Psychology of Colours

The Perception and Psychology of Colours in Art and Architecture

COLOUR PSYCHOLOGY ARCHITECTURE INTERIOR DESIGN ART

yazdius.design

2/4/2022 0 min read

The Colour harmony can affect mental balance, comfort and excitement. Colours can be associated with psychology, symbolism and even mysticism. For instance, only two combinations of green and red have a unique psychological impact on art and design for viewers (besides the Christmasy feeling of these two colours, which is another psychological aspect of these two colours). They can subconsciously create and express madness, sadness and awfulness in the viewers' minds. We can point to the famous painting "The Night Café" by Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh. He wrote a series of letters to his sister Wilhelmina and brother Theo, which detailed his objective in painting The Night Café:

"In my picture of the Night Café, I have tried to express the terrible passions of humanity by means of red and green... the café is a place where one can ruin oneself, go mad or commit a crime. There are 6 or 7 different reds in this canvas, from blood red to delicate pink, contrasting with as many pale or deep greens. Everywhere there is a clash and contrast of the most alien reds and greens, in the figures of little sleeping hooligans, in the empty dreary room, in violet and blue. I have tried to express the powers of darkness in a low public house, by soft Louis XV green and malachite, contrasting with yellow-green and harsh blue-greens, and all of this in an atmosphere like a devil's furnace, of pale sulpher."

The Night Café (September 1888) - Vincent Van Gogh

It was only one example that an artist expressed their feelings with colours. Like architects and interior designers, all designers and artists consider the colour effect of every element of their design. This is because colours and perceptions are responsible for conscious and subconscious stimuli in a psychological relationship. Colours in the architecture context are fundamental to humans' need to achieve aesthetical or decorative values, to create an atmosphere for feeling happy or sad, satisfied or hungry, excitement or dull. In the last few decades, many studies have proven that human reaction and feeling in the architectural environment is firmly based on the perception of colours.

Before we start talking about the psychology of colours and their effect on our feelings, we should know a few fundamental aspects of the colour world. We can segment colours in different ways, combine them and put them as a group to make a palette for our design to express certain feelings like van Gogh's painting. We can create these palettes scientifically, but we must first understand the theory, wheels, and harmony of colours and their combination.

Theory, Wheels and Harmony of Colours

Colour theory is a practical combination of art and science that creates a logical structure to determine what colours look good together. The colour wheel is the basis of colour theory because it shows the relationship between colours. The colour wheel illustrates the relationship between primary, secondary and tertiary colours. The earliest example of the colour wheel created by Sir Isacc Newton in the 1600s was primarily a reference point for understanding the rules regarding the mixture of coloured light. He mapped the colour spectrum onto a circle.

A century later, Johann Wolfgang Goethe started studying the Impact of colour on human psychology and created his own wheel to reflect his findings. Over the years, this has developed further, and we now refer to the colour theory developed by Swiss art theorist Johannes Itten. The primary colours in Itten's wheel are based on RYB (red, yellow and blue) with twelve hues.

Technically there are two types of colour wheels. Artists typically use the "RYB" Wheel (Itten's wheel) as it helps with combining paint colours. Then the RGB wheel (red, green and blue) is designed for digital world use, like on a computer or TV screen. 

On the other hand, colour harmony refers to colours that look good together. Artists and designers create harmony for particular feelings or illustrations. They use the colour wheel to find colour harmonies by using the rules of colour combinations. Colour combinations determine the relative positions of different colours to find colours that create a particular effect.

RYB (subtractive pigments) - Yazdius Design

RYB (subtractive pigments)

RGB (Additive light) - Yazdius Design

RGB (Additive light)

RGB And RYB
RGB

Primary: In the RGB wheel, the colours create pure white light when mixing together. These colours are red, green and blue.

Secondary: These are colours that result from mixing two primary colours. There are three secondary colours. In the RGB colour wheel, these are cyan, magenta and yellow. The combination of red and green make yellow, green and blue make cyan, and blue and red make magenta.

