Thinking about colour • 3

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 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

Web pages


Thinking about colour • 2

In this posting, I look at colour harmony, the question of which colours ‘go’ with which. I had thought of this as a fairly universal concept, so was surprised to read in ‘Colour and Meaning’ (Gage 2000) that art history has little discussion of colour harmony until the 20th century, having been more interested in ‘value’ (shades of dark and light) hitherto. Earlier discussion of colour was between scientists rather than artists. I will be returning to Gage as a main source in the third posting of this series.

Colour harmony is a popular (frequent) topic in hobby magazines and technique books, which all take very similar approaches. My sources for this posting are Tom Ang (2008) and Michael Freeman (2005 and 2007).

There are two basic strategies, adjacent colour (restricted colour palette) or contrasting (complementary) colour.

Adjacent colour combinations use colour tones that are next to each other in the colour circle, such as desert landscapes (yellow/brown/rust) or seascapes (blue/cyan/green). Ang comments that these tend to be restful on the eye and can be viewed for long periods.

Complementary colours are those directly opposite each other in the colour circle, such as red/cyan or blue/yellow; these big colour contrasts can be exciting in the short term but lead to visual fatigue.

For Freeman, this is a special 2-colour case of a more general principle. Harmonious colour contrasts of three or more colours are possible provided the chosen colours are symmetrical in the colour circle.


source: Freeman (2005)

The proportions of colour in the image are also important. Henri Matisse is famously quoted as saying ‘A thimbleful of red is redder than bucketful’. There is a camera club in-joke that claims the abbreviation ARPS stands for ‘a red patch somewhere’

Freeman draws on Goethe’s 1810 ‘Zür Farbenlehre‘ (Theory of Colours) as modified by Schopenhauer, to codify suggested proportions of the colours. Starting with Goethe’s brightness values (yellow 9, orange 8, red 6, green 6, blue 4, violet 3) he suggests that, for balance, the colours should be used in inverse proportion to their brightness values, thus:


source: Freeman (2007)

The third posting of this series will look at some of the symbolism of colours.


Ang, T. (2008) Fundamentals of modern photography. London: Mitchell Beazley.

Gage, J.D. (2000) Colour and meaning: Art, science and symbolism. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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.

Thinking about colour • 1

In feedback after assignment 4, my tutor commented:

You have clearly observed and recorded colour in the work and created your own colour palette. In relation to this I would like to have seen further development with research into theory and symbolism in the use of colour.

I therefore plan a series of three postings, between now and the end of the course, dealing with colour. As Itten(1974) has pointed out, there are many ways of looking at colour: a physicist will be interested in radiation and optics, a chemist in the nature of pigments and paints, a painter in the way that colours interact on the canvas etc.

This first posting, dealing loosely with the scientific background, will be mostly unreferenced because the starting point is high school physics lessons and other influences too deeply ingrained to unravel.

What colour is

Visible light is one manifestation of electromagnetic radiation. The full spectrum ranges from radio at one end to gamma radiation at the other, a total of 400 octaves of frequency (Asimov ‘Four hundred octaves’ a 1982 essay collected in Asimov 1984). Of this, slightly less than one octave (approximate wavelengths between 400 and 700 nanometers(frequency 430-750THz)) is visible to the human eye. The phenomenon that we call colour is the brain’s way of interpreting the difference between frequencies of visible light.


source: Wikipedia

These colours can be seen in natural phenomena such as rainbows, but it was only when Isaac Newton demonstrated splitting and recombining the colours from white light with a prism that the principle was understood. The spectrum above also shows the invisible radiation at either end of the visible range, infra-red and ultra-violet, which can also be recorded by cameras. The naming of the traditional seven colours has more to do with mysticism than science: indigo is really a dark blue and there are no discrete colours in a continuum.

The (in my opinion) questionable next step is to turn the linear spectrum into a ‘colour wheel’ by stitching the red and blue ends together through a range of colours known variously as purple, magenta or mauve. I suspect the reason why these colours are difficult to describe is that they are conceptually artificial.

