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Art and the Psychology of Color

As any student at an arts academy high school can tell you, working with the psychology of color is an artist’s superpower. 

Armed with numerous pigments, artists and designers can manipulate us, to some extent, to behave in certain ways or feel certain things. And this is nothing new. The study of color psychology has been around since the 15th century. 

It wasn’t until the 18th century though when Sir Isaac Newton stepped in and created the color wheel that would be the basis for color theory in the centuries to come.

Sir Isaac Newton – A Colorful Fellow

Scientists once held the view that colors were nothing more than a combination of light and dark. They would project sunlight onto a surface through a prism to see colors. Their belief, however, was that there were crystals in the prism that colored the white light into distinct hues.

This notion was abandoned in the mid-17th century.

In 1665, Sir Isaac Newton reacted light onto a surface from a greater distance. This confirmed that the prism didn’t have special crystals. What it was actually doing was separating the colors that make up white light. 

A year later, he devised a color wheel with the seven colors of the rainbow – red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet (ROY G. BIV). When the color wheel is spun, the human eye perceives it as white. 

Moving Past the Science to the Psychology of Color

Newton’s exploration of color stayed in the scientific realm. He wasn’t particularly interested in how colors affect us psychologically. But in 1810, the German poet Goethe was. Through his color studies, he postulated that there is a relationship between colors and moods. The specific moods he noted were lucid, melancholic, serious, serene, and powerful.

For example, most of us know about Picasso’s Blue Period when he was depressed and his art was consumed with various shades of blue. When things began looking up again, it was his Rose (or Red) Period and that became the dominating shade. Other artists and even cultures at large had long used color, whether knowingly or not, to evoke certain feelings. 

So it’s no big surprise that by the early 20th century, a new and burgeoning field known as color psychology emerged. Under the tutelage of Carl Jung and Faber Birren, it set out to understand the ways that the language of color impacted our behaviors, emotions, and thoughts. 

There was definitely a connection. 

What Do the Colors Mean?

Today, it’s not just artists who play with the psychology of color. 

Individuals, institutions, and businesses intentionally pick colors that elicit the feeling they want to be associated with their brand. And marketers purposefully choose specific colors for their packaging and advertising. 

It’s important to point out that there are not definitive emotions connected with colors. For example, blue doesn’t always mean sad. There are multiple factors that include the shade of the color as well as how it interacts with other colors.

But there are general emotions and feelings (sometimes in a range) connected with particular hues. To get a deeper understanding of what these are, we’ll take a deep dive into the colors of the rainbow, as well as black, brown, and white. 


Think of the color red. It’s the color of Valentine’s Day, cherry licorice, and Christmas. It grabs our attention and demands to be noticed. It’s a color of passion, love, and power. 

But it’s also the color of stop signs, emergency lights, and blood. So it can invoke anxiety or even anger. Consider Edvard Munch’s The Scream. The red sky evokes intensity and urgency that adds to the frightened screamer.

Pairing red with yellow or green softens it. But put it against black and it takes on a sinister tone again.


Orange is typically a warm and energetic color. Interior designers may choose a warm orange on a single wall to soften a space. It can invoke a feeling of enthusiasm, success, and celebration. 

But just as red has several faces, so too does orange. A very deep and intense shade of orange can remind of you of fire and leave you feeling a sense of caution or danger. Yet when contrasted with black, white, blue, and yellow, it goes back to providing warmth.


Yellow conjures up the notion of sunshine, happy faces, light, and sunflowers. It’s the brightest color on the spectrum and so it naturally lends itself to happiness. Painters often use yellow to invoke a sense of joy and warmth. Think of Van Gogh’s Starry Night, or Klimt’s The Kiss.  

Then again, too much yellow can stir up anxiety. Like when a criminal is bathed in hot bright yellow light while being interrogated. 

Yellow really travels the gamut of emotion.


In case you haven’t yet recognized the pattern here, we’re giving you a spoiler alert. Green has more than one meaning. (What!?)

It’s true. Nature is associated with green. So too is growth and renewal. When something is new, we call it green. Different shades of green can represent a sense of grounding and reassurance.

But if you go to your phone and look up the emoji that denotes feeling sick, it’s… green. Green is also associated with money (in the U.S., at least) so it can denote envy or greed. 

So just as is the case with the other colors, green can evoke some seemingly opposite reactions depending on the shades, hues, and context in which it’s being used. 


We mentioned above how blue is associated with sadness. After all, when you’re feeling down, you’re ‘blue.’ Yet, when you stare up at a clear blue sky, it usually brings a sense of calm or even hopefulness. Or looking out over a blue pond (think Monet’s Water Lillies) or an aqua blue lake brings serenity and tranquility.

Pair certain shades of blue with grey and green and you’re back to sadness and introspection. 


Purple is such a distinct mix of red and blue that it can’t help but to represent balance and harmony. 

Generally speaking, purple has positive connotations. It’s associated with luxury, spirituality, and royalty in Western cultures. It has a certain opulence. 

That said, it’s not completely devoid of the potential to bring up melancholy or depression. It all depends on the intent. 


Black is not specifically a color. In art, it is the presence of all colors. (Just to confuse you further, in light it is the absence of color.)  While you might think that black is purely representative of darkness, sadness, and death, it can also represent mystery, power, and sophistication – hence black-tie events. 

When paired with white, it provides a striking contrast to stress a point. It’s also effective in emphasizing depth.


White is the absence of color in art. (Again, it is the presence of all color in light – as demonstrated by the prism which breaks white light into all its separate components.) At any rate, white is the cleanliness of snow, the brightness of light, and the peacefulness of a dove. 

It is also the color used to express divinity. It defines the space of a painting and can enhance the brightness of other colors. Generally speaking, white does not have a ‘dark’ side. There are many shades of white, however. Within the different range of hues, there can be slight variations in the emotions they evoke. 


While it may not be your favorite color, brown is similar to white in that it generally evokes positive feelings. It’s the color of soil, earth, and rugged environments. It connotes grounding, comfort, and stability. (It’s also the color of chocolate. So do with that what you will.)

Brown is one of the most understated colors. Even so, it often serves as an anchor and can give viewers a sense of direction. At the end of the day, brown is friendly, natural, and unthreatening. It’s a good color to have around.

Are You Fascinated by the Color and Emotion Connection?

The notion of the psychology of color may be new to you. But if you have a creative or artistic child, there’s a good chance he/she/they inherently understand this idea. 

Why not give him/her/them a chance to further explore?

Contact us today to request a tour of our school. Our arts academy middle school and high school curricula teach academics through art to help creative students truly thrive. 


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