Tertiary: These colours are made by combining a secondary colour with a primary colour. There are six tertiary colours. These are orange, chartreuse green, spring green, azure, violet, and rose in the RGB colour wheel.

Black and white: All colours on the RGB wheel combined with the light from three primary colours (RGB). The max value of each colour is 255. The value of Black is [0,0,0], and White is [255, 255, 255]. In a technical sense, black and white are not colours; they're shades. They augment colours.

RGB Colour Wheel - Yazdius Design

RGB Colour Wheel

RGB Colours - Primary, Secondary and tertiary - Yazdius Design

RGB Colours - Primary, Secondary and tertiary

RYB

Primary: In the RYB colour wheel, primary colours can't create from other colours. There are three primary colours: red, yellow, and blue.

Secondary: In the RYB colour wheel (that result from mixing two primary colours), the secondary colours are purple (red mixed with blue), orange (red mixed with yellow), and green (yellow mixed with blue).

Tertiary: In the RYB colour wheel, the tertiary colours are red-orange, yellow-orange, yellow-green, blue-green, blue-violet, and red-violet.

Black and white: Black and white are not directly included on the Colour Wheel because they are not a part of the spectrum. But we could consist of black on the Color Wheel, not on the same ring with other colours, but in the middle of the circle because black is a mixture of 3 primaries. So in a technical sense, black and white are not colours; they're shades. They augment colours.

RYB Colour Wheel - Yazdius Design

RYB Colour Wheel

RGB Colours - Primary, Secondary and tertiary - Yazdius Design

RYB Colours - Primary, Secondary and tertiary

Colour combination 
Complementary

Refers to two colours that are on opposite sides of the colour wheel. This combination provides high contrast and high impact colour combinations; these colours will appear brighter and more prominent.

RYB Complementary - Yazdius Design

RYB Complementary

Monochromatic

When three shades, tones, and tints of one base colour sit next to each other, it provides a subtle and conservative colour combination. This versatile colour combination is easy to apply to design projects for a harmonious look.

RYB Monochromatic - Yazdius Design

RYB Monochromatic

Analogous

Three colours that are side by side of each other on the colour wheel. This colour combination is versatile but can be overwhelming. To balance an analogous colour scheme, choose one dominant colour, and use the others as accents.

RYB Analogous - Yazdius Design

RYB Analogous

Triadic

Three colours that are evenly spaced on the colour wheel. This provides a high contrast colour scheme, but less so than the complementary colour combination, making it more versatile. This combination creates bold, vibrant colour palettes.

RYB Triadic - Yazdius Design

RYB Triadic

Tetradic

Four colours that are evenly spaced on the colour wheel. Tetradic colour schemes are bold and work best if one colour is dominant and uses the others as accents. The more colours you have in your palette, the more difficult it is to balance.

RYB Tetradic - Yazdius Design

RYB Tetradic

Colours Temperature

The colour wheel can be divided into warm and cool colours. The warmth or coolness is also known as its colour temperature. The colour combinations found on a colour wheel often have a balance of warm and cool colours. According to colour psychology, different colour temperatures evoke different feelings. For example, warm colours bring cosiness and energy to mind, while cool colours are associated with serenity and isolation.

Warm colours bring to mind warmth, like the sun.

Cool colours bring to mind coolness, like water.

RYB Cold and Warm colours - Yazdius Design

RYB Cold and Warm colours

Colour Psychology 

The psychological and even physiological Impact of colour started to be considered during the 1960s. Following in Johann Wolfgang Goethe's footsteps, Faber Birren (1900–1988) was one of the first people to do comprehensive research on the human perception of and response to colour. He wrote around 25 texts on the topic, and his work is considered highly among colour experts and psychologists. Birren's work strongly focuses on linking how humans perceive colours to react. For example, he writes, "Good smelling colours are pink, lilac, orchid, cool green, aqua blue." Furthermore, Birren states that if a person prefers warmer colours such as reds and oranges, they are likely to be more aware of their social environment. Therefore, he labels them as "warm colour dominant subjects."

