How colour affects our perceptions of art
By Melissa Galley I 5 min read
Although never completely overlooked, often we don't realise just how much our perceptions of art, advertising or objects is influenced by colour.
'Colours' as we know them, are waves of varying frequency on the electromagnetic spectrum that are received by the 'cone' cells in our eyes and translated into images by our brains. However, our interpretation of colour and those of other animals is quite different. Depending on how their eye has developed, some animals see only in black and white, whilst others actually see thousands more colours than us!
Our perception of colour isn't just a scientific matter though; many centuries of use have changed the way we view colours and added many subconscious associations. Many artists have been aware of this, and intentionally use colour to represent certain emotions or associations and influence how the viewer responds to a piece. Depending on your age, gender and nationality, your view of colour is extremely subjective, and tied to many personal experiences.
So what does colour mean across the world, and what is the history behind these perceptions?
Shades of red are among the oldest colour used by humanity; most ancient cloth, ranging up to 4000 years old, was dyed red. It was the favoured colour of Paleolithic and Neolithic communities as well as the Greeks and Romans (along with black and white). It also has deep religious connotations, as the colour worn by Cardinals in the Catholic church and as a metaphor for the blood of Christ.
Across the globe red has carried with it a variety of connotations; in China it is the colour of joy and good luck, in Japan it's anger and danger. The range of meanings associated with each colour develops over many centuries, so that the same shade can often have contradictory significance depending on where you are in the world. Across many cultures however, red is known as the colour of desire and lust. This even extends to the way that different shades of red are described - e.g. this years Pantone red's are described as 'brave and outgoing... effusive in its allure' and 'deliciously deep red, whose luscious depth entices'.
Whatever its meaning, it is a universally popular colour and there's a strong chance that the flag of your country uses red - as of 1999 74% of the worlds flag incorporated the colour!
'Is the fruit named after the colour, or the colour named after the fruit?' This one is actually a little easier than the chicken-and-the-egg question. The answer - the colour orange was known as 'giolureade' or yellow-red up until the 16th century, whereas the fruit was known as an orange in English since its arrival in the 15th century, adapted from orenge in French.
The early European House of Orange influenced the popular perception of the colour, leading to it being considered heraldic (relating to coats of arms and family crests). Like most colours its contemporary perceptions have changed, though perhaps more than most orange has significant negative connotations.
In Ireland orange appears as the colour of protest, with protestants being known as 'orangemen'. During the Vietnamese war 'Agent Orange' was the nickname of the chemical weapon used on the Vietnamese people by America causing global horror and outrage. Warning symbols and hazard signs are often orange, and orange scrubs were used as a form of psychological punishment in Guantanamo Bay. Despite this, advertising brands claim the colour is 'friendly, cheerful and confident', and is used by large corporations such as Amazon and Nickelodeon.
Orange has a close relation to certain cultural movements as well; the 1920's, 60's and 70's saw orange at the forefront of fashion, with the french Impressionists included it as a key to their palettes (such as Monet's 'Impression, Sunrise') and originally neon lights (now the staple of most on-trend art shows) were orange as well.
Seen as a spiritual colour in India, yellow invokes feelings of knowledge, peace and illumination. Certain egg-yolk shades were favoured by the emperors of the Tang Dynasty, who ruled vast areas of Asia at the end of the first millennium, they would even mark the roofs of the royal palaces with the shade of yellow. In Egypt it is seen as the colour of mourning, and carries more associations with illness and stigmas (such as the 'yellow peril').
Nowadays, it is often associated with fast food and cheapness, having been appropriated by brands such as McDonalds, Subway, Lidl and Aldi. This is despite the fact that it's close neighbour - Gold is a symbol of wealth across the globe.
Yellow in art is often associated with the work of Van Gogh, who used a palette of ultramarines, mauves and yellows during his time in Arles. Some of his most notable works, such as Sunflowers, use vivid yellows that appear to glow before the viewer, despite being painted over a century ago.
Until more recent epochs, green pigment was hard to reproduce and was significantly inferior to other colours and so was less frequently used in clothing or as a dye. In the Neolithic period (10,000BC) they first developed a green(ish) dye for clothing, made from the leaves of birch trees, however it's quality was poor and it appeared practically brown. In the middle ages and Renaissance green dyes were made from natural materials such as nettles, plantains and ferns, however they rapidly faded or changed colour. Finally in the 18th and 19th century new synthetic greens that were more stable and vivid were produced (though these were eventually banned due to high levels of arsenic) and began to be used more heavily by the Romantic painters.
As with the other colours, green carries a stark duality of meaning. We may immediately think of life and growth when considering this colour - the Egyptian word for green in fact originated from the word for papyrus stalk. In Indian culture it as a manifestation of God and symbol of 'new beginnings, harvest and happiness' whilst in Japan it is symbolic of 'eternal life, youth and freshness'. In modern days this has led to the appropriation of the colour by environmental groups and organisations e.g. The Green Party and Greenpeace. It is associated with environmental preservation and we even talk about 'living green'.
However it is also associated strongly in the West with greed and selfishness, such as the popular expression 'green with envy' and in Shakespeare's day it was considered bad luck to wear green on stage.
In Greek times, the word 'blue' did not even exist. It appears that the colour was barely distinguished from "neutral" shades like white, light and dark. It wasn't until the Egyptian times that the colour began to appear in common language and it was highly prized due to the rareness of the minerals which could be used to create it.
The modern associations with blue as 'peaceful, trustworthy or powerful' began during the middle ages when a shade of blue called Ultramarine was chosen by the Catholic Church for all paintings of the Virgin Mary. And in more recent times, the colour was widely popularised by the painter Yves Klein with his monochrome artworks (there is now even a shade of blue called International Klein Blue named after him). Often artists have used the colour to invoke feelings of sadness or despair, such as Picasso's 'The Tragedy'.
Alongside the emotional connotations, blue - like green - has strong links to nature; Pantone describe their 'Nebulas Blue' as 'reminiscent of twilight, a thoughtful, starry-eyed blue'. Blue channels strong imagery with both the sky and sea, 'boundless and fathomless'.
'Dependable, trustworthy and strong' are the keywords cited by advertising agencies when considering the colour, which is possibly why many social media organisations use blue in their branding, such as Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr.
Throughout history violet (or purple) has been viewed as the colour of wealth and royalty, however it is also seen as the colour of mourning in Catholicism, Brazil and Thailand. The first shades of purple were created by the Greeks and Romans through a natural dye called Tyrian which was sourced from a tiny shellfish called murex. More than 250,000 individual shellfish had to be collected and ground down in order to produce half an ounce of the colour—just enough to dye a single toga. This meant that clothing and murals which included the colour were extremely expensive to produce and so began an association with wealth and affluence.
After the chemist William Henry Perkin accidentally discovered a synthetic recipe for the pigment in 1856 it became more widely adopted. Monet in particular utilised the colour widely in his impressionist paintings saying of it “I have finally discovered the true colour of the atmosphere”. Other radicals of the 20th Century such as Georgia O'Keeffe used the colour as a route to conveying sensuality and vigour through her famous series of flower paintings.
A purple shade called 'Ultra Violet' appeared as one of the key colours on this years Pantone palette, described as 'conveying originality and ingenuity, the magical Ultra Violet is a distinctive and complex purple shade that fascinates and intrigues.'
“One should be a painter. As a writer, I feel the beauty, which is almost entirely colour, very subtle, very changeable, running over my pen, as if you poured a large jug of champagne over a hairpin.”
- Virginia Woolf