Color Psychology: What Does It All Mean?

Color Psychology: What Does It All Mean?

Do colors have a subliminal affect on human behavior?  Color psychology studies have shown that color can evoke a certain mood or emotion and send a positive or negative response to the viewer.  Color stimulates individuals in a variety of ways, it is a sense of individuality.

Color theory encompasses many different meanings and concepts which is applied strategically in design applications.

Color history in a nutshell:

  • Philosopher, Leone Battista Alberti (c. 1435) and artist/inventor, Leonardo da Vinci (c. 1495) were the first known writings on color principles.
  • In 1666, Isaac Newton’s Theory of Color and primary colors were introduced.
  • Just over a hundred years after Newton’s discovery, Moses Harris created the first color wheel. It classified red, blue and
    yellow as the three primary colors. Primary colors cannot be created by mixing any other colors together.
  • Then in the early twentieth century, German painter, Johannes Itten extended the color wheel to include secondary and tertiary colors. He also pioneered the idea of warm and cool colors and principle that any shade of color can either have a warm base or a cool base.

Itten’s ground-breaking Color Star Chart featured twelve colors…

Ittens Color Wheet

Primary Colors

Origins of color theory start with 3 pigment colors called the Primary Colors (red, yellow, and blue).  These colors are not created from any combination of other colors.  All other colors are derived from the primary hues.

Secondary Colors

By mixing combinations of the primary colors, 3 secondary colors are created.

Red + Yellow = Orange

Yellow + Blue = Green

Red + Blue = Purple

Tertiary Colors 

Six tertiary colors are made when a primary color is mixed with a secondary color

Tints and Shades

All colors can be lightened by adding white commonly know as a tint or darkened by adding black and know as a shade.  It is often seen that the lighter tints are more feminine whereby the darker shades become more masculine.

Complementary and Color Harmony

Complimentary colors are direct opposite of one another on the color wheel and have strong
visual impact when placed beside each other.

Red + Green

Blue + Orange

Yellow + Purple

Harmonious colors on the other hand rest alongside each other in the color wheel.


Blue + Purple

Color Wheel

If you are looking to interject some color into a space and don’t know where to start, some experts recommend starting in your closet and discover which color combinations appeal to you.

Color creates visual experiences and engages the viewer.  It is important to create visual interest and a sense of order.  Extreme unity may become boring and lead to under-stimulation and on the other end of the scale extreme complexity may become chaotic and create over-stimulation.  Balance is the essence of complementary color scheme.

Designers and artists are always looking for fresh ideas and ways to create meaning in their work and capture the mood they want to portray.  Future posts will discuss individual colors and the unique characteristics associated with the colors meaning, symbolism, culture, mood and emotions.


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