Theory(s) of Colour

Theory(s) of Colour
19th October 2020

An enormous diversity of ideas exists with regard to colour and its many uses. These ideas are fluid and depend on cultures, histories, religions, and professions (including that of an artist) and change through time.

Therefore, having one single unifying theory of colour would be simplistic and unreliable.

Understanding historical contexts and systems of belief, and what particular colours might mean within those contexts is relevant.

A generic and universal meaning attributed to a colour or a combination of colours is impossible because obvious inconsistencies arise when trying to do so.

Symbolism can only work effectively, when enough people agree what a sign stands for, a convention or tradition for a mark, sign, pictogram, colour etc. understood en masse.

A dictionary definition of the word symbol reads…. ‘A thing that represents or stands for something else, especially a material object representing something abstract’.

The material object which is a national flag, a piece of coloured cloth fluttering in the wind, represents and embodies an abstract idea of nationhood, an area with physical borders, a nation’s core beliefs, and its history.

H2O is not literally something you can drink, but many of us understand it as a symbol for something we can. The symbol only functions through consensus, through us learning it, en masse, in the chemistry lesson.

There is no universal consensus with colour symbolism, except within a specific society, religion or profession.

The same colour can mean very different things to different cultures. For example, in the West, white is associated with purity, innocence and peace – a bride’s white wedding dress, and white doves, for example. In the East, however, white is associated with death, unhappiness and bad luck. White is commonly worn at funerals in the East.

So different cultures can attach very different meanings to the same colour.

Colour has no real meaning as part of a symbolic language outside the ‘tribe’.

Therefore, there can only be theories of colour, not a universal theory of colour.

What follows are some examples of how colours have been used in emblems of nationhood (flags), commercial advertising, and colour therapy alongside the more ‘subjective language’ of some modern artists.

Humankind has been arguing about what constitutes the function of art since ancient times. We’re still arguing about it and it’s unlikely to get any less heated any time soon. Art remains alive and significant culturally, precisely because we can’t agree, and the colour is part of that.

Vexillography (Flag Design)

The Polish flag is designed as a horizontal bicolour of two equal horizontal stripes, white over red. The two colours have their origins in medieval Polish heraldry – the white knight on a white horse, and the white eagle drawn over a red shield. Poland produced the most expensive and highly prized red dyes in Europe during the medieval period.

The region has been fought over for centuries. In the 18th century, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was dissolved by an alliance of Prussian, Austrian and Russian forces. In more recent times it was occupied by Nazi Germany and after liberation at the end of World War II, fell under the Soviet bloc’s sphere of influence.

The colours of the national flag white over red was designed in 1980. The upper white stripe represents peace, purity and hope. The lower red stripe represents courage, strength and blood.

So, this illustrates Poland’s struggle for independence from foreign invaders.

Red is a much denser hue with more solidity than white. Red is below white on the flag. Could the lower horizontal band where red meets white, refer to a horizon, and to blood and earth? Does the upper white band refer to the sky above it?

The Indonesian flag has similarities to that of Poland’s. It is a bicolour design in two horizontal stripes of white and red. The red in the Indonesian flag is a ‘hotter’ vermillion red than that the ‘cooler’ red of Poland’s flag. The Indonesian flag is squarer in proportion.

The striking difference is that red sits over white in the Indonesian flag.

The choice of colours, as in Poland’s case, has historical roots. The 13th century Majapahit Empire used red and white in its banners. In Austroasian mythology, a duality exists between Father Sky, represented by white, and Mother Earth, represented by red. These colours were available in ancient Indonesia. Red dyes are made from the skin of mangosteen fruit and teak leaves, while woven cotton is white naturally.

From 1820 – 1949 Indonesia was a Dutch Colony – the Dutch East Indies, but occupied by Japanese forces in World War II from 1942-1945. When the Japanese retreated from East Java in 1945, Indonesia declared itself a Republic. The Dutch returned to reclaim their former colony and a War of Independence ensued. British forces had fought the Japanese and were on the islands. British troops initially joined the Dutch in fighting the Indonesian Republican revolutionaries, later to reverse their decision, adopting neutrality in the Indonesian struggle for self-determination.

A famous incident occurred on 19th September 1945 at the Hotel Yamoto in Surabaya, East Java, just over a month after Emperor Hirohito’s surrender to allied forces on 15th August 1945.

During the Japanese occupation, the hotel had been used as the Military Headquarters of the Japanese forces in East Java. After Japan’s surrender, and during the ensuing mayhem and power vacuum, freed Dutch internees in Surabaya raised the Dutch flag over the Hotel Yamoto.

