains plenty of green, this indicates the presence of water, and little danger of famine, so we are reassured by green, on a primitive level. Negatively, it can indicate stagnation and, incorrectly used, will be perceived as being too bland.
VIOLET. Spiritual Positive: Spiritual awareness, containment, vision, luxury, authenticity, truth, quality. Negative: Introversion, decadence, suppression, inferiority.
The shortest wavelength is violet, often described as purple. It takes awareness to a higher level of thought, even into the realms of spiritual values. It is highly introvertive and encourages deep contemplation, or meditation. It has associations with royalty and usually communicates the finest possible quality. Being the last visible wavelength before the ultra-violet ray, it has associations with time and space and the cosmos. Excessive use of purple can bring about too much introspection and the wrong tone of it communicates something cheap and nasty, faster than any other colour.
ORANGE.
Positive: Physical comfort, food, warmth, security, sensuality, passion, abundance, fun.
Negative: Deprivation, frustration, frivolity, immaturity.
Since it is a combination of red and yellow, orange is stimulating and reaction to it is a combination of the physical and the emotional. It focuses our minds on issues of physical comfort – food, warmth, shelter etc. – and sensuality. It is a _fun_ colour. Negatively, it might focus on the exact opposite – deprivation. This is particularly likely when warm orange is used with black. Equally, too much orange suggests frivolity and a lack of serious intellectual values.
PINK.
Positive: Physical tranquillity, nurture, warmth, femininity, love, sexuality, survival of the species. Negative: Inhibition, emotional claustrophobia, emasculation, physical weakness.
Being a tint of red, pink also affects us physically, but it soothes, rather than stimulates. (Interestingly, red is the only colour that has an entirely separate name for its tints. Tints of blue, green, yellow, etc. are simply called light blue, light green.etc.) Pink is a powerful colour, psychologically. It represents the feminine principle, and survival of the species; it is nurturing and physically soothing. Too much pink is physically draining and can be somewhat emasculating.
GREY.
Positive: Psychological neutrality. Negative: Lack of confidence, dampness, depression, hibernation, lack of energy.
Pure grey is the only colour that has no direct psychological properties. It is, however, quite suppressive. A virtual absence of colour is depressing and when the world turns grey we are instinctively conditioned to draw in and prepare for hibernation. Unless the precise tone is right, grey has a dampening effect on other colours used with it. Heavy use of grey usually indicates a lack of confidence and fear of exposure.
BLACK.
Positive: Sophistication, glamour, security, emotional safety, efficiency, substance. Negative: Oppression, coldness, menace, heaviness.
Black is all colours, totally absorbed. The psychological implications of that are considerable. It creates protective barriers, as it absorbs all the energy coming towards you, and it enshrouds the personality. Positively, it communicates absolute clarity, with no fine nuances. It works particularly well with white. It communicates sophistication and uncompromising excellence. It creates a perception of weight and seriousness (it is a myth that black clothes are slimming). Black is essentially an absence of light, since no wavelengths are reflected and it can, therefore be menacing; many people are afraid of the dark.
WHITE.
Positive: Hygiene, sterility, clarity, purity, cleanness, simplicity, sophistication, efficiency.
Negative: Sterility, coldness, barriers, unfriendliness, elitism.
Just as black is total absorption, so white is total reflection. In effect, it reflects the full force of the spectrum into our eyes. Thus it also creates barriers, but differently from black, and it is often a strain to look at. It communicates, “Touch me not!” White is purity and, like black, uncompromising; it is clean, hygienic, and sterile. The concept of sterility can also be negative. Visually, white gives a heightened perception of space. The negative effect of white on warm colours is to make them look and feel garish.
BROWN.
Positive: Seriousness, warmth, Nature, earthiness, reliability, support. Negative: Lack of humour, heaviness, lack of sophistication.
Brown usually consists of red and yellow, with a large percentage of black. Consequently, it has much of the same seriousness as black, but is warmer and softer. It has elements of the red and yellow properties. Brown has associations with the earth and the natural world. It is a solid, reliable colour and most people find it quietly supportive – more positively than the ever-popular black, which is suppressive, rather than supportive.
