Knowing how to use colour can aid your ability to communicate meaning through your images. Colour photography is most successful when you work with the colour for a specific meaning or effect, rather than simply using photography to record colours. Tom Ang (2008, 204)
The symbolism of colour in art appears to be a relatively recent concern. According to Gage (2000) artists before the mid 19th century were more concerned with light, shade and contrast than with colour per se. Colour palette was, in any case, limited by the availability and cost of pigments.(‘Imperial purple’ was expensive both for dyeing clothes and for representing them in paint, hence the modern association with wealth and power)
Gage (2000,109) notes that it has proved difficult to establish anything like a basic universal system of colour symbols because symbolism belongs to metaphor rather than perception and is, therefore, a linguistic (rhetorical) rather than psychological matter. With the improved availability of pigments, and the scientific work of Newton, Goethe and others, by the late 19th century, artists were developing elaborate schemes of symbolic correspondences, but they were individual to the painter in many cases.
There are also cultural differences in the meaning of colours. For instance, in western cultures, black is seen as the colour of death and white as symbolising life; in eastern cultures this is reversed. In western culture, red is a symbol for danger or for penalties but, as a 2003 HSBC advert pointed out, in China it means good luck and it is the colour of Asian wedding dresses.
In an attempt to discover any consensus on colour symbolism in western culture, I have tabulated comments from the four books and six websites noted in the references below. The books are on my shelves. The websites are all from the first page of a Google search on ‘colour symbolism’, from self-proclaimed colour consultants. This infographic is typical.
Black has a variety of meanings. Death and mourning are noted above, and there are negative connotations in language (‘blackmail’, ‘black list’ …). Possible because of the death connection or because of an association with shadows, black is seen as mysterious, hidden or secretive. However, there is also an association with power, formality and elegance (‘black tie’, ‘little black dress’)
Conversely, white has a clear positive connotations, with a strong consensus meaning of purity, innocence and cleanliness. White is the colour of fresh snow, operating theatres and bride’s dresses.
Falling between the two (at least in colour science terms), grey is the colour of compromise (‘grey area’). It is seen as modest, mature and unemotional, but also as heavy, boring or sad.
Red is the colour of fire and blood, so its connotations are of life, energy, heat and passion. It also represents war, danger, violence and anger. It is a very intense colour which is obvious even in small quantities (cf. Magritte’s comment about a ‘thimbleful of red’). Freeman (2005) notes that it can appear three-dimensional, floating above a dark background; I have seen it suggested that this is because long-wavelength light focuses behind the retina and the movements the eye has to make to bring it into focus are the same as for viewing a closer object.
Pink, a light red, means love and romance. A saturated ‘hot pink’ can be exciting and was once associated with extreme sports. A light pink is feminine or ‘girlish’.
Orange is another colour with mainly positive meanings. The colour of flame, incandescent light and late afternoon sunlight, it symbolises warmth, joy and optimism. Two of the websites, however, point out that it is a ‘love it or hate it’ colour and can denote superficiality or ‘brassiness’
Yellow is the colour of sunlight and symbolises optimism and energy. It is the brightest colour (and the most visible at sea). Secondary meanings are health, happiness and idealism. Paradoxically, it is also the colour of cowardice (‘yellow belly’) caution and some forms of physical illness. Yellow denatures rapidly when mixed, and shades into brown.
Brown is an earth colour (literally) and denotes stability, reliability, ‘hearth and home’, comfort and endurance. One website (colour-wheel-pro) suggests masculine qualities. In its lighter form, as beige, it symbolises quiet and pleasantness but is also rather boring.
Green is another earth colour, the colour of plant life and Mother Nature. Ecologists are ‘green’; gardeners are ‘green fingered’. It denotes growth, harmony, freshness and fertility; also youth, spring and renewal. On the negative side, it depicts inexperience, envy (‘green-eyed monster’) and some forms of sickness. There is a enormous range of greens from forest canopy to strident ‘acid green’ (Kawasaki motorbikes). Green in a flesh tone can look sickly, and an overall green cast to an image becomes unpleasant.
There is no real consensus about cyan (called turquoise in the sampled websites)
Blue is the colour of the unclouded sky. According to Gage (2000), Goethe considered it calming, quiet and nostalgic while Kandinsky considered it spiritual. The colormatters.com website says that blue has more complex and contradictory meanings than any other colour, but this depends on the particular shade of blue; dark blues are more serious, while pale blues are cool and reflective. The consensus view is that blue represents trust, loyalty, integrity and stability – which may explain why it is a popular corporate or ‘branding’ colour. Blue, especially very pale blue, is a cooling colour. Unlike red, it tends to recede and therefore is a useful background colour.
Purple (or violet – only one website called it magenta) is, according to Freeman the most elusive of all colours. I suspect this is because it is not really a spectrum colour at all but encompasses the artificial range of colours between red and blue, created by linking the two opposite ends of the visible spectrum together. It is notoriously difficult to agree on the mixing and naming of purple, mauve, magenta, violet etc. There is a consensus (probably associated with the old idea of ‘imperial purple’) that it represents wealth, nobility and luxury. There are secondary meanings of mystery, magic and spirituality. In its lighter forms, it is a favourite colour of young children. In a very light form, as lavender, it represents femininity, grace and elegance.
Ang, T. (2008) Fundamentals of modern photography. London: Mitchell Beazley
Freeman, M. (2005) Colour: The definitive guide for serious digital photographers (digital photography expert). London, United Kingdom: ILEX
Freeman, M. (2007) The photographer’s eye: Composition and design for better digital photos. London, United Kingdom: Ilex
Gage, J.D. (2000) Colour and meaning: Art, science and symbolism. Berkeley: University of California Press