Color Theory & Psychology


Color can have a profound effect on mood, as well as physical and mental health, sometimes without individuals even knowing. Color is one of the most important aspects of human visual sensory. It has been shown to cause brainwaves to travel to the pituitary and pineal glands through the hypothalamus. Psychologists have long studied and investigated the phenomenon of how color can affect the physical systems within human bodies.

History of Color Theory

  • The "color theory" was first theorized by Sir Isaac Newton in 1666. However, the principles first were mentioned within the writings of Leone Battista Alberti and Leonardo da Vinci. Newton wrote about the nature of the primary colors--red, blue, and yellow--first and foremost, which developed into an independent theory of color mixing and visual science. The three primary colors are capable of giving birth to the rest of the colors within the color wheel.

What Is Color?

  • Newton discovered that when light passed through a prism, it would separate into all of the visible colors. After this discovery, he also found that color already separated from the light could not be separated further to create another color. Each color has its own specific wavelength that cannot be broken. It was found, however, that the colors could be combined in order to create another color, called a metamer. Colors that are opposite of each other within the color wheel are called compliment colors; they appear to be intensified when placed side by side.

Psychology of Color

  • The colors of the spectrum usually are associated with two opposing moods. Reds, oranges and yellows have been associated with warmth, excitement and activity. The cool, passive and calming qualities pertain to the hues of blue, green and violet. Frank Vodvarka, an associate professor of fine arts at Loyola University Chicago, researched the effect of color on mood and behavior and discovered that colors also can have contradictory effects. For example, green usually is seen as cool, fresh and altogether pleasing, but green illumination upon human flesh causes it to appear repulsive. Reactions to colors differ when the individual associates color with the outside world or with himself.


  • Color psychology is often a difficult subject to study because human emotions are not entirely stable and the psychological anatomy of humans may vary greatly among individuals. There are, however, universal responses to color that appear to be similar across different studies. Researcher Gilbert Brighouse studied the effects of color on several hundred college students. He found that students were 12 percent faster under red light, while green light slowed their responses.

Color Effects

  • Each color has common physical and psychological responses. Red has been shown to increase blood pressure and stimulate the adrenal glands, which increases stamina. Orange has proved to be beneficial to the digestive and immune system as well as having an antidepressant effect. Yellow enhances concentration while stimulating the brain. Green is the easiest color on the eye; most people are calmed and refreshed by this color. Blue is peaceful and tranquil, and this color stimulates the brain into making calming chemicals, such as GABA. Violet often is associated with meditative effects on the body and mind.

Color Therapy

  • Another term for color therapy is chromotherapy, which uses colors to heal. It has been practiced in ancient cultures, such as the Egyptians, whose people also believed in color's ability to physically and psychologically mend. Some tools used in chromotherapy include colored lenses, candles and colored fabrics. Critics remain skeptical of color's ability to heal because of chromotherapy's past failure to follow the scientific method when testing its validity.

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  • Photo Credit colors image by sasha from Lumière image by Jef 132 from green bottles and green phial image by Maria Brzostowska from colourful gems image by OMKAR A.V from
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