The key to successfully applied colour psychology is the recognition of tonal families of colour and how they relate to personality types. All the millions of shades, tones and tints can be classified into just four tonal families and great minds throughout history have also repeatedly classified humanity into four types, from Galen in early Rome (predominant bodily fluids defining a person as Choleric, Melancholic, Sanguine or Phlegmatic) to Jung in the twentieth century (determining function being predominantly Thought, Feeling, Intuition or Sensation).
There are just four personality types and each has its own distinctive characteristics and typical responses to a variety of situations. Each individual personality will be best supported and expressed with a specific palette of colours. Working in California, USA, in the early 1980s, Angela Wright realised the links between patterns of colour and patterns of human behaviour, when she put the four personality types together with the four colour families that Johannes Itten (an artist at the Bauhaus, earlier in the twentieth century) had noticed. This began to explain why individuals have such different responses to the same colour.
People say it is impossible to classify all the millions of people in the world into just four types. Yet the grand designer only divided humanity into two. The basic patterns are absolute, just as the basic male/female patterns, but equally, there are probably as many variations as there are people. Each of us contains elements of one or more of the other three, but understanding the archetype is the key to understanding ourselves and others.
These classifications indicate where humanity fits into the natural world. Human colour patterns are a reflection of nature_s patterns, and the constant play of light shows us wonderful colours and harmonies that change consistently. We rely on the colour signals in our environment to orient ourselves, so for example, in many parts of the world, when the leaves change colour and go through golds, reds, purples and browns before they fall off the trees, we know that the natural cycle is drawing to a close. We prepare for nature to shut down and hibernate, as regeneration begins under the earth. We ourselves instinctively draw in. As long as this happens in October and November, we are quite comfortable; but can you imagine how deeply disturbed we would be if it happened in June? We depend on the natural order more than we realise.
These patterns are fundamental to nature and are demonstrated in a variety of ways: for example, the play of light in any one day gives us four distinct moods – at sunrise, noon, sunset and night. The most spectacular and readily identifiable manifestation is in the four seasons of the year, in many parts of the world. Although this does not occur in the same way everywhere, the yearly cycle is recognisable everywhere and we react in similar ways.
It is important to understand that all four personality types can be found all over the world; however, Group 3 predominates, worldwide, in the indigenous populations of Australia, New Zealand, the Americas and Africa – as well as most of Europe. Group 4 personalities predominate in the Orient and parts of the Middle East. Group 1 people are particularly to be found in Scandinavia, but they are everywhere. Group 2 personalities are rare, but they can be found everywhere – oddly, they predominate in Norway. (It is interesting that, at the time of writing, Norway has been making tremendous diplomatic efforts for some years to bring peace to the Middle East).
The archetypal Group 1 personality reflects the patterns of springtime.
If you go out and look at nature in spring, it has a very specific colour scheme and an unmistakable personality. Everything is coming back to life after the long dark winter months and it is very lively. Birds make a lot of noise and the whole animal kingdom is busy; bright warm colours burst forth and spirits lift. The melting snow and ice fill the earth with water and create a sparkling awareness of the fresh and the new.
The personality that reflects all this is externally motivated and eternally young. They can be blonde, brunette or redhead, but they will never be very dark or heavy – even when they put on too much weight, they are light on their feet, love to dance and have an indefinable quality of lightness to their being. Their features tend to be rounded and delicate. They need plenty of light in their lives and are particularly prone to SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder). They have great charm and the kind of career that this type should ideally pursue will be working with many people – nursing, caring, communications and media, sales, entertainment (particularly musical comedy). They have a natural affinity with the young and they love the outdoors, so they make wonderful PE and sports teachers. They are often very clever, but not interested in heavy, deep academic debate. They like to get on with things; they have a strong practical streak and inexhaustible energy. They do not respond well, for example, to the beauty of linen, as it never looks properly ironed (unless their subordinate influence is autumnal). They like, and suit, crisp fresh fabrics and small patterns, such as polka dots.
The challenge for this type is single-mindedness; they have the gift of attending to many things simultaneously, but might be accused of being superficial and frivolous. Their emotions can be very fragile.
Examples of famous people who appear to reflect this pattern are: Tony Blair, the late Princess Diana and Bill Clinton.