The 1990 Schiffman diagram is the most ‘honest’ of these examples as it shows the pink-purple sector is separate from the ‘rainbow colours’. It also introduces the concept of saturation. However, whatever the scientific basis, the full colour wheel can be justified because it ‘works’ for colour mixing.

Primary and secondary colours

Although colours have almost-infinite variety, it is not necessary to have an enormous number of colour sources to reproduce them.

It is notionally possible to select a smaller number of ‘pure’ colours and mix the others from them. How many colours, and which, will depend on personal choice, the nature of the medium and the way in which the primaries are mixed. Usually, three primaries are used. Artists mixing paint, and schoolchildren using crayons, use red, yellow and blue as seen in the first diagram below.

The standard when mixing lights, and on colour TV screens, computer monitors etc. is to use red, green and blue, as illustrated in the middle diagram. This type of mixing is called additive because the lights are added to each other, the secondary colours (formed by mixing equal amounts of two primaries) are lighter and it is possible to produce white by mixing all three equally.

When printing, including computer inkjet and laser printers, the inks lie on the white paper and subtract some colours from the white base. Adding further ink reduces the colour still further and this type of mixing is called subtractive. The subtractive primaries are the same as the additive secondaries (cyan, magenta and yellow), producing red, blue and green when mixing in pairs and, notionally, black when they are all mixed together. In practice, a mixture of the three pigments is a rather muddy, dark colour rather than pure black, so printers will add a black ink to the set, giving the standard CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, blacK) inkset of low-end printers. Because of technical issues in the way the inks are formulated and applied, the colour mixing of the basic four colours is not perfect, and high-end printers use additional colours to fill the perceived gaps. For instance, my Canon PixmaPro 9500 uses ten inks in nine colours: the basic CMYK set, lighter versions of magenta, cyan and black, plus red and green. There are two different blacks (matt black MBK and photo black PBK) but this is about ‘glossiness’ rather than colour.

Colour temperature

The colour of a scene depends on the colour of the light illuminating it. The eye and brain will accommodate this, to some extent and perceive the scene in its ‘true colours’. The process of ‘colour correction’ is an attempt to alter the true colour of the scene to accord with the way it is perceived.

The main reason for colour variation is the temperature of the light source. A physical concept called ‘black body radiation’ says that the amount of radiation emitted by a body increases with its temperature, and also that the average colour (peak of the frequency curve) tends toward the higher-frequency, short-wavelength blue end of the spectrum.


source: Wikipedia

Thus, the sun with its surface temperature of about 6000K emits light that we perceive as white (that being what the eye has evolved to do) but an incandescent light bulb, with a coil temperature of 3000K emits mainly infra-red (heat) radiation plus some visible light at the red/yellow end of the spectrum. The situation is more complicated with fluorescent sources, which have a discontinuous spectrum and require correcting on the green-magenta axis as well as the blue-yellow axis.

One curiosity is that the bluer colours are considered ‘cooler’, while red and yellow light is considered ‘warmer’ and more comforting, in contradiction to their relative physical colour temperatures. Partly, this is due to common experience; fire is yellow, ice is bluish. However, I speculate that part of the cause relates to Rayleigh scattering, by which the red-yellow light from the sun reaches us directly, while blue light is scattered and turns the entire sky dome blue. This means that an outdoor scene effectively has mixed light sources. Objects directly lit by the sun have a yellow tint while objects in shadow are lit by light from the sky dome and acquire a blue tint.

The next posting of the set will look at the way colours are used together, whether harmonious, complementary or ‘clashing’.

The final posting will look at some of the symbolism of colours.


Asimov, I. (1984) X stands for unknown. New York, NY, United States: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group

Itten, J. (1974) The art of color: The subjective experience and objective rationale of color. 2nd edn. New York: Wiley, John & Sons