Color Theory Part 2: Color Psychology

This is part 2 of the series on color theory.  In this article, I will discuss color psychology.  Color psychology is the study of how colors affect human behavior.  Color can influence many aspects of someone’s life, even without them realizing it.  Color can affect mood, appetite, and even how food tastes.  Corporations use color psychology when deciding on the colors they will use in their branding as well as their products.  Even the colors of medications are chosen specifically because of how they are perceived by consumers.

Color Temperature: Warm vs Cool Colors

Warm and Cool Colors

Warm and Cool Colors

Colors are said to have a temperature, to be “warm” or “cool”.  This is a subjective definition, and is based on definitions that were set in the 18th century.  Warm colors are red, orange, and yellow, and also include brown and beige. These colors bring to mind fire, heat, and summer. Cool colors are green, blue, and purple, as well as neutral grays. These colors, especially the blues, bring to mind winter, cold, snow, and ice.  Purple can actually be a warm or a cool color, depending on how much red or blue is present.  Purple on the blue end of the spectrum is violet.  Purple on the red end is magenta.

These definitions are based in color psychology, rather than the real temperature of colors. It can be used to set a mood in your paintings. In reality, the color of radiating objects, such as stars or molten metal, are the opposite of this.  The hottest stars will have a “cool” color, usually a bright blue, while less hot stars are red, orange, and yellow.  Interior lighting, such as light bulbs, are measured with temperatures on a scale similar to this one.

Warm and Cool Grays

Warm and Cool Grays

Neutral colors, such as gray, can also be warm or cool.  Warm grays are created by mixing a warm color, usually yellow, with gray.  Cool grays are created by mixing a cool color, usually blue, with gray.

Color Meanings

Colors also carry a traditional meaning, and can affect psychology. It should be noted that the way colors make people feel can vary by person and culture, and these are broad generalizations.  Also, some colors carry a historical connotation which can often be in contrast to their modern meanings.

Red RoseRed is an assertive and powerful color, and is associated with strong emotions such as love and anger. It is often associated with passion, romance, and danger. It is the color of blood and fire. It is a highly visible color that grabs your attention quickly. It has a stimulating effect on the appetite, so it is often used in food packaging and restaurant logos. It is perfect as an accent color, but should be used sparingly in decor, since it is so powerful. The color red has different meanings in other cultures.  In Asia, red represents good luck and is the color of marriage.  Red is also the color traditionally used to represent communism. In finance, red is associated with loss of revenue.  Red is also associated with embarrassment, as one’s face will turn red or blush.

Orange FruitOrange is a balance between the fiery energy of red and the cheery optimism of yellow.  It is associated with happiness, warmth, creativity, and enthusiasm.  It is often associated with food, especially fruits and vegetables.  Vegetables that are orange in color are very high in carotenoids like Vitamin A, and are very healthy.  Orange is a very visible color, and is used a lot for road signs.  Orange is associated with fall, especially Halloween.

Yellow SunflowersYellow is a happy and optimistic color, and can bring energy to the room. It is the color of the sun, of cheery spring flowers. It is a highly visual color, which is why it is used for school buses, street signs, and taxi cabs.  Unfortunately it also has some negative connotations. It has been used to describe cowardice (someone who is “yellow-bellied” is said to be a coward). Yellow is also the sign of caution and illness.  Yellow is another color that is great as an accent color, but should be used sparingly.

Green PlantsGreen is the color of growth and spring, and evokes a sense of freshness and healing energy.  The color green is relaxing to most people, probably because of the association with nature. Because green represents renewal and life, it is often used as a symbol for recycling and clean energy. It also has negative associations, as it is the color of jealousy and money.

Blue Ocean and SkyBlue colors are said to be peaceful and calming, like a clear blue sky on a sunny day. It brings to mind wide open spaces, such as the sea.  It has a very positive effect on the mind, and as such, it is a popular interior color. Blue has many symbolic meanings, and they are all positive.  It is associated with loyalty, trust, intelligence, and faith. Blue has a calming effect.  In design, blue is used to represent cleanliness, air, and water. Blue suppresses the appetite, so it is recommended not to use this color in dining areas.

Purple FlowersPurple is the color of royalty, and can create a feeling of luxury.  It also represents wisdom and passion, and is often associated with magic.  Since it is very rare in nature, it carries a sacred meaning and is associated with spirituality.  Purple is a balance of the tranquility of blue and the energy of red.

Gray and Brown MountainsTraditionally neutral colors can also convey emotions. Brown is an earthy color, and can be warm or cool toned.  It is a relaxing neutral color that represents trust and reliability. Black is a color with many meanings, depending on context.  It can add sophistication to home and office decor.  It is also the color associated with evil and death. White typically represents purity and cleanliness, but it can also feel sterile and cold. Gray is a neutral color which conveys stability and security.

Other Articles in the Series on Color Theory

Further Reading