The colours that reflect and express these characteristics are warm and clear; they can be bright, but not necessarily. Just as everyone does, the spring personality needs ease as well as stimulus, so their ideal palette of colours will include soft peach, cream or turquoise, alongside the brighter scarlets, cobalt or sky blues, warm emerald greens and pure yellows that express their varying moods. Neutral colours to support them are light camel, French navy and light warm greys.
The archetypal Group 2 personality is linked to the natural patterns of the summertime in many parts of the world.
As the year progresses and the earth begins to dry out, a softening process sets in. The vivid green leaves tone down to a cooler, darker green that perfectly enhances the soft colours of roses, sweet peas and wisteria. Our instinct is to break off and relax after so much energy has been expended. When the sun beats down, the colours are bleached out; the concept of coolness becomes very attractive and the colours of summer flowers echo that feeling. Imagine a quiet summer afternoon sitting under a tree, contemplating the peaceful countryside and the heat haze in the distance.
The archetypal Group 2 personality is cool, calm and collected. This person is internally motivated, but equally very sensitive to what others are feeling. Their features are gently curved and their eyes have a misty quality to them – they are most often blue, with no flecks or lacy patterns in them, but they can be grey, cool green or brown. Group 2 eyes do not dance, as Group 1 eyes so often do – they are still and serene. Their hair is unlikely to be predominantly red, although there could be warm lights in it; it will probably be cool brown or blond. Summer related people abhor vulgarity and their humour is subtle and often dry; they can be very witty. Ideal careers for this type are any that involve creating order out of chaos, and keeping the peace – diplomats, administrators, human resources – and, since they have an acute sense of touch, particularly in their fingertips, they are often gifted artists or musicians. Their gentle nature and keen analytical skills also make them good general practitioners (medical). They need order. They are very uncomfortable with poor-quality fabrics and love pure silk jersey (with its slight sheen and the flowing lines it creates), chiffon and cashmere.
The challenge for the summer personality is in appearing aloof and unfriendly – and the need to resist the efforts of their livelier friends to jazz them up!
The Group 2 personality does not seek the limelight, but some famous people who appear to demonstrate these characteristics are HM The Queen and Prince Charles (who had it thrust upon them), the late Princess Grace of Monaco and Nelson Mandela.
The colours of the Group 2 palette are cool and subtle; they can be dark, but never heavy. Some typical Group 2 colours are maroon, raspberry, oyster, rose pink, grapefruit, powder blue, lavender, viridian and sage green. Good neutrals to support them are mushroom, taupe, dove grey and cool navy.
Archetypal Group 3 personalities are linked to the autumnal pattern.
Go back again to the countryside and see how things have changed since the first warmth of spring. The temperature might be the same, but nature_s mood is quite different and so is her apparel. The bright, perky spring flowers, in warm blue, lilac, orange, and yellow, have been replaced by rich golds, fiery reds, purples, burnt orange and brown – and not in flowers, but in the leaves. Autumn is abundant, as we harvest all the fruits of the year_s cycle; it is mature and ripe, with great drama in the landscape.
The Group 3 personality is, like Group 1, externally motivated. However, there are great differences – autumnal people are intense and strong. They are all fiery, to a greater or lesser degree (depending on their subordinate influences); if they have a strong summer influence, this might not be apparent, but it is there; they can also be flamboyant. They could be blond, brunette or redhead and their eyes could be blue, brown or green and almost invariably have flecks of gold or tan in them. However, the Group 3 eyes are more often brown or green; hazel eyes do not occur in any other type. The textures that appeal to the Group 3 personality are those where the interest is inherent, rather than printed on a smooth finish – raw silk, linen, and tweed. Group 3 personalities have a strong sense of justice and are constantly fascinated with academic questions and how things work. They are very aware of environmental issues. Good careers for them are anything requiring detection and digging beneath the surface – police officers, psychiatrists and archaeologists and lawyers. They are attracted to the armed forces. They are often good writers, particularly in investigative journalism. Physical comfort and solid substance are important to them and they abhor anything flimsy, whether ideas or physical objects (such as furniture).
The challenge for Group 3 personalities is to keep their wish to save the world in proportion. They might be perceived as bossy and tedious.
Famous personalities who appear to be linked to Group 3 abound: they include Sir David Frost, Germaine Greer and Bob Geldof.
The autumnal palette is offbeat – there are no pure primary colours. Examples are vermilion, tomato, burnt orange, olive green, moss green, golden yellow, terracotta, petrel blue, and aubergine. Good neutrals to support these colours are most shades of brown.
