After my last two letters on the value of various triggers that might motivate art viewers, many artists enthused on the value of colour. Colour, they insisted, is the most effective way to caress the emotional brain.
The idea that specific colours have specific value has been around for a while. Generally speaking, warm colours inspire, excite and motivate, while cool colours calm and sedate. Really dark colours are found to be heavy and depressing. Black-painted bridges experience fewer suicide attempts when repainted a bright, warm colour.
A recent U.S. and Canadian survey gave some interesting colour insights. Crayola, the crayon people, had 20,000 kids help in renaming some of the company’s most popular colours. The children were first asked to write a story. Then they were asked to illustrate their story using crayons from a large display of Crayola products. Next, a team of researchers, colour-trend experts and content developers pulled all the themes and patterns from the stories — interpreted and analyzed them and came up with new names for eight of the colours. Essentially, they let the kids name the colours.
The experiment seemed to show children’s positive and optimistic outlooks on life. “Super Happy Yellow” was typical — no cowardly yellow stuff here. Environmental concerns surfaced with “Giving Tree Green.” “Fun in the Sun Orange” seemed to reflect the children’s active life. “Bear Hug Brown,” was a bit of a surprise. For these kids, brown signified the feeling of a loving hug, perhaps Grandpa’s fuzzy old sweater.
The question in all of this is how much is learned and how much is built into the inner workings of children’s brains. How might particular colours play out with Iraqi or Sudanese kids? How much do language and word association affect what we feel about certain colours?
Universally, orange increases appetite. Blue relaxes patients after surgery. Pink makes most men frisky. It’s only reasonable to think that pea green might induce some arcane desire or state of mind. And think of the potential of a combination of colours — an irresistible cocktail of emotional delight.
PS: “Today we need colour more than at any time in history. Blacks and grays, both depressing, should be replaced in clothes, offices and homes with new colours that give inspiration, tranquility and happiness.” (Linda Clark)
Esoterica: Linda Clark’s The Ancient Art of Color Therapy, still in print after thirty years, is loaded with anecdotal material on the power of colour. From an artist’s point of view, the avoidance of bad colour is a significant part of our job. Every painter knows that some combinations produce disgust and revulsion. As wizards who stir the bubbling pot of illusion, we artists need to understand what power we have.
The colours of well-being
by Sherry Purvis, Kennesaw, GA, USA
Color can be such an emotional roller coaster ride. We do feel certain emotions with certain colors. I prefer not to live around blues, but love the warmer earth colors. But, when I paint, I find the blues, purples, and magentas, all have strong merit and evoke a sense of well being. Throughout the last 5 or 6 years my palette has changed and the stronger my colors become the stronger feedback I get from viewers. I want the viewer to stop and meander through all the emotions in a painting, because they will and they will attach themselves to the one that means the most to them.
Masters using greys
by Barbara Coffey-Jones
Happiness is the way you think, not the colors around you. One of my favorite artists is Ron Hicks. He mainly uses greys and his work is gorgeous and romantic. Many of the old masters used blacks and greys with a splash or color here and there. Quang Ho is another artist that uses mostly greys. Both of these artists have a tremendous following. Too many colorful paintings can have an unsettling effect, especially if they are not put together with many greys. I think a grey day at the beach is a beautiful sight. The colors are mysterious.
Masters using blacks
by Isa-Manuela Albrecht, Ebmatingen, Switzerland
I am working also with those and observe since decades peoples habits and use in their daily lives and different colours. But the colour black has something very special, it is really the colour of ‘the masters’ because nothing might go through or disturb the wearer, but it has nothing to do with depression in those states. Ditto white, the colour of non-violent and non-egotistic behaviors called altruism. Green, something for your heart, ditto pink or rosé. Yellow is a fine antidepressant. Blue has a cooling anti-inflammatory aspect. Red is the energy giver. Orange makes people to go with the flow especially good for people who have troubles in letting go or are just compulsive. Brown, a warm and earthy tone to get stabilized children, but can create also heavy reactions to the outdoors.
While I agree that color entices many (including me), there is the theory that black is equally inspiring (especially used in an “unusually satisfying pattern”) and perhaps even more mysterious. Look around at all the black and white patterns in our culture today — found on everything from high fashion to dinner plates to shoes and handbags. Obviously, black feels pretty good to some people. And after all, this life is all about energy.