The Dutch flag is designed as a tricolour of three equal horizontal stripes, red over white over blue. On the 19th September pro-nationalist Indonesian youth revolutionaries, entered the hotel, went to the roof, removed the Dutch flag from the flagpole, and tore off the blue stripe. They then hoisted the bicolour of what was left, an equal band of red over white.

The War of Independence followed, with the Netherlands eventually recognising Indonesian sovereignty in December 1949.

Once again, the colour red is associated with a nation’s struggle for self-determination.

Red is the most commonly used colour on flags. 148 out of a total of 192 national flags contain red (77%). Within the context of flag design, red could be said to be emblematic of the courage necessary for a nation to be born, rather than emblematic of any political ideology as in the case of the USA Republican Party or Communist China. Assigning meaning to colour is extremely complex.

So, inconsistencies and similarities can coexist.

Commercial Advertising.

We once lived in pre-industrial landscapes – nature.

Dense populations increasingly live in urban conurbations.

We now live in brandscapes.

Both at street level and in the virtual world of screen-based technologies, we inhabit this brandscape.

Colour is one of the most important tools in marketing, and in creating this brandscape, it influences how we experience this environment visually.

We experience the coloured light from marketing campaigns on mobiles, computers, TV plasma screens and the like. We experience non-luminous colour in commercial graphic designs on billboards, passing buses, in tube carriages, and on anything from shopping bags and chocolate wrappers to the soles of trainers.

Colour is used to elicit an emotional response. Given the sheer volume of visual stimulus in the urban environment, it will be very successful in doing so.

Advertising agencies will have expert knowledge in understanding the psychology of colour, and to link it to certain products and services aimed at particular target audiences.

Colour has subconscious associations which advertising agencies are aware of and utilize. Appreciating the psychology of colour enables advertising agencies to use colour persuasively in ad campaigns. Certain colours are good at promoting certain products and services, and equally bad at promoting others.

Would anyone for example, be likely to entrust their money and savings to a bank whose publicity material was all pink, whose staff wore all pink, and whose decor was all pink?

Colour is the best way to grab our attention prior to reading any text – which may also be coloured. It will communicate a powerful message about the nature of the product, even before a viewer has had time to read the text and understand what the advert is promoting. This phenomenon is how colour is working at a subconscious level and is key to marketing and product design.

And colour is used to create distinct product identity, possibly over a long period of time. As a result, consumer brand loyalty can be achieved (predictable satisfaction, trust in the product).

Outlined below are some examples of how colour is understood within the context of advertising agencies in the Western world…….
……..”to represent or stand for something else, especially a material object representing something abstract”


Red: danger, passion, desire, excitement, masculinity, dominance, and power.

Red is the most highly visible and dominant colour of all colours and evokes the strongest emotions. Example – Ferrari F1 racing cars, stop buttons on machinery and rear stop lights on cars.


Orange: dynamic and energetic

Orange combines the power of red and the happiness of yellow, but without the dangers associated with red. It is good at targeting the youth market.
Example – Fanta soft drinks.


Yellow: playful and amusing

Yellow is full of energy being optically bright and sunny. It is an ideal colour for children’s products and children’s activities.
Examples – Rubber ducks, children’s wellingtons, toy bulldozers.


Green: nature, honesty, reliability, calmness and freshness.
Used for marketing companies providing environmental sustainability, medical products and pharmaceuticals.
Example – Green cross logo on bags dispensing pharmacy prescriptions.


Blue: calmness, depth, power, seriousness, loyalty, trust and success.
Blue is the colour of a cloudless sky and the cloak worn by the Madonna. It’s one of the most popular brand colours to induce implicit trust in what a company or institution is offering. It is commonly found in publicity materials for banks, financial services and medical services.
Examples – The NHS logo and its uniforms, Barclay’s Bank, anti-bacterial washing-up liquid.


Purple: mystery and elegance, luxury and royalty.
Example – Cadbury’s Milk Tray chocolate boxes and milk chocolate wrappers.


Pink: youthful femininity and vulnerability.
Nearly impossible to use in promotional material except when the target audience is female.
Examples – Skincare products, Barbie dolls, cupcake brochures.


Brown: casual and relaxing.
Not a colour to arouse excited passion but associated with nature and therefore relaxing. It has limited application in marketing but is effective in campaigns for products of the same colour.
Example – TV Coffee advertising, and in-store coffee packaging.


Black and Grey: neutrality, tradition, seriousness and reliability.
Popular with organisations wishing to promote gravitas and trust.
Examples – Legal firms, Funeral Directors.

