Applied Psychology

The Psychology of Colour

Jul 19, 2022 | By Saranne Durham
The Psychology of Colour - SACAP
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Mobile Curve

Colour is what gives our world extra vibrance. The presence and absence of it in something, provides us with a bounty of information. Thus, if a picture can convey a hundred words, then colour adds a hundred more to describe what’s been captured.

Colour plays an important role in our lives. To the extent that it can change how we feel. It can irritate us or sooth us or even sway our decisions. Colour can direct us towards liking or being unsupportive of something. It is all around us and matters because we interact with it regardless of if we want or choose to.

“Colour has meaning and influence on our lives.”

The Science of Colour

Colour theory is the collection of guidelines and rules which outline how they are used to communicate. Those who use this theory, such as designers, use colour wheels to assist them. Sir Isaac Newton created the original wheel in 1666. Later in the mid-1900s, theorist Johannes Itten reintroduced the modern wheel. His work is said to be the inspiration behind seasonal colour analysis.

What is it?

Colour is caused by light being reflected or absorbed by an object. One side of the spectrum is white and the other black. This means that white objects reflect all colours equally and black objects absorb all light. Such that no colour is emitted. Colours travel in waves and are measured in wavelengths. Each one has a different wavelength. Longer wavelengths appear red, while shorter wavelengths appear as shades of blue and violet. Thus, how our visual system responds to various light waves impacts our perception of colour. Which means that each one of us sees its shades and hues differently.

Different Combinations and Shades

One of the best (and most fun) ways of learning about colours, their combinations and shades is to play with paint. When playing with paint, we can make different ones by varying combinations and quantities of primary colours.

There are three primary colours: Red, Blue and Yellow. They are also known as the original colours. As such, they cannot be created. From these three, secondary and tertiary colours can be mixed. The three secondary colours are: Green, Orange and Purple. By using different quantities of these five, tertiary colours are produced. These are Chartreuse, Amber, Vermillion, Magenta, Violet and Teal.

Unlike secondary and tertiary colours, primary colours cannot be created.”

The Colour Wheel

A colour wheel visually represents the relationships between colours. It can assist us in identifying what new colour results when we mix others together. Or how to create different shades (hues) of a specific colour. Half of the wheel has warm-dominant colours and the other, half cool-dominant colours. Contrasting colours are also known as complimentary. There are three complementary combinations; red and green, yellow and purple, orange and blue. On a basic wheel, they sit exactly opposite each other. You can create different tints and shades by mixing contrasting colours.

How many are there?

Researchers say that there are at least 1000 different shades of light. Within each shade we can detect hundreds of different levels of shades. For example, we can see 100 levels of red-greens and 100 levels of yellow-blues. All in all, this works out to about 10 million different possible combinations the human eye can detect.

What is Colour Blindness?

Our eyes work differently. Therefore, what colours we can see and how we perceive them varies between people. Some people are colour-blind. This makes them unable to see specific colours. Usually, they have difficulty seeing one or more of the three primary colours. This means that they also battle to see different shades. While there is no cure, there are special glasses and contact lenses that can assist.

Symbolism and Meaning

For many people and within different cultures, colours have symbolic meanings. Sometimes these meanings are opposite. As a result, the same one can convey different things to different people. For example, white flowers symbolise death and mourning for Chinese. But within Zulu white beads have no negative meaning. Instead, they symbolise true love and faithfulness.

7 Colours of a Rainbow (ROYGBIV)

  1. Red often symbolises strength and is used as a warning of danger. In literature it commonly conveys deep love, energy and wisdom. Or could represent evil and the devil.
  2. Orange is associated with perseverance and endurance. Varying shades can describe different emotions. Dark orange for ambition and golden-orange to portray self-control. Whereas burnt orange could represent aggression or tension.
  3. Yellow signifies cheerfulness, energy and awareness. Although too much yellow might be interpreted as criticism and judgement.
  4. Green can symbolise growth and life. Thus, recycling symbols are often green. It can also show wealth as well as convey envy.
  5. Blue is associated withtranquillity and knowledge. It’s also used to denote stability and promote relaxation. In politics blue has been used to convey that someone is trustworthy and approachable.
  6. Indigo signifies intuition, wisdom and spirituality. Although, a lot of Indigo is associated with frustration and angst, as well as avoidance and intolerance. 
  7. Violet indicates spirituality and royalty or luxury. Being surrounded by violet has been reported to help people feel more empathetic and kinder.

How does Colour Affect Us?

They can impact our emotions. Thus, boost us to feel excited, energetic and even depressed or irritated. Colours which evoke an emotional response are known as colour emotions. This is the underlying reason why companies use them in their artwork and packaging. It’s to impact our buying choices.

Emotion Studies

In a colour study researchers assessed colours on an emotion scale. 20 variations were assessed using a 10-colour single-emotion scale. On the emotional scale were warm-cool, heavy-light, modern-classical, clean-dirty, active-passive, hard-soft, tense-relaxed, fresh-stale, masculine-feminine and like-dislike. Three impacting factors were identified: weight, activity and heat. And emanating from this, four colour emotion models were developed. These models developed were warm-cool, heavy-light, hard-soft and active-passive.

Researchers found that culture, as well as the country people came from, had an impact on these four models. Chinese participants in the study tended towards liking colours that were defined as clean, modern and fresh. Such as blues, greys and white. British participants were inclined to associate active colours, such as red and yellow, with tension. Interestingly, gender did not play a role in associating emotions with particular colours.

Colour that Affect Emotions and Mood

While they can affect our emotions, they can also attract our attention. Therefore, also be used in visual signals. At a base level, our brains are wired to pay attention to different colours and make associations. Humans have used colour to find ripe foods and to avoid poisonous ones. Such as Holly and Pokeweed berries. Animals, on the other hand, use bright colours for reproduction as well as protection.

5 Possible Reactions to Colour

  1. Lifts our mood.
  2. Depresses us.
  3. Jolt us into action.
  4. Feel more creative.
  5. Prompt us to speak up.

They are also used very effectively in entertainment and cinematography. In the Disney Pixar animation, Inside Out, colours were used to convey the emotions characters represented.

Common Colour linked Emotions

  • Bright Yellow: Joy.
  • Warm Red: Anger.
  • Pale Purple: Fear.
  • Deep Blue: Sadness and Unhappiness.
  • Green: Jealousy, envy and disgust.
  • Grey: Hopeless.

Uses of Colour

It is fascinating in how they can impact us and what symbolism they have attributed to them. Many kids and adults enjoy playing with colours, mixing them to see what comes out. This process of playing is regarded as an important aspect within education curriculums. Particularly in early childhood development programmes. In our homes they used to create tranquil places. Companies have been known to use them as a way to try to stimulate productivity. And advertising uses them to try and entice us into buying something. While artists use different shades and hues to evoke an emotional response in us. Thereby, convey a message through their creations.

Colour Therapy

They are used successfully within therapy. For example, when clients have difficulty expressing emotions, colours can be used to convey what they’re feeling to their therapist. Additionally, they are used in chromotherapy. This type of therapy uses light and colour to treat particular mental and physical health conditions.

Do you have an interest in understanding more about how the human mind works? If so, consider enrolling in one of the Psychology courses at the South African College of Applied Psychology (SACAP). Courses are available on campuses or online. For more information, click here.

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