Updated: Jan 21, 2019
Mere colour can speak to the soul in a thousand different ways. - Oscar Wilde
Colour theories create a logical structure for colour and encompass an assembly of definitions, concepts and design applications, and therefore the colour wheel should be looked at and used in terms of colour harmony and the context in which colours are to be used. Each colour, whether they are primary, secondary or tertiary, produce numerous and a broad collection of results based on individual interpretations and experiences.
Let's look at 8 common colours, addressing their history, cultural significance and meanings.
PINK & BLUE
Why start here? Well, the notion that parents are showered with pink or blue gifts, when they welcome a newborn into the world, depending on the baby's gender, is actually a bit of a myth.
Conditionally, as suggested by a politically correct society, the colour pink, for example, has innately been viewed as a feminine colour. Interestingly, this is actually a fairly recent development, changing around the 1950s as part of a post-World War II baby boom. It came about as a marketing scheme, as manufacturers could sell more clothes if some were distinctly for boys, and others were distinctly for girls. However, the tendency during the 19th and early 20th centuries was quite the opposite. Parents were often advised to use pink for a boy and blue for a girl, due to the fact that pink, being a more decided and stronger colour, was considered more suitable for a boy, while blue, more delicate and daintier, was prettier for a girl. Pink was considered a little boy’s version of masculine red, while blue had feminine connotations because of the Virgin Mary’s cloak as depicted in artworks dating back to the sixth century AD.
The colour blue, dates back to the Catholic Church’s important move in the year 431 AD. The Church decided to colour-code their saints (i.e. Mary given a blue robe) which later became what is now known as "navy blue." According to the Catholic faith, Mary stood for innocence and trustworthiness, represented by the colour blue being seen as a positive light. Similarly, navy blue was adopted by militaries and police to convey a similar essence of trust and is often associated with the idea of authority. Thus, different shades of blue needed to be developed in order to differentiate the other suggestions of blue being peaceful, calming and subdued, associated with two of Earth’s greatest natural features: the sky and the ocean.
The colour “pink” on the other hand, has cultural significance that varies widely between countries. In contemporary Japanese culture, pink is perceived as a masculine and mournful colour that represents “young warriors who fall in battle while in the full bloom of life”, while in Germany, pink is considered a hue that’s “bright, soft, peaceful, sweet, and harmless.” Studies completed by the Williams College Museum of Art, agreed that the colour is anchored in the primary colour red, but that pink isn’t part of the electromagnetic spectrum, where seeing pink (the human eye) is not a result of us seeing actual wavelengths of pink light, but rather an extra-spectral colour, achieved when other colours are mixed to generate it; adding or subtracting yellow and blue tones from a wide spectrum of colours. It took until the 1700s, to be popularised through fashion and interior design, favoured by European bourgeoisies, the Georgian gowns of Mary, Countess of Howe, and the embroidered silk coats sported by the well-heeled men of Louis XVI’s court.
The colour red, seems to have a more solidified history, persistently associated with defiance, the political left, and the blood of revolution. Dating back as far as the Middle Ages, when fighting ships used red streamer flags to suggest a fight to the death, or when English pirates raised a red streamer after disputing the crown’s right to share their bounty and really coming of age when during the French Revolution, the Jacobins political group raised a red flag to commemorate their martyrs’ blood. Later influencing social and political movements, as a symbol of worker power during the Merthyr Rising in 1831, Mexicans during their siege of the Alamo in 1836, the banners of Paris Commune in 1871, the colour for the flag of the Soviet Union and communist China and in 1906, the colour of the British Labour party.
Red is the first colour that humans perceive, after black and white. It’s the colour that babies see first before any other, and the first that those suffering from temporary colour blindness after a brain injury start to see again. When considering the phrase “seeing red”, humans, supposedly much like bulls (as believed in the Spanish festival of Sanfermines or “running of the bulls”), have strong feelings about the colour and have had for thousands of years. Over time, red has come to symbolize power, vigour, and beauty, and as such is the color of our blood and our hearts, symbolizing it as the colour of love and fidelity in cultures across the world, and symbolically the blood of Christ, playing an important role in Christianity and Christian iconography.
Culturally, red is a prominent colour at weddings. Ancient Roman times saw brides wearing red shawls to warrant love and fidelity, and even in China today, red is considered to bring good luck; Chinese brides wear red wedding dresses, are carried to their weddings on red litters, walk on a red carpet down the aisle, are kissed under a red veil and receive red eggs as gifts upon the birth of their first child. In religion, Cardinals wear red robes predominant in public-worship garments and textiles, the kings in the Middle Ages showed their God-given right to rule using red, Charlemagne wore red shoes at his coronation as a visible symbol of his authority, as did Louis XIV in his official portraits, making red the colour of regal majesty and power.
The colour red can be associated with the happiest feelings as well as with the worst, eliciting the strongest of reactions, hence it can lie on both ends of the spectrum; courage, sacrifice, and love or anger, danger, and war.
