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Creative Life News Blog


How Colours Work in Nature, Art and Culture

multi-colour design for blog about Colur
Crazy Colour by Janet Strayer

The power and meaning of colour are evident in nature and the cultural world. Colours signal freshness, ripeness or poisonousness in the natural world, and serve to attract many animals, including us. Yet how much more they mean to us in our cultural world! Colours can irritate or soothe, raise or lower blood pressure, affect mood and reactions.

Oddly enough, colour is not a property of objects. The world is colourless, as Galileo tells us. Colour is a sensation that exists because light exists and acts upon the peculiar neurophysiology of different species. Sensory receptors and brains in many species are equipped to register and perceive colour. Humans have three types of colour receptions (for red, green, and blue light), so all the colours we can see are composed of red, green, and blue. Yet these three are enough to distinguish a million colours.

Humans can survive without colour vision. We can detect shape, edges, and other necessary visual facts without colour. Other animals, like birds, detect more colours than we can. But among primates, humans have the keenest colour vision. This may have evolved because colour functions to affect emotions, provide information, and for communication.

Colour is to our vision as flavours are to our food, which the food industry knows when using artificial colours to enhance products. And as advertisers and designers know, colours affect our attention and reaction to products, packaging, and settings.

Colours have delighted and mystified us for ages, sparking theories, scientific investigations, and systems to describe and understand them. Isaac Newton as well as the author Goethe are among the many scientific contributors. Our human physiology, psychology and culture, too, have shaped our perception of and reactions to colour.

Two Worlds of Colour: as Light or as Pigment

In the natural world, colours are a phenomenon of light wavelengths. In the art world, colours are a quality of pigment. These two worlds differ in how colour is seen.

White light contains all visible colours in a spectrum that appears in a rainbow, from red to violent in sequence. Nature's primary colours (those that cannot be mixed by any other combination of colours) are red, blue, and green. Mixing the primary colours in different combinations will get us almost all other colours. For example, mixing red and green light yields yellow. Surprised?

Here's the glitch: pigments don't behave as light does! Even the primary colours differ between the light and pigment systems. The primary colours in the material world of pigments (again, colours that can't be mixed by any combination of other colours) are red (magenta), blue (cyan), and yellow. Mixing pigment and mixing light differ. Mixing red and green pigments yields brown, not yellow.

The intact eye sees colour based upon light refraction, so light theories prevail even in painters' understanding of colour. You paint using pigments, but you see the colours created via light. How to get the red you see in the world onto your palette requires a translation of light into pigment.

Colour Systems

Computer monitors, TV, and the like use an Additive Colour Model based upon transmitted light. In contrast, pigment colours use a Subtractive Colour Model based upon reflected light (chemicals in different pigments absorb wavelengths selectively). If the physics of this interest you, there are scads of articles with illustrations on the internet.

What most interests me, however, is the question raised earlier: how to create with pigment the colour we see via light.

color wheel

Artists use a cheat-sheet to help them do this. It's called a colour-wheel. You've probably seen some. They range from simple 12-step circles, shown here (3 primary colours and their intermediaries) to elaborate models that fill in the continuum of colours in-between. All these wheels and models do is remind us, in theory, of some basic pigment-colour relationships. For example, the colour that contrasts most with any colour on the wheel is the colour opposite to it (i.e., red and green). Or, that two primary colours (red and yellow) mixed equally will result in a predictable secondary hue (orange). And so on. Lots to experiment with. And that's what it's really all about. Because seldom do artists just want to duplicate colours on the wheel.

Do You See What I See?

Artists want to create the colour they see in the world or in their mind. There are now many pigments (natural and human-made) for red, blue, and yellow. So which of the reds will do? That's important because accurate colour-mixing depends on knowing which red, for instance, to mix with which yellow to get a particular orange. Pigments nowadays are systematically described by alphanumeric codes (I'll spare you that).

Decorators and colour manufacturers must have a blast naming the varieties of colours within a given hue (basic colour category, like red or blue). Walking into the paint section of Home Depot, I picked up about 30 different colour cards showing company names for varieties of "blue". Same for green and other hues. There are so many varieties of "white", you come to appreciate the fact that that white light contains all colours. The paint section of any big store is a play-pen for anyone liking colour. The point is, colour names can be very confusing. Try describing a colour you like to someone. Periwinkle blue? Sky blue? What's important, especially for artists, is to know how to get the "sky blue" colour you want via pigments. A little appreciation here for those who can!

Identifying and describing colour boils down to three basic components: Hue (name on the colour wheel), Value (where the hue falls on a darkness-lightness continuum), and Saturation (hue purity versus degree of grey mix). What we call "maroon", for example, is a red hue that is dark and low saturation (a less intense red) because it's been been mixed with another colour (brown) that dulls it. Dull colours are key to painting after kindergarten because of how well they harmonize with other brighter, more saturated colours right out of the tube or crayon box.

Want to throw that palette at the wall yet? Don't worry about it. In both the natural and art worlds, all colours are changed by the colours around them. Yes, everything is relative! Many colourists learn to think in terms of colour "families" (different tints, tones, and shades of red, for instance). As someone who loves working with colour, I do this and then look to see if a colour I paint has the effects I want based upon the colours around it, changing colour mixtures as I go. No formulas, just a look-see process.

