Psychology of Color

Pondering on Goethe's color theory, a new psychology of color emerges almost all by itself. Goethes theory is about darkness and light. You can turn that into a psychology of color, by relating light, color and darkness to the threefold human constitution of thinking, feeling and will. Light is an outer image of consciousness, darkness is the image of life or will, and color is all about the way we relate to things and people.

Light resembles consciousness

'Light' is about thinking, seeing, perception. Understanding things. Most of that is in our head. Our constitution is threefold: thinking, feeling and acting (or will). In the realm of thought and perception, we are very much on our own.

Darkness resembles will

Darkness can be connected to 'will', the power to act. It's in our belly and limbs. We don't know where this power comes from, we just use it. In the realm of will, we are connected to everything and everyone. A lot of our body-functions work automatically: what happens in our stomach, kidneys or liver is in 'in the dark', in the unconscious.

Color - psychology of color

The middle section between our inner 'light' and 'darkness' is about feeling, where we connect and exchange with other things and people. Physically, this function is connected to the heart and lungs. In natural physics, color is formed between light and darkness. And in this color psychology, feelings are a result of an actual connection (with another thing or person), experienced and reflected on by ourselves.

As you see, this psychology of color is not based on the scientific dogma of consciousness being equal to brain activity. Brain activity can be related to psychology of color, but the brain is only a mirror of what happens in the body. It's the place where things turn conscious. Before our ideas or opinions turn to conscious thoughts, they are active in the body - in the realm of feeling. Conscious thought works the other way around too: if you sustain positive or negative thoughts, your hormonal system turns these thoughts into chemistry by creating hormones like adrenaline (stress, fear, exhaustion), serotonine (pain relief, happiness) etc.

In a way, color can be seen as consciousness, as it is just before it reaches your brain. The brain turns it into form, which has more connection the the "black and white" world. Studying the relation between color and light/darkness is a natural way to build up a psychology of color.

Color = feeling?

You can't directly say that 'color is feeling', because a feeling is very individual, and a color isn't. Color has a direct effect on the body, and individual feelings are easier formed in a not too colorful environment. Painters know it takes skill to master the colors, and have them actually represent the intent of the artist. Painted colors can be untrue in that, too. Color does affect feelings, but indirectly - by affecting the body first.

In a natural-religious worldview, the rainbow or color wheel would represent the blueprint or ideal of the human soul. To some that might be Christ as the 'lord of colors', to others Mary, representing the World Soul. It depends, how you look at it.

The psychologycal function of color

Every color represents a realm of perception. Colors are like psychich "glasses" or eyes- they enable us to 'see' things - every color represents a different realm. We all have our incling and our talents in this. "Turquoise" people are intense and intelligent (often in technology or math), but maybe less aware of the needs of other people. For the opposite color (carmine), it's just the other way around - people like that will be very good at parenting, nursing and feeding people, and will seem less 'intelligent'. Which doesn't have to be so, their knowledge is just different - they can't spit it out like a calculator.

Reds and blues

In general you can say: reds are all about a form of activity, and blues are all about some form of perception.

red colors

  • Yellow is about creative intellect, like people who can verbalize their ideas.
  • Orange is about the ability to organize and structure things, the capacity to overview processes and guide them into harmony.
  • Reds are about the power to act, to 'do something about it'.
  • Carmine is about the ability to empathize, to know what others need, and what drives them.
  • Magenta is about the experience of dream, and of what it means to be human.

Reds are about activity - active darkness, passive light. In ourselves, darkness is will - the things we just do whithout knowing them first. Light is: seeing, knowing. Reds are about some form of being active. The dark reds (carmine, burgundy) are about vegetative processes being active, yellow is about the mind being active (talking like a salesman), and orange-red is about being active in the exchange with the outside world. Yellow is a very joyous color: darkness has overcome itself and unites with light. Most edible things are red (or green). All browns stem from reds. Red is also about material stuff, or the process of materializing.


blue colors

Blues (and green) can be seen as some form or moderation of the phenomenon 'perception'.

  • Green is about thinking: a clarity of mind, resting within itself. Light turning into solid form, just like phosotynthesis in plants.
  • Turquoise is about a sharp, perceptive intellect (usually mathematic) - and fun or pleasure, or in general: intensity of experience.
  • Cobalt blue is about the ability to see things the way they just are (and to keep awake in this boring state of normality)
  • Ultramarine is about a special form of compassion: to see things and silently acknowledge them. It's a very male way of feeling (and usually not recognized by women).
  • Violet is about pondering, intuition, contemplation, about 'seeing in the dark' - a deep meditative consciousness.
  • Indigo (dark night-blue) is about an attitude of science and asking profound or fundamental questions.

Blues are the other way around: active light, passive darkness. In the landscape, blue is usually immaterial - it's far away in the sky or on far away mountains, maybe also present as a reflection on the water. Blue is about things becoming immaterial (matter turning into a sensory perception, to thought or insight). Blue is not an edible color (try eating blue colored rice! your appetite will vanish)
In ourselves, light is about: seeing, knowing. Consciousness can be manifest on different levels. Turquoise is about a sharp intellect, that search engine in our head that runs on its own. It's about genius, clarity, fun. Dark violet is about trying to see the darkness, and having deep questions. That's a more mystical attitude. And cobalt blue, that clear-blue sky color, is about the ability to see things the way they really are - no more, no less.