Colour is a power which directly influences the soul. - Wassily Kandinsky
Alongside red, yellow is one of the oldest colours in art history, dating back to some of the oldest paintings of ancient Egypt and Rome and as far back as prehistoric times featured in cave paintings. The yellow sun has been worshipped by countless religions with numerous sun gods and is therefore associated with sunlight; a warm colour, accounting for the connotations of happiness and optimism. Yellow is associated with deity in many religions, particularly Hinduism and Ancient Egypt. In Christianity, it symbolises deceit, typically depicted by the colour Judas wears and perhaps the reason why the colour also symbolises cowardice or outsiders of faith, as in the Renaissance when Jewish people were marked with the colour yellow and again brought back in Nazi Germany, when Jews were marked with a yellow Star of David.
Despite its anti-Semitic history, yellow stands out as a colour on its own, hence why it is often used as a key colour of emergency vehicles and taxis, and despite now being the colour most associated with optimism and happiness, it is widely used in contemporary art and in commercial marketing, while its counterpart, Gold, has come to symbolise wealth and prosperity. It is the most luminous of all the colours of the spectrum, and despite what most people would perceive, it’s the colour that captures our attention more than any other (even red).
In the natural world, yellow is the colour of sunflowers and daffodils, egg yolks and lemons, canaries and bees, and in our contemporary human-made world, yellow is the colour of Sponge Bob, the Tour de France winner’s jersey, happy emoji faces, post it notes, and signage. Yellow has a high light reflectance value and therefore it acts as a secondary light source. And while, history shows its use for cowardice, betrayal, egoism, and madness, it is also linked with physical illnesses such as jaundice and malaria. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the sources of yellow pigments are toxic metals - cadmium, lead, and chrome.
The colour green is typically associated with Nature, and closely related to the Old English verb growan, meaning “to grow.” As the concern about our environment grows, the colour green seems to saturate fashion trends and be used as a strong symbol of serenity and new beginning. It signals an immersion with the physical world, as a symbol of restoration and renewal, a popular and dominant design choice in urban planning, architecture and lifestyle, illustrating the primary association of nature; serenity and freshness.
Globally, it represents a plethora of meanings; Muslims see the colour green as strongly related to the Prophet Muhammad; England believes it has heroic meanings connected to the stories of Robin Hood; in China, it represents disgrace; while in Japan it signifies eternal life. In history, the colour green is considered to be associated with poison and toxicity, where many historians believe that the green wallpaper used for colouring Napoleon Bonaparte’s bedroom caused the revolutionary’s death in 1821, as well as the cause of Impressionist artist’s Paul Cezanne and Claude Monet’s diabetes and blindness (respectively).
Contrary to this, the colour green has healing power and is understood to be the most restful and relaxing colour for the human eye to view, enhancing vision, stability and endurance, while taking up more space in the spectrum visible to the human eye. Ireland associates the colour with good luck, leprechauns and clovers, hence its use on Saint Patrick’s Day. Darker shades of green are often associated with greed, ambition and wealth (the colour used on many bank notes), while also within the phrases “green with envy” or “green-eyed monster”, both implying desire for possessions or advantages; extremely covetous.
Being made up of the two primary colours of yellow and blue, green gets its mental clarity and optimism from yellow and the emotional tranquillity and insight from blue.
Colour is, on the evidence of language alone, very bound up with the feelings. - Marion Milner
The colour purple, the most powerful wavelength of the rainbow, made up of the two primary colours red and blue, has a “rich” history. As it is formed by combining a strong warm colour with a strong cool colour, the colour produced (purple) retains both warm and cool properties.
Used by Cleopatra for the sails of her barge, her suitor Julius Caesar declared the colour as “royal”, maintained under the emperor Nero, who banned purple for anyone but himself, on pain of death. Such a tradition survived throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance as a sumptuary law that placed restrictions on colours according to class, status and gender to reinforce hierarchy. Such a hiatus fell into disuse by the end of the 17th century, but its price tag still confined the colour’s accessibility to aristocrats and wealthy nobles, due to how it was made.
Scientifically, purple is the most powerful visible wavelength of electromagnetic energy, and just a few steps away from x-rays and gamma rays. It has become associated with supernatural energy and the cosmos, magic, mystery, the sub-conscious and creativity, with negative undertones of decadence, conceit, and pomposity. It is the colour of mourning or death in many cultures such as the U.K., Italy, Thailand and Brazil. In America, the “purple heart” is the award for bravery, and purple has been coined as the colour for LGBTQI communities in many Western cultures. The company Cadbury trademarked their specific shade of purple for their products (Pantone 2685C) but lost its full right to all forms of it, including any minor parts of packaging or major, and all products including cakes, drinks, and sweets. They did this to protect its brand from rival company Nestle who wanted to piggyback on the goodwill and brand recognition established by Cadbury over 100 years.
The colour orange, despite nothing rhyming with it in the English language, is the blend of red and yellow, a mixture of the energy associated with red and the happiness associated with yellow. Orange is associated with meanings of joy, warmth, heat, sunshine, enthusiasm, creativity, success, encouragement, change, determination, health, stimulation, happiness, fun, enjoyment, balance, sexuality, freedom, expression, and fascination. It promotes a sense of general wellness and emotional energy that should be shared, such as compassion, passion, and warmth, and believed to help a person recover from disappointments, a wounded heart, or a blow to one’s pride.