The economics of colour
by Cay Denise MacKenzie
In 1987, I completed a senior thesis about the psychological aspects of color in clothing (for a BA degree). It was a controlled study in which only primary and secondary colors were used. The finding was that clothing color is a symbol of affect to the observers of it and can be indicated by a vocabulary of adjectives with significant agreement regardless of the gender of the figure (with a few exceptions). An interesting idea suggested itself as a result of the study. That idea was whether color is an indicator of the stratification of power and wealth. You and your readers may have ideas about this based on your experience with your art sales. Have you noticed differences in the range of color in pieces that are purchased by buyers of differing wealth and/or power levels? There is some literature that suggests this as a possibility, but to my knowledge it hasn’t been fully studied yet. It certainly presents an interesting concept. Do more neutral-colored pieces (black beige, grey, silver) sell better and/or for a higher price than more brightly-colored pieces (black, white, red, yellow, orange) or vice versa? Or do you have an altogether different observation?
(RG note) Thanks, Cay. It seems that a Rolls, Bentley or Mercedes would be out of place in anything but muted, “tasteful” colours. Jaunty pastels and jarring bright ones seem more suitable for cheaper vehicles. Makes you think, doesn’t it?
Triggers in combination
by Jim Stratton
I think that while it is all certainly true, there are lots of things beyond just the one color invoking different emotional feelings and responses. I have found, after painting in oils for over 43 years and interested in color much longer, that it is the combination of colors that really get my attention. If I do a painting with a color scheme of mostly monochromatic and then throw in a contrasting color or a discord of some sort, I can trigger visual senses that connect with emotions that can vary widely in a few seconds. I seem to respond more quickly to an analogous scheme of varying yellows and oranges than to just yellows for instance. Now, if I use that analogous scheme with perhaps 6-8 different yellows and then throw in a compliment of violet or even a discord of blue, I can get a roller coaster (in a sense) of responses. My point is that these triggers seem to be more effective when used in combination.
Boys and girls like different colours
by Dar Hosta, Flemington, NJ, USA
What a good idea Crayola had to let the children name the colors. Depending on their age, it is no surprise to this adult that brown conjured up something warm and cuddly. But I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall to watch these kids pick and name the colors “for” the adults, and would have been especially interested in how things shook out on gender lines. As an artist actively involved in education, I can confirm what psychologists already know, that boys and girls like different colors. I have watched, in dismay, many a (female) teacher send the little boys back to their tables to “add more colors” to their finished drawings of blue, gray and brown, while praising the little girls for having “such colorful drawings.” These exchanges not only discourage some young male artists, but perpetuate the notion among all children that some colors are not as nice as others. When I work with kids, they often ask me what my favorite color is and, though I certainly have my personal favorites, always tell them, “all the colors!” I then encourage the dissenters, often girls, to imagine all the amazing things this world would be missing if we got rid of, say, gray: rocks, elephants, dolphins, silver and steel, cloudy skies and rain showers, sycamore trees, sidewalks, manta rays, mice, mountains, pencil leads…they get it right away.
National stereotypes in wood colours
by Norman Ridenour, Prague, Czech Republic
I know why it is hard to lose weight. My kitchen is bright orange and yellow. Regarding working with woods: Americans will not buy light colors and insist that light colored woods are ‘cheap.’ Furniture makers go to all sorts of trouble to make maple, naturally a beautiful light cream color, look brown. Unfortunately not huggy bear brown more like do-do brown. Northern Europeans like light colored woods, beech, ash and birch. People here in Central Europe, first want indigenous woods and especially fruit woods with their oranges and rusts. Italians buy for design and surface finish and Germans for technical perfection (boring). Austrians seem to have a whimsical and sensual side the Germans lack. Japanese do not buy crafts at all but Chinese and Koreans often do but my sample size is too small to guess at the aesthetics of decision making though they tend to buy pieces I consider “good.” When I first came here 15 years ago and went to galleries, all of the painting was in the rainy day pallet; cloud, mud, black, more mud, maybe a cappuccino but no color. I cannot think of a more damning statement about the repression of the former regime. Now we get work that could be found in Italy or Mexico, raging reds, purples, blasting oranges. Damned exciting place and time.