Archetypal Group 4 personalities are an expression of the natural pattern of winter.
The winter landscape is hushed and when snow falls heavily, it is virtually achromatic – everything disappears under a blanket of pure white. But under the surface there is powerful energy as the regeneration process develops. Without leaves on the trees, outlines are stark and minimal, with strong contrasts. Imagine a snowy field, where you see an expanse of white and the apparently black shape of a leafless tree, its bare branches etched against an icy blue, or cold grey, sky. We treat the winter with respect, and when a storm breaks out, we run for cover. We view dramatic snow-covered mountain peaks or a majestic icy terrain with awe.
Similarly, Group 4 personalities automatically command respect. Physically, their features are usually well defined and their eyes compelling, whether they are blond or brunette; redheads rarely occur in this type. They are internally motivated and have a gift for seeing the broader picture and for delegation. They set their sights on the objective and they are not easily diverted. They are often very efficient, and precise in everything they do. They can_t stand clutter, or cluttered minds and they do not suffer fools. Their response to foolishness will often be sarcastic and, unlike Group 3 – who will stop and explain, fifty ways if necessary – they will simply move on. In difficult times they are very stoical. They do care, but they are unsentimental and do not get bogged down with emotional issues. They are self-assured and ideal careers for them are usually at the top – they are very effective in government and finance. They also shine in the theatre and films, as well as PR, and in fashion (they do not follow fashion – they are usually arbiters of it), they are perfectly suited to the catwalk. If they choose to pursue a medical career, they will be wonderful surgeons. If they decide to pursue a legal career, they make brilliant barristers. The textures that echo this pattern are shiny – glass and chrome in interiors, pure silk and satin for themselves. They never need to create a drama, as they are innately dramatic – but it is the drama of a frozen snowflake, or a flawless diamond on a black velvet cushion.
The challenge for Group 4 personalities is to pay attention to other people_s feelings. They can be perceived as elitist, cold and uncaring.
Famous personalities who appear to embody the winter pattern are Sean Connery, Gordon Brown, Margaret Thatcher and Diana Ross.
The colours of winter in the natural world are few – and a winter personality instinctively recognises this. They often favour simply wearing black all winter and white all summer. They are the only type who look good, and are supported by, unrelieved black or white. Other colours in the tonal family are crimson, lemon yellow, Persian orange, jade green, cold emerald, magenta, royal purple, midnight blue and flag blue. These colours work particularly well in strong contrasts and the best neutrals for this palette are black, white and clerical grey.
When Angela Wright made the connection between these two, she was able to create, for the first time, a colour psychology system that works. It enables response to be accurately predicted; it enables creation of colour combinations that will be universally attractive. She has developed it for use in a variety of applications.
Colour Affects presents a radically different approach to the psychology of colour: a clear, logical system developed in the early 1980s by colour psychologist Angela Wright. In commercial design it applies to interiors, product design, web design, uniforms, packaging and branding.
The system has sixteen years of successful application behind it and major corporations attest to its effectiveness, most notably in sales of their products and reduction of expensive design time. Individuals claim that it has “changed their lives.”
The concept that colour affects mood and influences behaviour has long been recognised, but little understood. It is a common misconception that colour psychology is purely subjective, with no objective criteria for predicting response, possibly because everyone responds instinctively and each of us has our own favourite colour. In commercial design, no matter how much time, money and effort are invested in the finest expertise and technology, when it comes to colour the decisions are largely made on the basis of rank. Although some people are generally deemed to have a “good eye”, if the Chief Executive does not like green it would take a brave subordinate to take issue on such an apparently subjective matter, and insist upon using it. Without any objective rationale, it is difficult to challenge this.
Another misconception is that, because colour is physically processed through the eyes, it is a purely visual phenomenon. However, colour is light and light is the source of life. As Faber Birren, the eminent American colourist, observed in 1950:
“Its role in all forms of life is too evident to be either denied or ignored.”