The colour orange has very high visibility and is often used to gain attention, getting a message noticed without the bold, in-your-face presence that the colour red has. It has been proven to stimulate the appetite, popularly used in restaurants to encourage the feeling of hunger and contentment. Naturally found in citrus fruit, it is often associated with Vitamin C and a healthy diet, while it is said to increase the oxygen supply to the brain and stimulate mental activity.
Furthermore, it’s uses, as per nature, associate it with autumn leaves, the changing seasons or pumpkins for Halloween Jack-o-lanterns, and is the only colour of the spectrum whose name was taken from an object. Both the name and emblematic colour of the royal family in the Netherlands, the colour of U.S. prison uniforms, sacred and auspicious in Hinduism (saffron) and in the U.K. the colour for the Northern Irish Protestants; strong religious and political significance.
BLACK & WHITE
These two raise an ancient debate as to whether they are actually colours. Ask a scientist and you'll get a reply based on physics: “Black is not a colour, white is a colour”, or ask an artist or a child (with crayons) and you'll get another: “Black is a colour, white is not a colour.” Colour of a tangible object are the result of pigments or molecular colouring agents and the result of light generation. Therefore, black is the absence of colour and hence not a colour; when there is no light, everything is black. When there are no photons of light there are no photons of colours. Likewise, pure white is the absence of colour, and can't be mixed to create it. Therefore, white is the absence of colour in the strictest sense of the definition.
Colours exist in the larger context of human vision. The medium; where colour exists as a pigment/colorant (such as the colour of a tangible object) or as light (such as the colour of an image on a television screen); the sender (how the colour is transmitted) and the receiver (how humans see colour or how we receive information about colour), suggests that black is not a colour as a black object absorbs all the colours of the visible spectrum and reflects none of them to the eyes, while white reflects all the colours of the visible light spectrum to the eyes. The colours we see depends simply on the degree of how much colour is present in light when reflected.
Without black, no colour has any depth.- Amy Grant
Black has a wide range of associations. It can be linked with death, mourning, evil magic, and darkness, but it can also symbolize elegance, wealth, restraint, and power. Black type on white paper, because of the contrast between the two colours determined such as combination was the easiest to read, even though the first computers used green type on a black background. When researchers found that reading accuracy improved by 26% with the traditional black on white, they made the switch as soon as the technology allowed it. In fashion, the birth of the Little Black Dress ascribed to Coco Chanel in 1927, and popularised by Audrey Hepburn’s minimalist black Givenchy dress, worn in the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s, made the easy to wear and always elegant Little Black Dress a wardrobe staple. Black Friday, the shopping day, the day after Thanksgiving, started in the 1950s, due to many workers taking the day off and that traffic on such a day, was so bad that it was described as “black”. In the 1980s, businesses took the matter into their own hands and rebranded “black Friday” as the day when their profits were “in the black,” or profitable. Black has a rich history, from prehistoric caves to Greek vases to medieval devils to duelling monks to Coco Chanel, making it one of history’s most powerful and interesting colours (or non-colours).
White is inherently associated with purity, virginity, innocence, light, goodness, heaven, safety, brilliance, illumination, understanding, cleanliness, faith, beginnings, sterility, spirituality, possibility, humility, sincerity, protection, softness, and perfection. It can represent a successful beginning and as the opposite of black, movies, books, print media, and television typically depict the good guy in white and the bad guy in black. As it’s the colour of snow, it often represents coolness and simplicity, and used in hospitals to associate with cleanliness and sterility as well as low-fat-foods and dairy products. A traditional colour worn by brides, to signify purity, innocence, and virginity, in Eastern countries, however; white is the colour of mourning and funerals. Other cultures, state white as the colour of royalty or of religious figures, as angels are typically depicted as wearing white or having a white glow. Stereotypically, a white picket fence surrounds a safe and happy home. White is said to affect the mind and body by aiding in mental clarity, promoting feelings of fresh beginnings and renewal, assisting in cleansing, clearing obstacles and clutter, and encouraging the purification of thoughts and actions.
According to physics and the visible spectrum of light waves, white (like black) is considered an outcast and not a true colour, the result of our eyes’ mixing wavelengths of light and what we see when all wavelengths of light are reflected off an object. Among colour theory purists, the jury is still out in determining whether white should be considered a colour at all, since it represents the absence of hue or chroma, and cannot be made from the three primaries, which with effort, black theoretically can be. It’s not represented on the colour wheel, but white is usually an essential ingredient of any palette giving advantages and deficits at the same time. White is needed to lighten dark colours, and is used to mix colours to create tints, pastels, or high-value areas while also cooling a colour. Therefore, only by physics, white exists because of light; white light is actually made of all of the colours of the rainbow because it contains all wavelengths, and it is described as polychromatic light. White objects fully reflect and scatter all the visible wavelengths of light.
Together, black and white often represent the contrast between light and darkness, day and night, male and female, good and evil, yin and yang (Taoism) and race.