Colour and ethnic background
by B.J. Wilson, Irvine, CA, USA
The interesting question of why certain people pick these kinds of colors and others pick those kinds of colors has been around for a long time. My mentor, at one time Chairman of the UCLA Art Dept., once participated in an experiment with very young children to see what might happen if they were given a free choice of any colors at all, or if ethnic background might play any role in their personal choices. Their little easels were set up along the narrow end of a large auditorium space. The colors, already in containers with brushes, were lined up at the far narrow end. The children could select any one color at a time. When they wanted another, they had to walk the length of the room to choose another single color pot. They could make as many trips as they wanted. At the end of the work period, the results were clearly unique. White children raised in America chose Blue sky, Green trees, Red-Brown for barns and the like. Black children chose Black and Red and Yellow and White. Asian children raised in traditional Asian homes, chose Mauve and Lavender and pearly greys, silvery blues and subtle low-chroma greens. Fancy that!
Cool classroom colour creates calm
by Dorenda Crager Watson, Columbus, OH, USA
As an art instructor for children for 27 years I know without a doubt that color affects the atmosphere of a classroom and its students… my students are second-graders and I have 50 per class (all at one time… with art supplies!) I decided early in my teaching career that I would need whatever tools I could use to guide a classroom this large and I began to study the effects of color on the human brain. I have always used nurturing neutrals to decorate the classroom, with just enough cool colors to create a calm… when the students walk into the room I believe there is a sense of peace and quiet and a feeling of being safe in their creativity. However, the work that they create is always vibrant, full of warm… brilliant splashes of color! They become excited about the work because the color is so very stimulating! Their focus zeros in on the piece because it is the most colorful thing in the room… they become entranced with their own powers of creating such a fantastic piece of art! Furthermore, people walk into my classroom and comment on how quiet it is and how well the students are working and how they can stay with their task for 2 hours, (unusual for 7-8 year olds.) They ask me how I do it. While I believe that I am a decent teacher, I explain to them that using the power of color has made ALL the difference in the world!
Joyride in a paintbox
by Janis Zroback, Toronto, ON, Canada
The strongest and most positive reactions to my paintings come from people who were born or grew up in a tropical country, and also from those who may live in the north, but hate darkness, and crave warmth and light. The first gallery to contact me about buying my work was located in the Caribbean. Interestingly, they were sent a link to my website by someone living in Geneva. It has long been known that colour has a direct influence on how we feel, and we often associate specific colours with happy or sad events. When a person is not feeling well, it is described as being “off colour.” I paint because it gives me intense pleasure. But I don’t feel comfortable painting a dark picture… it never feels right. I live in a country where dark days outnumber the sunny ones, but I was born where the sun shines all year round. I use vivid colours side by side instinctively because, given where I was born, it makes sense to me. But I think sometimes the grey world outdoors may have more than a little influence on the specific colours I choose on a particular day. I don’t stop to think whether this bright pink should not go next to this brilliant orange… it was all around me as I grew up. Riots of every colour of the rainbow growing side by side in high key… depression was rare among the population. You could characterize the island as always having a “party atmosphere,” even in the midst of trouble, and sadness, when it came, did not last very long. Whether we know it or not, we are all affected by colour: it can lift the spirits, or make us feel calm and relaxed, give us energy, or help us to feel at peace. And it does not have to be a cool colour to calm us… the bright orange/pink flowers of the flamboyant trees that grew in the park across from my island home were so beautiful, that seeing and using the colour orange makes me feel I’m back in that beautiful sunny island, and I’m immediately at peace with the world. And though we know what it heralds, who could deny the feeling of pleasure, the stunning shades of orange, yellow, and red, with that special kind of light from the sky, that only Autumn brings. But the most extraordinary feeling of joy, I believe, comes from the warmth and colours of summer, which almost replicate for me the delights of growing up on that tropical island. That’s why, as Winston Churchill said, I am taking a “joyride in a paintbox” and I have the “audacity” to ask viewers to take the journey with me.
