Thursday, July 24, 2008

Symbolic Colour

Colour has meaning. Colour is symbolic. Colours remind us of things. Local colour is the colour which we see, while symbolic colour is the colour we need to interpret. This post provides an overview of some of the meanings of different colours - and the origins of some of those meanings.

Colour is often thought of as being a universal language but it's important to realise that the symbolic meaning of colour varies from culture to culture. An important and memorable example of this is the colour associated with death - black in the west and white in the east. Plus the Inuit people have seventeen different words for white!

Colour in frequency rank in terms of names in different languages
  • black and white - all languages
  • red
  • yellow or green
  • (the other one) yellow or green
  • blue
  • grey, orange, pink and purple
I used a variety of sources for the following information (listed at the end) - and marvelled at the extent of the discrepancies I found existed. So it needs to be emphasised that this is in one respect exactly the same as those you'll find in many books and website - ie one view rather than any sort of definitive analysis!

What I found interesting as I progressed through the various sources was to see a colour described in one way in one book and then to have that ascribed meaning in another.

Madonna del parto 1467
Piero della Francesca
206cm x 203cm
Fresco detachd from Santa Maria di Momentana
Museo della Madonna del Parto in Monterchi, Via Reglia, 1 Monterchi (AR)

The colour blue: For example, so far as I am aware, most pictures of the Virgin Mary have her clothed in a blue robe - but this is not universal. This is partly because in the Renaissance, the colour blue was highly prized as lapis lazuli was rare, difficult to work with and expensive - and it was the main constituent of a rich blue colour. It was therefore reserved and used only for those people who were the most important. Notions of nobility (blue blood) and divinity might have arisen from this association. On the one hand it's interesting to think that the meaning of a colour might have arisen from the way in which it was made. At the same time, it's also interesting to note just how many other religions across the world have adopted blue as having religious meaning.

I'm using the example of the Piero della Francesca's Madonna del Parto because I went to see it a few years ago. Monterchi in Tuscany is surrounded by towns with yet more Piero della Francesca frescos in churches - although fortunately most of those are still on the walls.

Whiteelemental - ice

emotional - cold, without emotion

gender - none specific

symbolic (positive) - good, purity (Judaism), innocence (bridal and baptisimal gowns), happiness
western traditions

symbolic (negative) - death and mourningChina, Japan,
some African nations

seasonal - cold, snow, winter

used in a painting - provides highlights

Redelemental - fire, heat, blood

emotional - passion, excitement, speed, anger,

gender - masculine, virility, powerful"red-blooded"

symbolic (positive) - auspicious(1) Chinese bridal colour
(1) China

symbolic (negative) - war, the devil, debt, communism, prostitution,
soldiers /devil often dressd in red; Soviet/Chinese flags; red light districts

seasonal - Christmas; Passion ceremony re death of Jesus
western tradition

used in a painting - always attracts the eye; a small amount can go a long way

Blueelemental - water, sky, air, distance,

emotional - calm, harmony, tranquil, serene
AND depression, sadness, despondency, despair

'blues' music

gender - masculine (but appeals to both genders)

symbolic (positive) - nobility, truth,
divinity, spirituality, (many cultures) immortality (China), holiness (Judaism) Krishna and other gods (Hinduism)

symbolic (negative) - obscenity
western cultures

seasonal - summer

clothing - authority (dark blue)

used in a painting -calms and cools
Virgin Mary and other very important figures in renaissance paintings;
reserved use of ultramarine (lapis lazuli)
Greenelemental - earth

emotional - harmony, calm, stable
AND envy, jealousy,
AND immature, gullible,
"green room" in a theatre
"green with envy"
'green wood'

gender - non-specific, youth

symbolic (positive) - fresh, rebirth, renewal, fertility, eternal life, balance, baptism;
Islam (respect/ veneration);
conservation and the environment
"Green Man"
European traditions;
Green movement

symbolic (negative) - illness; bad spirits;
disgrace (China); corruption (North Africa)

seasonal - spring, leaves, grass

used in a painting -

Yellowelemental -gold (wealth)

emotional - joy, happiness, optimism, hope;

gender - feminine;

symbolic (positive) - wisdom(1), intuition (2); intelligence
(1) Islam; (2) Jungian philosophy

symbolic (negative) -
poison and death(1) and
mourning (2)
hazards and hazard signs (3)
deceit; cowardice (4),
sickness (5)
(1) Middle Ages;
(2) Egypt;
(3) black on yellow has the highest level of recognition ie safest
(4) 'yellow streak'
(5) jaundice

seasonal - summer, sunlight, autumn

clothing - Taoist robes

used in a painting - a colour of duality and ambiguity (good versus evil)

Orangeelemental -

emotional - warmth, bright, cheerful,

gender - non-specific

symbolic (positive) - fruitfulness

symbolic (negative) - brashness, danger
highlights dangerous areas

seasonal - Autumn

clothing - Budhist monks' robes

used in a painting - not often!

