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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 g
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