color: art or science?


color wheel courtesy Goethe/Wikipedia

Once upon a time in design school I took a class devoted entirely to the study of color. And yet, when a friend who just bought a home asked me what color she should paint her walls, I was helpless for an answer. Color may have science behind it, but color is an art and a passion and a deeply personal thing. Choosing color requires attention to many details and begs much more than a 5 minute phone conversation.

Before we can even think about color, there is the issue of culture. And then of course there is perception…remember this perception test? I’ve had long discussions (some might call them arguments) about the color of a particular piece of clothing. No honey, that shirt is not blue it’s purple and it doesn’t go with that tie. At all. And on top of that there is light which, if you’ve been reading me for any length of time, you understand changes color entirely. I might call color an art. And yet…

in branding

Derrick Daye over at Branding Strategy Insider provides a list of colors and what they mean when used in branding (if you come from American mainstream culture, whatever that is):

  • Red: excitement, strength, sex, passion, speed, danger
  • Blue: trust, reliability, belonging, coolness
  • Yellow: warmth, sunshine, cheer, happiness
  • Orange: playfulness, warmth, vibrant
  • Green: nature, fresh, cool, growth, abundance
  • Purple: royal, spirituality, dignity
  • Pink: soft, sweet, nurture, security
  • White: pure, virginal, clean, youthful, mild
  • Black: sophistication, elegant, seductive, mystery
  • Gold: prestige, expensive
  • Silver: prestige, cold, scientific

if you happen to be a poet

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (h/t BrainPickings), a German poet, artist and politician published a book in 1810 about the psychology of color. It is very poetically written, but doesn’t seem to be based on hard science (if there really was such a thing at the time, or now for that matter). He describes all color as a degree of darkness.

  • Yellow: ‘in its highest purity it always carries with it the nature of brightness, and has a serene, gay, softly exciting character’
  • Red/Yellow: ‘the red-yellow gives an impression of warmth and gladness, since it represents the hue of the intenser glow of fire’
  • Yellow/Red: ‘a yellow-red cloth disturbs and enrages animals. I have known men of education to whom its effect was intolerable if they chanced to see a person dressed in a scarlet cloak on a grey, cloudy day’
  • Blue: ‘as a hue it is powerful — but it is on the negative side, and in its highest purity is, as it were, a stimulating negation. Its appearance, then, is a kind of contradiction between excitement and repose’
  • Red/Blue: ‘blue deepens very mildly into red, and thus acquires a somewhat active character, although it is on the passive side. Its exciting power is, however, of a different kind from that of the red-yellow. It may be said to disturb, rather than enliven’
  • Blue/Red: ‘a carpet of a perfectly pure deep blue-red would be intolerable. On this account, when it is used for dress, ribbons, or other ornaments, it is employed in a very attenuated and light state, and thus displays its character as above defined, in a peculiarly attractive manner’
  • Red: ‘the effect of this colour is as peculiar as its nature. It conveys an impression of gravity and dignity, and at the same time of grace and attractiveness’
  • Green: ‘the eye experiences a distinctly grateful impression from this colour…the beholder has neither the wish nor the power to imagine a state beyond it. Hence for rooms to live in constantly, the green colour is most generally selected’

in architecture

Frank Mahnke wrote a very interesting article for Archinect about color and its effect on the psyche. In addition to the effects of individual colors, the combination of colors and their intensities must be well balanced so that a space does not over or under stimulate. Also the light reflectance of colors must be addressed to safeguard visual comfort and efficiency. He provides a few examples of emotional responses to specific colors, and I imagine he completes this list in his book ‘Color: Communication in Architectural Space’.

  • Pastel yellow: sunny, friendly, soft with a message of stimulation, brightness, coziness
  • Red: arousing, passionate, provocative, fiery, aggressive with a message of dominance and advancing
  • Green: balancing, natural, calm with the message of simplicity and security
  • White: open, vast, neutral, sterile with a message of purity, emptiness and indecisiveness

So you tell me, is color a science or an art? I believe it is both, and much more complicated than 837 words can unravel. I guess that’s why I keep buying books, attending seminars, and absorbing whatever I can find on color. So no, there is no ‘right’ color to paint your walls. It’s a bigger question than you imagined…

If you’re interested, one book I really love is ‘Colour Source Book’ by Rosalind Ormiston and Michael Robinson. They include definitions, technical info, history/culture and examples of hundreds of colors in addition to lots of background information.

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