Black and grey are currently the most popular colours for cars, yellow the least popular. Black is statistically the most likely to be involved in a crash, yellow the least likely to be involved in a crash. This could be to do with the relative numbers of black and yellow cars on the road at any one time, but black is much less visible than yellow, so more likely to be hit in any case.

The sensible thing to do from a health and safety point of view is to drive a yellow car. New York taxis have maybe got it right on their exceptionally busy streets.

But if a lawyer arrived at a client’s office in their yellow car and the client was looking down at the carpark as they arrived, it wouldn’t inspire confidence – the appropriate level of gravitas is missing.

Black clothing is also a popular choice with New York intellectuals and German art historians. It signals inner confidence, the kind of confidence that doesn’t require colour to indicate that they are interesting people.


Colour Therapy
Colour therapy is a holistic non-invasive therapy whose aim is to act upon the 7 major ‘chakras’ in the body. Belief in the existence of chakras has its origins in Hinduism and Buddhism.

In this belief system the spine is thought to be the main channel of energy flowing through the body and the 7 major chakras are positioned along it. They are thought to run up the centre of the body from the tail bone to the crown of the head. They are believed to connect to internal organs, and to potentially connect us to higher levels of consciousness.

It is thought that every human being can have negative energy trapped within these chakras. This will occur as the result of life’s challenges and from trauma, experienced over time. When a chakra becomes blocked and energy flow to a specific organ is blocked, it will lead to disease. This could be physical or mental. A blocked chakra is likened to a knot of energy.

Colour therapists maintain that through their practice, healing can be achieved by unblocking trapped energy and re-establishing a balanced flow throughout the body using colour. Acupuncture is also considered to release the energy in blocked chakras and to improve health and alleviate pain. Acupuncture has been proven to be an ‘anaesthetic’ during conventional surgery to block pain while the patient is fully awake.

The major 7 chakras in this Hindu and Buddhist belief system are sequenced, running from the base of the spine upwards to the top of the head. Chakras are believed to vibrate at specific frequencies. These in turn are thought by colour therapists to be sensitive to the wavelengths and frequencies of the colours in the visible light spectrum:
1. Root Chakra. Base of spine connecting with energy from the earth. (RED)
2. Sacral Chakra. Linked to the pleasure principle. (ORANGE)
3. Solar Plexus Chakra. Located in the abdomen. Said to connect to intuition and confidence. (YELLOW)
4. Heart Chakra. Relates to love, kindness and compassion. When properly opened the heart chakra is believed to provide feelings of love for the self and unconditional love for others. (GREEN)
5. Throat Chakra. Primarily concerned with communication, finding your own voice – which can be heard by the world. (BLUE)
6. Third Eye Chakra. Located between the eyebrows. Said to make it possible to discern the true nature of reality, a reality unknowable to our 5 physical senses. (INDIGO)
7. Crown Chakra. Located at the top of the head. The door and threshold to pure consciousness and Divine wisdom. It is believed that when open this chakra connects us with Nature, the Universe and the Divine. (VIOLET)

Chakra is an ancient Sanskrit word meaning wheel or circle, and the colours of each chakra relate to the sequence of the colours on the spectrum of the colour wheel and of a rainbow.

Depending on the physical and mental condition of the person seeking help, specific colours will be used to treat specific conditions.

Different methods are used:

Coloured lights are shone onto the body from machines.

Torches shine coloured light at acupressure points (colourpuncture).

Coloured silks are draped over the body and then patients rest in a bright room to absorb the light.
A treatment may consist of being left in a room illuminated by coloured light which is absorbed via the optic nerve – through the eyes.

In general, colour is known to affect a change of mood, and bring a sense of relaxation or stimulation, whichever is desirable. Sunlight is certainly effective in lifting the spirits and raising energy levels after continuous cloudy days.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.) is a type of depression caused when chemicals are not produced in sufficient amounts to keep the hypothalamus in the brain working properly. It occurs to significant numbers of people during the long, dark, winter months in countries like Sweden. It passes when spring arrives.

The hypothalamus is a part of the brain that maintains the body’s balance. It is in line with the eyebrows.
In this belief system, colours are not symbolic. They are thought to have the power to influence anatomy and consciousness, to bring about positive change.

Colour and Visual Art.
Henri Matisse and Anthony Caro.
Henri Matisse. 1869-1954

Henri Matisse was the pre-eminent painter of expressive colour in the first half of the 20th century.
He said the following things about his use of colour and the function of art.