On the other hand, people who prefer cooler colours such as blues and greens are generally categorised as "cold colour dominant subjects" and are recognised as finding it challenging to adapt to new environments and situations". By splitting people into separate categories, he better understood their personalities and characteristics based on their colour preferences. In one of his texts, Birren explores a subject standing in front of a black wall with his eyes shut and arms outstretched to touch the wall in front. When the subject is influenced by a warm colour such as red, his arms deviate from each other. Whereas when they are under the influence of a cooler colour, such as green or blue, the subject will move his arms closer together even though the reaction is subtle.

These studies determine the value of colour-psychology effects on humans when they influence a particular environment. For instance, In the home environment, colours can create certain feelings in different rooms. For example, orange or red may boost appetite while encouraging communication within the dining area; in return, green may cause loos appetite in the same room. In bedrooms, purples, Blues or greens may create a calming atmosphere. White and blues can induct the feeling of cleanness in bathrooms. Since green is the easiest colour on the human eye, using greens in general living areas may be beneficial.

Obviously, each colour's effect depends on its position and context since colours are rarely seen independently. Our perception and reaction to a hue will change with location and light condition, whether interior or exterior. Is it located on a ceiling, a wall, or the floor? The designer's job is to find out the combinations and relationships between colours and their effects on architecture context; it's their job to find the best variety to express the function and feel of each room or a design. But in general, we can talk about the individual effects of each colour.

WHITE

Effects: disconcerting

Positive Impact: cleanness, purity, freshness, simplicity 

Negative Impact: empty, blank, sterile, stark, cold, isolated

Symbolism: a new beginning or a fresh start.

Characteristic: The colour white is the most complete and pure, the colour of perfection. The psychological meaning of white is purity, innocence, wholeness and completion. But on the other hand, it represents emptiness, and there is a lot of justification for not using white as a domain colour.

psychology of colour white in architecture - Yazdius Design
BLACK

Effect: ominous

Positive Impact: deep, abstract, power

Negative Impact: sadness, dungeonlike, night, grief, death

Symbolism: mystery, power, elegance, sophistication, prestige, formality, importance, austerity, detachment

Characteristic: The connection between Black and negativity is probably clearly seen in our language. But also, Black is associated with power and prestige. In architecture, it is often used to make something appear as receding, such as the HVAC in a ceiling. 

psychology of colour black in architecture - Yazdius Design
GREY

Effect: neutral to calming

Positive Impact: neutral, balance 

Negative Impact: boring, dull, loss, depression 

Symbolism: intellect, compromise, conservative, solid, conservative, practical, old age

Character: It's a diplomatic colour, negotiating the distance between Black and white. We typically consider grey conservative, elegant, and cool, though mysterious. Grey fails to have much psychotherapeutic application. Thus, the current fashion of using it with various accent walls defies all logic.

3D rendering and visualisation - psychology of colour grey in architecture - Yazdius Design
RED

Effect: attracts the most attention, exciting, stimulating

Positive Impact: passionate, eager, active, power, signify strength, warm

Negative Impact: intense, aggressive, dangerous, raging, fierce, bloody

Symbolism: life, health, vigour, war, courage, anger, love, religious fervour

Characteristic: The colour red is associated with strong emotions, such as love, passion, and anger. Red is vibrant, stimulating and exciting, with a solid link to sexuality and increased appetites. Red is the most dominant and dynamic colour. The eye has to adjust focus since the natural focal point of red lies behind the retina. Consequently, red appears closer than it is.

psychology of colour red in architecture - Yazdius Design
GREEN

Effect: retiring, relaxing

Positive Impact: abundance, tranquil, refreshing, quiet, familiar, natural

Negative Impact: tiresome, guilty

Symbolism: nature, sickness, renewal, youth, spring, generosity, fertility, jealousy, service, inexperience, envy

