Your Brain on Color

Posted by: Lyra Pappin

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why a particular piece of art elicits an emotional response.  There are endless combinations of images, shapes, and forms that can comprise creative output, but one thing they share in common is the use of color, or the absence of color, in the case of black and white works.

Color psychology offers an explanation about how we respond to art by delving deeper into what the eye finds most attractive.  Human beings respond to color at an automatic, subconscious level that lies somewhere in our mental framework, shaped largely by our natural surroundings and cultures. 

Human beings are able to distinguish more shades than any other creature.  In fact, our eyes are so discerning that we can identify more hues and tones than any computer or machine.  These subtle inflections in color and the different ways they are combined have a great impact on how we view an overall subject. 

There are two main factors contributing to how humans process and respond emotionally to color.  The first is the automatic or physical response to a given color and the second is the combinations between colors.

Studies have shown consistent results regarding a human’s physical response to different colors.  For instance, red has the ability to increase heart rate, while pink reveals a tendency to slow it down.  In this case, individual colors are clearly eliciting an emotional response to their hue, but how often do we really look at one color alone?  Furthermore, while there are cross-cultural similarities in what features or emotions we associate with color, there are exceptions or trends that are changing the way we view and interpret color. 

Take, for instance, the association of purple with royalty.  This traditional view developed because purple used to be the most expensive dye, which meant that it was a luxury afforded by the wealthy.  In today’s world, there are no such limits, so our views of what colors “mean” is always changing.  The website Colour Affects also distinguishes between color symbolism and color psychology.  The symbolism of colors shifts depending on paradigms and they cite the example of green being considered unlucky in England because it calls to mind images of sickness and decay, whereas in Ireland it is lucky, as green represents thriving vegetation and an abundance of food. 

While color symbolism affects the way we view art and our automatic responses to color, the idea of color psychology suggests that we draw meaning from the combinations between colors, not just the individual shades themselves.  A painting of a dark, moonlit alley versus a daytime scene by the ocean can both contain the exact same shade of blue, but our response changes based on the colors surrounding it.  Also, the colors that comprise the majority of an image can leave a lasting emotional impact that will then shift the way the subsequent piece is interpreted. This partially explains the importance of composition of both individual work and large displays or advertisements.

Colors are undeniably powerful forces in our world, but we rarely pay strict attention to how they directly influence our thoughts and emotions.  The emphasis we place on each color and what attracts us to a color can change from day to day, depending on our moods and priorities. offers a test based on the theories of psychologist Max Lusher, who believed that our reactions to color stem from underlying psychological states and motivations.  You can try it for yourself and see if your present state of mind really is mirrored by your attraction to different colors. 

The importance of color symbolism and its psychological impact sheds new light on the way we view not only art, but also ourselves.  The capacity for individual colors or their collective composition to lift spirits or get into a fresher state of mind is something that can help us in our daily lives and interactions with others.  Thinking about our emotional interactions with color can spark creative juices that could lead to a beautiful painting, whether it is of a soothing landscape, or an abstract piece that elicits a more energizing response.  Either way, the vast spectrum of shades in our world is a source of constant curiosity and stimulation that should be appreciated and continually discovered.

Footnotes: For more on Color Psychology and to read about each color’s positive and negative psychological properties, check out

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Lyra Pappin
Toronto, ON, Canada

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