‘’The chief function of colour should be to serve expression’’
‘’ When I paint green it doesn’t mean grass; and when I paint blue, it doesn’t mean sky’’
‘’ A certain blue enters your soul. A certain red has an effect on your blood pressure’’
‘’I want anyone tired, worn down, driven to the limits of endurance, to find calm and repose in my painting’’
‘’ What I dream of is an art of balance, in purity and serenity devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter……a soothing, calming influence on the mind, rather like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue’’

What these quotes indicate is that Matisse didn’t use colour to imitate the appearance of observable nature, but rather to express his internal reactions when observing it.

‘L’Atelier Rouge’ 1911.

One of his most famous paintings in this regard is ‘L’Atelier Rouge’ (The Red Studio) of 1911. It is a radical painting in many ways because it relies for its impact and meaning on the use of pure colour, divorced from the traditional use of colour to represent and mimic observable nature.

It is a huge painting for its day, measuring 181 x 219 centimetres.

This is no easel painting or one to conveniently hang over the fireplace as a conversation piece. A painting on that scale throughout art history would normally have been commissioned by the church or other wealthy patrons. For example, compositions designed to illustrate important passages from the Bible; vast landscapes depicting mythologies from Classical Antiquity; history painting – battles on both land and sea, commissioned by victorious dukes and princes; full-length portraits of landowners, Lords and Ladies on their estates, and big enough to envelope the viewer and induce awe and reverence.

In painting his studio, his modestly sized place of work, on such a big predominantly red canvas, Matisse is being highly unconventional and confrontational (‘’ A certain red has an effect on your blood pressure’’).

In making the subject of the painting his workplace, he is placing the artist right at the centre of what he thinks should be significant in art – the act of painting itself, and colour. It is a confrontational and defiant counterpoint to history painting, and the influence of patrons on the subjects they deemed worthy of their patronage.

It is defiant because it asserts the right of artists to be independent from subject matter chosen by wealthy patrons. Would it be so defiant if it wasn’t red?

‘L’Atelier Rouge’, shows paintings finished and unfinished hung up and leaning against the wall of his studio. There’s an empty frame. There’s a table with what might be a still life arrangement on it; a chest of drawers, a chair, sculptures on work stands and a grandfather clock without hands. The objects and artefacts in this interior have not been set up as one might expect to see in a still life – like that detail in the painting itself bottom left. Everything looks unarranged, as if Matisse had just walked in one morning, and decided to paint the studio as he found it. Like most studios, it’s a bit messy. The stacked paintings speak of hard graft and layers of meaning.

What is astonishing and most challenging when considering the aesthetic norms of the day, is how the walls and floor have been painted. The least interesting thing in any artist’s studio is the walls and the floor. What hangs on the walls is normally more interesting.

Most studio walls help the artist in their daily work by being white, to maximise available light and prevent eye strain when working. The floor is ordinarily not the same colour as the walls. All the walls and the floor in ‘L’Atelier Rouge’ are red. The least noticeable thing in an artist’s studio becomes the most noticeable.

The three dimensions of his studio become flattened into an all-over design by painting the internal walls and floor red. As red is the most visible of all colours, his studio is prioritised.

The chair back, bottom right, doesn’t make sense as a construction, the upper backrest is ‘wrong’. And the left side of the room is not separated from the right side with a vertical mark or shading. The meeting of wall and floor on the facing wall is only described by objects leaning against it or standing on it. We have to imagine the change in direction from the horizontal floor to a vertical wall. We have to imagine where they meet, not actually see it with our eyes. No tonal difference between the left-hand wall and the facing wall exists. Shadows, which are normally used to describe different planes and the contours of a room, have been ignored. The whole effect comes very close to a flat all over design, where foreground, background, left and right, up and down become equally valuable as part of the whole composition.

These ‘unrealities’ of spatial representation and colour in Matisse’s composition is an attempt to maintain the integrity and concrete reality of the canvas – a 2-dimensional plane. And the colour is being used expressively to describe an interior cerebral life, not to describe the interior of a building.

The recording of light in a room has been abandoned in favour of a saturated red surface. It envelops the viewer not as a picture of a field of red poppies like a Monet might, but as an enormous red field of red paint on canvas projecting its light.

Anthony Caro. 1924-2013: Painted Sculpture

Anthony Caro when interviewed in 2011 said, quote:
‘’Wouldn’t it be wonderful if people saw something of mine and said, ‘that’s made me feel a lot better’, that’s really all I want now, and that’s all I ever want’’.

It’s a similar sentiment to that of Matisse’s comment about a good armchair.