Characteristic: Green is universally associated with nature, linked to grass, plants and trees. Green helps people feel rested and secure. Contrary to red, the eye focuses precisely on the retina when looking at green, which makes green the most restful colour to the eye. 

psychology of colour green in architecture - Yazdius Design
YELLOW

Effect: cheering

Positive Impact: sunny, cheerful, uplifting, radiant, illuminating, vital

Negative Impact: egocentric, glaring

Symbolism: sunshine, warmth, happiness, joy, betrayal, optimism, idealism, imagination, hope

Characteristic: The colour resonates with the left or logical side of the brain, stimulating our mental faculties and creating mental agility and perception. Yellow is the happiest of all colours. It radiates warmth, cheerfulness, and inspiration and signifies enlightenment and communication.

psychology of colour yellow in architecture - Yazdius Design
BLUE

Effect: retiring, relaxing, serenity

Positive Impact: calm, sober, secure, orderly, comfortable, noble

Negative Impact: frightening, sadness, aloofness, melancholy, cold

Symbolism: Blue represents the sky and the sea and is associated with open spaces, freedom, intuition, imagination, inspiration, and sensitivity.

Characteristic: Blue appears transparent, wet, cool, and relaxing. Opposite to red, blue will decrease a person's blood pressure and pulse rate. In addition, blue is associated with professionalism and trust; this is why we can see most major corporations like Intel, hp, dell, American Express, General Motors and such using this colour in their logo.

psychology of colour blue in architecture - Yazdius Design
ORANGE

Effect: exciting, stimulating, cheering, signifies shelter

Positive Impact: joyful, lively, energetic, extroverted, optimism

Negative Impact: intrusive, disappointment, blustering

Symbolism: danger, autumn, energy, balance, enthusiasm, warmth, vibrant, expansive, flamboyant

Characteristic: Orang is used for safety equipment and indicates areas where we need to exercise caution. Orange is less masculine than red. It has very few negative associations. However, it may appear cheap or without vigour if low in saturation.

psychology of colour orange in architecture - Yazdius Design
BROWN

Effect: subduing

Positive Impact: warm, secure, stable, 

Negative Impact: oppressive, heavy, loneliness 

Symbolism:  Earth, stability, hearth, home, outdoors, reliability, comfort, honesty

Characteristic: Brown is often seen as solid, much like the earth, and it's a colour often associated with resilience, dependability, security, and safety. There is a tremendous difference between Wood and brown paint. In certain institutions, brown should be avoided since it evokes faecal associations. On the other hand, Wood and stone appear very comfortable and warm.

psychology of colour Brown in architecture - Yazdius Design
PURPLE

Effect: subduing

Positive Impact: dignified, exclusive

Negative Impact: lonely, mournful, pompous, conceited

Symbolism: Royalty, nobility, spirituality, ceremony, wisdom, enlightenment, cruelty, honour, arrogance, mourning, temperance.

Characteristic: Purple is a mixture of red and blue (the two colours that are psychologically most opposed). Purple can appear delicate and rich or unsettling and degenerate. Light purples are associated with light-hearted, romantic energies, while darker shades can represent sadness and frustration.

psychology of colour Purple in architecture - Yazdius Design
PINK

Effect: lively (bubble-gum pink), calming (light pink)

Positive Impact: lively, calming, intimate

Negative Impact: too sweet, weak

Symbolism: love and romance, caring, tenderness, acceptance and calm

Characteristic: Pink must be handled carefully. It is generally considered feminine but depends much on the nuance used (bubble-gum pink, or old rose). Pink is associated with youth, good health, and playfulness. It's the flush of first love.

pink concrete building

Indeed, colour is more than decoration purposes. Colour specifications can be satisfied or solved by personal interpretations. Colour is an integral element in architecture; it is not only necessary aesthetically, but it also has excellent psycho-sensory importance. Any designer must consider this aspect in their art!