Appreciating colour, whether or not you care about its theory and descriptors, is all about being aware of the variations in colour and a bit about the effects different colours and combinations can have. They can be harmonious, pleasing or displeasing (both of which are meaningful for artistic effects), agitating or calming, and more. A bit about the psycho-cultural aspects of colour comes into the picture as well.

Psycho-Cultural Aspects of Colour

Visual artists use colours expressively and deliberately to create effects. The perceptual and psychological effects of colour also occur within larger historical cultural contexts that give them meaning.

To get an idea of how much humans value colour, I'd like to recommend a good read: Colour: Travels Through the Paintbox (2003) by Victoria Finlay. A wonderful book that reads as easily as a detective-story, it relates the dramatic history of colours in the world. Part travelogue and adventure story, it relates the quest for different pigments, how they were discovered in different regions of the world, traded, invented, and used across centuries. It relates a time when orange was poison, blue was as expensive as gold, and how purple built a nation. The book presents a captivating mix of history, culture, chemistry, and the practical, social, and artistic issues of the use of colour

Turning to a psychological viewpoint: if we can see colour, we're affected by it. This is true of most animals, particularly humans. The psychological aspects of colour derive from the peculiarities of our visual perception system. Special detectors in our eyes for black/white values (rods) and for colour (cones) are only the beginning. Many visual phenomena are built into our perceptual system, including visual after-effects. Stare exclusively at red for a bit, then move your eyes to a blank area and you'll see green. Same for blue and yellow. Simultaneous contrast is the tendency of one a colour to induce its opposite hue, brightness, and intensity on adjacent colours. This is fundamental to painting. Place a white next to any dark to make it darker (and the reciprocal). That's what explains why the grey line below looks as if it is changing in brightness (it is not). Same for the two dots.

illustration of simultaneous contrast using BW values

Similar effects happen for colour contrasts. For example, blue looks darkest against a pale yellow, lighter against a dark green, and most intense against an orange. Op Art has a party with these illusions. Many other interesting perceptual effects of colour have been studied, and lead to the conclusion that colours relate in a dynamic system. No wonder colours affect us, whether or not we're aware of this.

A dominant colour in a painting or a room can have a big psychological impact via our perceptual, physiology, and cultural associations. Effects can differ even within the same colour family, as when comparing effects for a yellow-orange (generally positive) versus a yellow-green (generally more aversive). Keep this in mind when reading the very simple list of common associations listed below for the main colours (black and white included). Our own subjective associations and personal experience of colours also have much sway, aside from the more general associations listed below.

Generally, warm colours (red, orange, yellow side of the colour wheel) tend to evoke feelings ranging from warmth and comfort to anger and hostility. Colours on the cool side (blue, purple, and green) tend to evoke feelings from calm to sadness. The list below is intended to be "for fun" rather than formula. Even in this fun list, you'll see some contrary associations to the same colour. That's because each colour can yield almost opposite reactions, depending on its tint or shade.Light purple has more positive associations, for instance, than dark purple.

Colour Associations

YELLOW: associates to Optimism, Happiness, Friendliness when it's a pure yellow or yellow-orange, but a yellow-green tends towards Anxiety or Distaste.

ORANGE: has the strongest physiological responses of all colours tested, stimulates energy and attention/ Strong reactions, both positive and negative. Enthusiasm, Energy, Fun, Warmth, Flamboyance, Danger

RED: tends to increase heart rate. Some studies indicate females prefer red more than males do. Red associates to Passion, Aggression, Excitement, Danger, Blood, Fire (yet dull or 'dirty' reds may feel closing-in on you).

GREEN: has more pigment types than any other colour. Associates to Peace, Rest, Reassurance, Harmony

BLUE: Tends to lower heart rate. Associates to Calm, Trust, Coolness, Intelligence, Indifference

PURPLE: associates to Luxury, Dark Magic, Extravagance, Death, Mourning, now often used in video games for "evil" figures

BLACK: associates to Power, Glamour, Mystery, Death, Evil

WHITE: gives a sense of space and is inclusive of all colours, or it can be too stark and remote. Associates to Light, Purity, Clarity, Serenity, Sterility

Each historical epoch and culture attributes meaning to colours somewhat differently, emphasizing some aspects over others that are commonly perceived. White is the colour of mourning in Japan, for example, because an association to purity and spirituality in an afterlife is emphasized. In contrast, black is the colour of mourning in many Western countries that emphasize its association with death and loss.If there's any conclusion to be drawn from all this, it's that colours operate in wonderfully predictable and diverse ways. That's because we live in a physical and psychological reality that includes our optical and subjective perception as humans in a historically changing cultural context.


Aug 06, 2022

It’s interesting to think about pigment vs. light colour. We certainly come up against that when trying to photograph a painting.

Sep 03, 2022
Replying to

Absolutely so! It's an accomplishment to get the "true" colours when photographing a painting! __ Janet


Aug 04, 2022

Really interesting read! Thank you. As a result I’ve just ordered that book!

Sep 03, 2022
Replying to

Thank you. It's a wonderful book as I hope you'll agree.-- Janet


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