Mood menders

Depending on your needs, different colors can function as mood menders. If you're a bit down, try yellow glasses, they will cheer you up. But for really depressed people, yellow may be a hateful and horrifying 'too much', they're better of with ultramarine or purple. If you need a sense of clarity, try turquoise - it will give you a sense of light. Carmine is great for nurturing, and cobalt blue can help you to reconcile with the world. Click here for more on color and mood

Psychology and color in advertising

Of course this psychology of color can be used in advertising. People already do that instinctively. Which shows there's a sharp edge to it: it can also be used out of impure motives. In contemporary art, color was considered 'suspect', because color does things to you, without you being aware of it. And that's true, I've seen many examples already. But if psychology of color is used in a conscious, non-manipulative way, it can sustain the function of an art work. If the artist takes a moral responsibility, this knowledge can be used in good way.

Psychology of color and painting therapy

This psychology of color is not only about the feelings or the mind. Some schools for painting therapy have their main focus on curing physcial diseases. The capacities of the colors here are put to use, to help the patient heal him/herself. The painting is a mirror-image of the patient. The lower part of the painting represents the abdomen, the upper part represents the lungs. If a patient paints a free-style picture, a good therapist can read the painting to see what the patients current situation is, and take up the healing proces from there.

I'm not a therapist myself - but my guess would be, that a painting therapy for more psychological or psychiatric purposes would be resting heavily on balancing magenta and green. Magenta and green are the image of our two poles of consciousness: thought (green), and subconscious being or dream (magenta). One could also see magenta and green as 'poles' of the ego-constitution. Green as the conscious pole of the ego in the thinking, magenta as a representation of the immune system, our biological identity or ego.

Magenta and green

viridian green

Magenta and green are different: they are in rest. They appear where the balance between the reds and the blues is restored. They are the key colors, in psychology of color.

prismatic magenta

Magenta appears where the dark carmine and the dark violet reach over and lighten up. Magenta is: light, emerging out of darkness or: light, overcoming darkness. You can connect it to a dream consciousness. It has dissolving and connecting qualities. In prismatic experiments, it can split out in many colors. Wearing magenta glasses makes me experience the spacial relation to things, instead of the material distance to it.

Magenta represents the "under pole" of our ego or self-consciousness (in the best sense of the word). It carries our consciousness and makes it human, it enables us to connect with other phenomena and (human) beings. It seems no coincidence, that all human recovered skin tissue is magenta...

prismatic green

Green is, where the lightest parts of the rainbow (yellow and turquoise) touch. It's funny they make green then, because yellow and turquoise light would mix to white light. The green of the rainbow isn't 'mixed' - only yellow and turquoise paint mix to green.

Green can be seen as the 'upper pole' of our ego-consciousness. It has strong forming qualities, and in prismatic experiments it tends to keep its shape. Green is about darkness, serving the light, executing its laws. Green is about materializing - just like plants create new chemical substances, even when they grow on sterile water and air. In us, it's about forming clear thoughts.

All our processes of consciousness take place in the interaction of green and magenta, the upper- and under pole of our consciousness. Balancing them is a major goal in a painting therapy, based on this psychology of color. One color can be specifically helpful in that:

What's special about cobalt blue

Cobalt blue, the color of a sunny clear sky, is the interval color between magenta and green. As such, it represents a healthy day-consciousness. When babies don't get blue daylight on their skin, their bones don't form well (rachitis, treated with blue light). It's also used (together with green and magenta) to help mental patients recover their balance. I believe meditating on cobalt blue has a healing effect on the psychic constitution

Color processes

Magenta and green are, together with black and white as representents of 'light and darkness', are the master influences on color processes. It helps to see your paintings in these terms. In the sphere of day consciousness, the 'green' light is dominant. In a natural daylight environment, reds appear more dull, as brick-tones, and blue sky is radiant. In the dreamlike atmosphere of a sunset, reds glow up and blues are more dulled towards violet. You can use this in your paintings, to make transfers from one 'atmosphere', one color or color process, to another.

This psychology of color can be applied in the way you choose your paint colors for different rooms. For more specific remarks on that, check here for painting ideas on the kitchen , bedroom , bathroom or nursery.

Light and dark colors

We could extend this psychology of color to colors being too light or too dark. As a rainbow color, carmine is a very dark red. But as a paint, you can add white to it untill it's an offwhite pink. Still it will give a dreamy impression. Just like violet will give a 'dark' expression, when toned up to lilac white.

Some colors respond well to toning, and other respond funny. A too dark turquoise can look particularly hostile. The pigment "prussian blue" is a too dark turquoise. When it was discovered, France and Germany were at war. In France, the pigment was named "Prussian" - that is: german. And in Germany, it was named "Paris blue"...

Adding white

Carmine, violet, turquoise, blue and magenta respond well when mixed with white: they keep clean as a color.

The other reds sort of loose their power when white is added to them. A blue sky needs to be painted with the right hue - a too dark blue mixed with white gives a sad and rainy look (click here for landscape painting tips). Green with white can be very serene.

Adding black

The light colors can't handle black well: yellow, turquoise and cyan become nasty colors when black is added to them. But green can handle black very well. Magenta and black is funny too, but interesting.

Psychology of color in short:

  • Blues are about a resting consciousness: greenish blue is about the mathematical, envisioning mind, violet about a conscious will, and cobalt blue about a well-functioning sensory perception
  • Reds are about activity: yellow about an actively formulating mind, orange about formulating feelings, red about physical activity (work, sports) and carmine about digesting and mothering.
  • Green is about form and a clear thinking capacity. It is calming, but won't put you to sleep.
  • Magenta is about being human, the abillity to connect and respond to people and phenomena in a human way.

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