The Emotional Properties of Colour

Colour theory and visual art goes hand in hand; whether you’re looking at still life paintings, portraiture, landscape art, and, especially abstract art, colour has a huge influence in how the work is received by the viewer. Although, the chosen colours in some artworks are used primarily to make the artwork as representative and true to life as possible, shades, tones and hues never fail to have an overall effect on the artwork.

Terry Watts – Rising Tide, Medway estuary Kent

Colour Theory: The Science behind the Art

One of the first things that many of us learn about when studying art today, is colour theory; what colours create which other colours and how they work together. Historic artists would have also considered this; especially those who did not have the benefit of painting from photographs or even life.

3 Primary Colours: 

  • Red
  • Blue
  • Yellow

3 Secondary Colours: created by mixing the primary colours together including:

  • Red + Yellow = Orange
  • Yellow + Blue = Green
  • Red + Blue = Purple

Shades and Tints:

Colours can be lightened by adding white to the palette; this is known as a tint and as we all know, the same colour can always be darkened by adding black which is known as a shade. Typically lighter shades are considered to be more feminine whereas darker shades appear more masculine.

The Emotion of Colour

So that’s the science of colour, however, we’re going to take a look at the emotional side, for example,  the meaning of colour and what connotations, feelings and moods it can add to paintings.

George Weissbort – Still life with mustard jar, tomatoes, knife and glass on a striped tablecloth


A predominately red piece can evoke a number of emotions; of course, the mood will vary dependent on the tonal qualities of the colour in question. Typically dark reds are used to evoke a romantic setting; however, that being said, red can also evoke angry connotations. In short, red is a passionate colour that can portray both positive and negative emotions.


Yellow is probably one of the most optimistic of the colours and is associated with happiness and home; perhaps the reason for this is that it is the colour of the sun and natural light. Light yellow is certainly a more positive colour than a dull yellow that can represent decay and sickness.


Blue is probably one of the most common colours found in landscape paintings, it represents both the sky and the sea. It is a soft colour, yet it can also portray depth when a deeper, dark shade it used. Blue is often associated with masculinity, whereas pink, more feminine.


The colour white is powerful; it represents purity, perfection, and, innocence. Throughout the Renaissance angels were depicted in white, flawless gowns meaning that white holds religious and spiritual connotations.


Typically black is used to alter the tonal qualities of colours, however it also holds connotations of its own; usually negative. Black can be used to create a raw feeling of doom. In general, the darker painting, the more solemn or dramatic the piece becomes, especially when contrasted with brighter shades.

George Weissbort – Still Life with Apples and Knife


Green is believed to have a calming effect; it is the colour of nature and suggests connotations of hope, growth and sustainability. You will obviously see green more predominantly in landscape paintings due to the subject matter. Green can also have negative connotations such as jealousy, sickness and envy. Again tone has a lot to do with the psychological connotations of a colour.

The Influence of Colour

Colour is hugely influential in regards to artwork. Of course, this isn’t just the case for fine art; the psychology of colour is apparent in graphic arts, illustration, advertising, web design and even art therapy. Colour is inspirational and powerful; it is an effective tool that will certainly remain to be so as long as art is created, so hopefully forever.

About Mark Mitchell

Dealers in 19th-20th Century British and Continental Works of Art
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