Purpleelemental - non-specific

emotional - passion, rage, pomposity creativity, overwrought

gender - non-specific

symbolic (positive) - priests, royalty, nobility, bravery,
'the royal purple'
cloth originally died from a rare Mediterranean snail!

symbolic (negative) - death and mourning,

seasonal - dusk

used in a painting - both a red and a blue; often used for atmospheric effects eg shadows. distant landscape, sunsets

Pinkelemental - non specific

emotional - 'paler' version of red emotions
good health, pretty, sweet,
in the pink

gender - multiple interpretations
masculine (Japan - represents Samurai)
western cultures: became specific to women in the 20s;
Gay - used for symbols by the Nazis in the 30s/40s

symbolic - babyish
left wing - but not extreme

'not quite red'

seasonal - non-specific

used in a painting - calms (if not lurid)

Brownelemental - earth, wood

emotional - melancholy, comfort, security

gender - masculine

symbolic (positive) - organic, natural, wholesome,

symbolic (negative) - gloom

seasonal - Autumn, Thanksgiving

used in a painting -

Grayelemental - non-specific (dust?), the moon

emotional - boring, dull, pessimisim
balance, equivocation
men in grey suits
shades of grey

gender - non-specific; old age

symbolic - neither positive nor negative = confusion
no colour; urban
the 'colour' of Lent (ie no colour)

seasonal - winter
grey days

used in a painting - coloured greys are used as neutral to allow other colours to shine

Blackelemental - underworld / absence of light

emotional - anger, sadness, unhappiness, remorse, depression, rebellion, silence, anonymity

gender - none specific (androgenous?)

symbolic (positive) - life, growth, well-being, rebirth
Egypt (colour of the Nile alluvial soil)

symbolic (negative) - death and mourning (1), evil, purge, doom and foreboding, bad luck, anarchism (2)
(1)western tradition
(2) blackshirts

seasonal - night

clothing - clergy, mourning,
black cowboy hat = evil,
AND formal, elegant, sophisticated
western cultures

used in a painting - provides contrast

How about you? Do you think about the symbolism and meaning of the colours you use when painting?



Julie Oakley said...

Amused me that you put Communism in amongst the negative connotations of red. Some of your readers might think that the political connotations of red mean it should go in the positive section!

Making A Mark said...

I think that's a hangover from before I decided I was going to downplay the political side of things.

Mind you I'm under the impression that quite a few of the old communist states have gone over to good old fashioned capitalism. Isn't that where all the money's coming from to buy art - from the Russian billionaires?

Unknown said...

Hi Katherine, the colour red has in some cultures a significant meaning - in India f.e. the bride always wears red - it is a sign of luck I was told by a befriended Indian couple. Until today the colour red is significant in the Vatikan being the colour of the cardinals. Partially in Islamic cultures red is used for the bride as well - at least in southeast Asia.

In western meaning I think red has been often used as a menace and metaphor for the evil. Not so very much today with the meaning of love - red roses are the synonym.
Not to forget the psycholocial effect of red - meaning aggression etc. It is interesting to realize that often people who drive a red car are thought to be reckless drivers (which is nonsense of course) but exceptions confirm the rule.

Btw - I personally used red always as a fire element, lava, in this silk carving about Hawaiian symbols, called "Pele":

Red is for me the strongest colour with the most intense meaning that exists.

Greetings, Petra

Felicity Grace said...

Something bothers me about colours having positive and negative meanings because it is a symbolic language that human beings pass on rather than a proven emotion response. Rather like saying the letter L is boring compared to an M. I love the colour brown - to me it's chocolate, earth, lemurs, burmese cats, bark, chestnuts, warmth, leather, chic, brown skin etc., etc. I cannot see it as a negative masculine thing! Purple too seems to be interpreted in an alien way to me. I'm not saying it's wrong but it's like religion, how can that be learned? If I don't find brown gloomy or blue depressing (is looking at clear blue skies depressing?), how can that be true for me and should I therefore accept it? Red seems to be the only colour that all humans react strongly to and I would guess that is an instinctive response to the colour of blood the sight of which is obviously the result of harm, stress, excitement or arousal to the body (not a learned response). Perhaps when the experts talk of symbolic colour they mean it as a loose interpretation, but it does seem to be taken 'as Bible'.

Anonymous said...

Hello Katherine
This is a fascinating post. You might be interested in a quote I added to my own blog called the Language of Colour from a novel called 'Carnevale' by M R Lovric. Bear in mind that it is supposed to be written by a (female) Renaissance artist ...

Making A Mark said...

Thanks for the really interesting comments - they provide much food for thought.

Elena Maslova-Levin said...

I believe the idea of multiple words for "white" in Inuit is but another branch of the so called "Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax", a linguistic anthropology's contribution to the stock of modern urban legends (begun in 1911, originally for "snow", rather than "white"). Various versions of this story are easily found by google.

On the other hand, there seems to be some positive evidence that our native languages influence our perception of colour through the right eye (i.e. controlled by the left brain), but not if one uses only one's left eye. I oversimplify, but there is a detectable difference. Here is the abstract of this paper (may be this can be of use for artists in their squinting techniques?).

Post a Comment

COMMENTS HAVE BEEN SUSPENDED AGAIN due to very silly ignorant people who leave spam comments without realising they have no benefit for them.

Please feel free to comment on my Facebook Page as my blog posts are always posted there (but please note anonymous comments are not published and I block and report spammers to Google and on Facebook)

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.