Experiments with colour
by Caroline Simmill, Morayshire, Scotland
For many years I painted dark dramatic seascapes with soft light casting its brilliance across the sea. I saw the gentle rays of light as a sign of hope in the darkness. Dawn was my favorite time of day I loved watching the light creep in and take over from the night time. The land and sea always seemed to look so mysterious and beautiful through gentle blue mist. Even on a summer’s morning the sun would often filter in through drizzle and heavy cloud, companions to our Scottish highlands. But when I became unwell last year I found myself on a different path of self expression. I started to see colour and how it affected my mood and thoughts in a completely new way. On days when it got difficult to paint organized compositions in the studio I would decide to experiment with abstract art for the first time. There on days of quiet retreat my canvas became ablaze with warm and vibrant red. The colour orange brought joy into our home and I was surprised to discover that it is said to be the colour of creativity! Be it the colour Yellow of the intellect and mental inspiration or peaceful and relaxing colour Blue I am now on the road to recovery and am thankful for my rainbow colours. Colour has transformed my ideas and indeed my life in a very positive and enriching way.
Tour of the crayola factory
by Jean Fleming-Mazur, Hubbard Lake, MI, USA
Your letter on color brought back happy memories of a tour my then 6 year old son and I took of the Crayola Factory 16 years ago. What a wonderful place! Just breathing in that distinctive scent of warm crayon took me back to that same age. They were making crayons both in the original molds as well as the more automated fashion. The tours were small groups so you could get around the machines and see the process. I still have the handout they gave us. Along with an unused box of 64 crayons it is one of my favorite things. Of course, it’s been opened many times to smell. Unfortunately, the tours are no longer done. While in art school in Detroit, a student was using Big Crayolas in a Fashion Illustration class. I was so intrigued that I bought a set and tried my hand with them. I was not so successful but it sure was fun!
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Anitta Trotter of Whitby, ON, Canada who wrote, “I use strong bright colours because they make me feel good. If they make me feel good, they make others feel good too. The purpose behind my work is to bring cheer to interiors especially during our bleak winters.”
And also Tony Barrett of Liverpool, UK who wrote, “Just want to say how much I enjoy your letter – it always cheers me up, as will my new Tom Lynch Porcelain Palette I have just ordered from your side of the big pond. Can’t wait to mix my M Graham Watercolour Paints on it.”
And also Judy Phlegar of Greensboro, GA, USA who wrote, “To me, white is the most depressing colour (non-colour), while black is soothing. I don’t like grays at all, but neither do I like blues (except for Robin’s egg blue). White reminds me of the inside of a casket. It is cold, depressing, and claustrophobic. Black makes me feel secure, warm, and comfortable. It’s the most classic of all the colours.”
And also Joanne Light Weaver of Elliot Lake, ON, Canada who wrote, “In ancient tribal tradition colour played a key role in the belief systems and everyday life. I was intrigued with the perception that black and gray are depressing and should be replaced with brighter colours. In one tribal tradition Black represents “hearing the truth” and gray is “Honouring the Truth.” In our world as it is now, perhaps these colours need to be used more, for there is very little ‘hearing or Honouring’ going on.”
And also Cathy DeWitt of Gainesville, FL, USA who wrote,”The fashion gods have proclaimed this to be the spring of ‘bright, cheerful colors.’ Designers are using bright greens and yellows to lure shoppers out of their winter doldrums and into the stores, while also hoping to ward off depression – in more than one sense. There’s an example of caressing, exciting and ‘caressing the emotional brain.'”
And also Eleanor Blair of Gainesville, FL, USA who wrote, “A local framer generally sells more gold frames. However, during wars and economic downturns, most of his clients select dark frames. I’ve noticed the same thing in my studio. Usually, everyone seems to love plain wide gold frames, but since our president declared war on Iraq, I’ve been selling a lot more paintings in dark frames.”
And also Maxine Yalovitz-Blankenship who wrote, “A large color grid of mine will be placed in the new cardiovascular unit at Brigham and Women’s Hospital here in Boston. In my statement I wrote about the positive and healing effects of color along with a recent poem, Paintin’ My Blues Away.”
And also Judi Birnberg of Sherman Oaks, CA, USA who wrote, “So a pink and orange outfit might produce hungry, frisky men?”
And also Alma Pancir of NT, Canada who asked, “What does it mean when you happen to like turquoise and lime combined?”
(RG note) Thanks, Alma. This combination shows that you are a very kind and thoughtful person, who, while open-minded with others, can be particular and discriminating in private life. However, your sense of daring will take you a long way, particularly today and next Thursday, but you should be careful about using lime on any Friday the thirteenth. Especially in Martinis.
Enjoy the past comments below for Colour triggers…