Caro had started out professionally as an assistant to Henry Moore, but by 1960 he abandoned the traditional techniques of producing sculpture by modelling in clay and carving in stone, in favour of industrial materials. He turned to sheet steel, steel girders, steel tubes and rods, the stuff of shipyards, bridges, and flyovers. His joining methods became welding and bolting. He also turned to colour.

Bronze casts and stone carvings were out, and industrial manufacturing was in. And in opposing the norms of the day and the integrity of Modernist ‘truth to materials’ aesthetics, colour adorned the finished sculptures. And loud colour at that, covering up the raw material in bright reds, yellows, pinks, purples, blues and greens.

Caro says he turned to paint to protect the mild steel from weathering, in the same way, a car needs coats of paint. However, he could have lacquered them or varnished them for conservation purposes. The use of colour is expressive, even if, in his own words, arbitrary, and sometimes inspired by the promptings of his wife, the painter Sheila Girling.

The 1960s was a revolutionary period – Jimmy Hendrix, the Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Harold Wilson, The Pill, Women’s Liberation, LSD, Protests against the Vietnam War and so on. It was 15 years since the end of World War II, rationing had ended in the mid 1950s, and Britain was coming out of the grey drabness and angst of the post war years.

It was a decade which saw challenges to established authority and the status quo, right across culture. Artists of a certain age were no different in wanting to challenge authority.

Up to this point, sculpture had primarily consisted of an unpainted solid mass of material, the result of modelling a lump of clay and then casting it or carving a lump of stone. Caro either intuitively, or consciously, recognised that this type of habit in producing form was ‘oppressed by gravity’, and represented a certain kind of conservatism.

For the next ten years, he worked out how to liberate sculpture from gravity. He did it with scale, material, line and colour. His main visual influence was painting, not sculpture.

One series ‘Table Pieces’ challenged the orthodoxy of the plinth/pedestal. It’s a fundamental orthodoxy. How should sculpture be placed in museums or homes? Should sculpture sit decoratively and politely on a plinth in the corner at around eye-level? In no circumstances should it touch the carpet or become assertive outside the perimeter of the plinth or pedestal.

‘Table Sculpture LXXXVIII (The Deluge)’ of 1969, breaks the rules. It’s reaching into space beyond the dimensions of the plinth with assertive force. It’s steel, is painted an olive-green, and it’s invading your safe space as a viewer.

The tonality of the olive-green colour takes away the heavy metal materiality of dark steel and enhances the energy as it springs forward. In fact, that’s what the entire colour in Caro’s work of the 1960s does; it takes away the sheer weight and materiality of steel and replaces it with coloured light. By his own admission, the colour is seductive.

‘Deluge’, is a bright, dynamic drawing in space, balancing on, but not contained by, the plinth.
The idea of leaving the confines of the plinth was fully realised in ‘Prairie’ of 1967. It’s enormous at 96 x 582 x 320 centimetres. Colour is functioning perfectly in relation to form. It’s a light straw yellow, painted over welded planes and lines of steel, bolted and welded together. The title of the work comes from the manufacturer’s name for the paint’s colour.

The sculptor Barry Flanagan acknowledges Caro’s achievement with ‘Prairie’ with the following words, quote:

‘’His masterpiece for me is ‘Prairie’. To achieve a sense of physical levitation through the medium of sculpture is such a rare thing. A certain weightlessness, a kind of denial of the physical world, to, in one sense overcome it’’.

Caro might have thought his colour arbitrary, but if Prairie were black, it would be less successful because the ambient light falling upon it and then reflecting back into our eyes, wouldn’t be so ephemeral. The horizontal linear parts of the work wouldn’t seem to float in quite the same way. A black piece would be more ‘grounded’.

Regarding the sheer size of Prairie and the fact it’s standing directly on the ground is important. If a sculpture sits on the ground, the same ground you are standing on, then the psychological distance between you and it is gone. Like gilded frames around old master paintings, plinths set up a hierarchical distance between you, the art, and the artist. And since Caro’s aim was to liberate sculpture from the oppression of gravity then the work needed to ‘lift-off’ from solid ground.

In walking around such a big piece as Prairie, the scale makes us aware of the body we are in as we move around it. And because the horizontal lines of Prairie are ‘levitating’, then our body experiences the sensation directly.

Painted colour is instrumental in all Caro’s sculptures in the 1960s. The heavy metal is transformed from the material into colour (light) with paint. Steel is being dematerialised and turned into energy rising from the floor precisely because it is coloured.

In conclusion, the use of colour in flag design, advertising, colour therapy and visual art indicates how complex the subject of colour theory is. There is no simple answer to the question, what does such and such a colour mean?

But what can be said with some certainty is that colour influences all our lives in the most profound way with its energy.

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