My front porch in late summer makes me smile. That’s a small thing, but—then again— it’s not. The combination of yellow siding, red front door, and dark green shutters are complemented by greenery tumbling from the window box and clustered pots. As I kick back in an aging wicker chair with the paper and my morning cup of coffee, the scene lifts my spirit.
Yellow, red, and green. The pleasure those colors give me is unfailing.
We are each in a continuous dance with our surroundings, a back and forth process of creating a physical atmosphere and a personal mood. Our emotional states influence our surroundings; our surroundings influence our emotional states. The dance with our environment is a merging of both.
But it’s a dance we may not be leading. We can’t consciously take charge of the spaces in which we spend hours until we wake up to their emotional impact on us. Color, in particular, has significant psychological power to create and enhance mood.
The study of color psychology is an inexact science; our individual responses to color are personal and somewhat cultural, so talking about how color affects us is subjective. No color has been shown to produce the same effect for everybody and it would be boring if it did. Psychologically, we simply aren’t wired for that kind of rigid emotional response.
Still, there are predominant feelings that arise in the presence of specific colors. Being aware of this, plus being tuned in to our own emotions, we can lean toward the colors most likely to help us create an atmosphere we want.
Let’s get acquainted with a few of our partners in the dance with our surroundings:
• It’s no accident that McDonald’s arches and school buses are bright yellow. This is the color to which our eyes are most sensitive. In small amounts, yellow gets our attention, but because it’s highly reflective, it’s also fatiguing to the eye. Yellow is stimulating; a little goes a long way. While it’s a cheerful color, it’s worth noting that, because of its stimulating quality, it can increase sensitivity to frustration, anger, and pain. Simply knowing this, we might consider moderating yellow in classrooms, medical offices, and children’s nurseries. If we love yellow, we might opt for a softer shade or use it as an accent if we’re painting an area where this stimulation could be a problem.
• Red is generally considered the most powerful hue. Intense red is associated with passion, anger, and danger. When I’m mad, I see red. Stop signs and fire engines aren’t red by chance. As the color of blood, red signifies life itself and liveliness, as in “red-blooded.” If we want to send a high energy message, red is the optimum color to rev us up. Think of the Target bull’s eye motif and the red Macy’s star. Red is also an appetite stimulate. Have you noticed how many fast food restaurants use red in their decorating and advertising? Again, no coincidence.
• A blend of the passion of red and the stimulation of yellow is orange. Orange, like red, is often used in the food industry. Akin to yellow, it’s associated with energy and the sun, but its cheerful qualities are intensified by its leaning toward red. Fiery orange can draw out feelings of ambition, endurance, and perseverance.
• Blue has a calming effect and there are suggestions that workers are more productive in blue spaces. Because of its association with the sky, light to middle blues impart a sense of spaciousness and serenity. Deeper blues are associated with stability and dependability. Notice how often financial institutions use blue motifs in advertising and the use of blue in military uniforms. However, blue can also feel chilly and dark shades may suggest sadness. Hence, we get “the blues” when we feel down.
• A mixture of peaceful blue and energetic red gives us purple. This mix of calm and liveliness in one hue creates uneasiness for some of us and evokes strong responses: we either tend to embrace purple or run from it. This is a color associated with royalty, magic, and wisdom. Light purple is romantic, while deepest purple tends toward melancholy and, in some cultures, is symbolic of mourning. Mysterious and intriguing, purple sets the stage for a wide range of moods.
• Of all the colors, green produces the least eyestrain because the brain focuses the color green directly on the retina. The combination of a green background with white lettering is considered easiest for the eye to read; hence we see green highway signs with white reflective text. Think of the blackboards in many of our classrooms that were actually green boards. There was a reason for that. From the spring green of emerging shoots to the deep shimmering cool of a forest, green is universally linked to nature, growth, healing, and rebirth. Paradoxically, this color that is restful and symbolic of growth also encompasses shades that bring to mind illness and a lack of ease. Bilious green? Green with envy? Green takes us for a ride, running the gamut of responses.
• Currently, pink (named for the flower of the same name) is our most gender specific color, linked with femininity and gentleness, but it was not always so. In the early 20th century, pink was actually recommended for baby boys as a lighter version of the commanding and masculine red. Blue was considered dainty and more appropriate for baby girls. This pattern shifted prior to World War II, but, while pink remains related to sweetness and delicacy, it can also be an intense and lively color on its own, no longer a toned down version of red. When I’m feeling lively, I’m “in the pink,” and that’s definitely not a pastel pink!
• One of the neutral colors, brown is warm and comforting, because it’s one of the dominant colors in nature. While it’s conservative, that doesn’t necessarily mean it lacks presence. Think of a rich chocolate brown leather sofa or beautiful woodwork that conveys substance and permanence. Lighter browns balance intense colors and act as a resting place for the eye. Discreet and reserved, brown can be a grounding influence, without dominating the space.
• Gray, another neutral, enhances the power of other colors. Walls of art galleries are often gray because its subtlety intensifies the color in artwork. In the home or office that has significant hanging art, gray is a flattering option. There is a saying that gray is the color in which creative types are most creative. Though it’s understated, gray is distinctive and timeless, like a classic gray flannel suit.
• In our culture, black is traditionally associated with mourning, death, and fear, leading to negative connotations, like “black sheep” and “black mark,” but black has another side to consider. Sophisticated and elegant, it creates an atmosphere of stylish refinement. Think “black-tie affair” or “little black dress.” Black provides sharp contrast, allowing other colors to pop. While it’s unusual to see a room painted black, I have seen a stunning sunroom that had black walls and white trim: crisp, unique, and dramatic. And definitely not depressing.
• White is symbolic of innocence and purity in our part of the world, but it isn’t that way everywhere. In parts of Asia, it’s the color of death and mourning. Their white is our black, another example of how subjective our responses to color can be. White tends to make a space feel open and airy, eliciting feelings of tranquility and freshness, but, used alone, it can be quite sterile. Fortunately, if we like the effects of white, we can use it in combination with other colors or layer it with varying tints of white to create interest. The human mind can perceive at least two hundred shades of white, so the possibilities are endless.
Beyond these general responses to color, we bring our past experiences with us as we decorate our spaces. Our history with a color shapes its psychological power to touch us on an unconscious level; no one dances with the same color in exactly the same way. Yet, we’re stumbling in our relationships with our surroundings when we miss the wonderful opportunity to truly engage with the spaces we create. As we become aware of the power our surroundings have to enhance the quality of our lives, we can experiment with our color choices with our eyes and our memories wide open. Our stories continue to be told and unfold in our physical spaces.
When I was four years old, my mother sewed me a sundress from a couple of flour sacks, donated to the cause by my Mama Ethel. My bare feet drew the heat of our newly poured concrete walk up my legs, like two wicks, as I spun like a top in the June heat, proud of my sunny new dress.
The flour sacks were yellow, with a pattern of soft red roses and green sprigs. Yellow, red, and green. Just like my porch today.
Those colors made me smile then and they still do.
My dance continues. My story unfolds.