Colour is light, and spectral hues are its components, as Sir Isaac Newton demonstrated when he shone white light through a triangular prism and the different wavelengths refracted at different angles, enabling us to see them separately. Scientifically, colour is the principal cue to composition – i.e. the first thing we register when assessing anything -and a powerful communication tool; therefore it is arguably the most critical element of design. Throughout millions of years of evolution, innately understanding the language of colour has helped humanity to survive – to recognise poisonous foods, threatening predators and danger signals of all kinds. In modern times this primitive instinct is often quite unconscious, but this does not diminish its power. When light strikes the eye, the different wavelengths do so in different ways; the eye constantly adjusts and long wave colours require the most adjustment. In the retina, they are converted to electrical impulses that pass to the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that governs our hormones and endocrine system. Thus colour sets up complex physiological reactions, which in turn evoke a psychological response. Every living creature on earth responds to the messages implicit in the play of light and colour. In Europe, when the world about us turns grey we recognise the onset of winter and instinctively draw in; large amounts of green in any landscape indicate plenty of water and therefore little danger of famine, so we are reassured; we recognise that a creature coloured black and yellow is unlikely to be friendly.
It is important to recognise that colour symbolism, deriving as it does from our conscious associations, is a conditioned response – an entirely different process from colour psychology, which is what happens on an unconscious level. It is essential to take account of cultural conditioning, and often the two coincide – but if they do not, the unconscious response will prevail.
Although the science of psychology is relatively young – little more than one hundred years old – the study of colour is as old as time. In the twentieth century great strides have been made in our understanding of human behaviour, and latterly the links with patterns of colour have become clear, largely through the work of Angela Wright when developing the Colour Affects System for the application of colour psychology. Until this breakthrough, the importance of specific tones was not recognised. It is not usually part of a psychologist_s remit to study the finer points of colour, and since there are only eleven basic colour terms in the English language, (the most of any language) but millions of variations, one vital element was overlooked. It is not enough to refer to _blue_ or _red_; these terms are relatively meaningless in the context of close study. The precise variation of each colour and the harmonic relationships are of paramount importance. Why, for example, do two versions of the same spectral hue – say, royal blue and powder blue – have such different effects? Why do people respond differently to the same colour? Crucially for the design industry, are there colours that have universal appeal? Ms Wright_s work went a long way towards answering these questions and form the basis of the system. (The answer to the last question is no – but there are universally attractive colour combinations).
It is now a scientific reality that response to colour can be objectively anticipated.
The Colour Affects system works on two levels – the psychological properties of each of the basic hues – red, blue, etc. – and the difference that tonal variations, and combinations of specific shades, tones and tints will make in achieving visual harmony and the desired psychological effect.
Science recognises four psychological primary colours, based on the way that colour is processed in the eye and the brain – red, blue, yellow and green. These four colours relate respectively to the physical, the mental, the emotional and the essential balance between these three. Beyond that, each of the seven spectral hues has distinct psychological properties of its own. These simple principles have long been accepted. However, more recent work demonstrates that colour perception and colour preference are not a matter of response to one colour in isolation, but to all the colours presented.
The essence of successful use of colour derives, not from the choice of any particular hue, but from tonal relationships, and that is universal. No matter how attractive a particular colour may be (the world_s favourite colour, time and time again in research, is blue), if the tone of it relates inaccurately either to the other tones present or to the basic message one is trying to convey, its negative perceptions will emerge, so it must be adjusted. There is no such thing as a good colour or a bad colour – red, for example, can be perceived as stimulating and exciting, or as stressful and demanding – there are only appropriate and inappropriate colour schemes. Disharmony negates. Colour works in a similar way to music and, as jazz pianist Thelonius Monk said, “There are no wrong notes”.
One of the most important needs for humanity is balance. One example of the natural restoration of balance occurs in the phenomenon of after images, when the eye is focused for thirty seconds or so on a particular colour, and then closed or redirected, the image will continue in the eye for a few moments in the complementary colour. The practical value of this is demonstrated in the traditional use of green in operating theatres – when the surgical team look up from the inevitable focus on blood red, their eyes will immediately be rested by the green. The most effective colour schemes are those that contain a balance of wavelengths.
Aristotle, in linking colours to the four elements – earth, air, fire and water – also observed the primary importance of blue and yellow. These two colours represent polarity, the sky and the sun, night and day, introvert and extrovert, cool and warm, contraction and expansion. Newton_s discovery of the spectrum appeared to replace Aristotle_s theory, which had formed the

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