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The goal of most art is to provoke an emotional response from the viewer. Fundamentally, art is the communication of emotion.

In photographic art, nothing provokes an emotional response better than color. Show a person a black and white image of a gruesome automobile accident and they will be disturbed. Show that same image to them in color and they are likely to become physically ill. As a more pleasant example, show a person a black and white image of a red rose, and they’ll notice the texture, shading and composition. Show it to them in color, and they’ll feel the power and energy of love.

Colors have been identified with emotions for as long as we can remember. A man’s face gets red with rage, a woman who is depressed is feeling blue, a cowardly man is yellow, a lover may be green with jealousy, and a woman who is feeling healthy is “in the pink”.

The emotions triggered by a specific color can depend on nationality, social upbringing, personal preference and past experiences. Some studies have shown, however, that some colors or combinations of colors can affect people regardless of other factors.

The science of color psychology can get very complex, but understanding how some colors are traditionally linked with emotions can help when you want to elicit a specific response.

Let’s examine some major colors and some of the traditional meanings and triggers generally accepted in western culture.

    * Red, a primary color, is an emotionally intense color. It can signify danger, which can have the effect of raising respiration rate and blood pressure. It is the color of blood and fire, so it can also signify energy, war, power and strength, as well as passion, desire, and love. Red has very high visibility, which is why danger signs and flashing danger lights are usually in red.

    * Yellow, another primary color, is one of the most difficult colors to visually focus on. It is the color of sunshine and triggers joy, happiness, sense of intellect and energy. It has a stimulating impact on memory. If overused or used with the wrong combination of colors (such as brown or dark orange), it can signify criticism or laziness. Darker shades of yellow can evoke feelings of decay and sickness.

    * Blue, the third primary color, is the easiest for the eye to focus on. It can signify peace, tranquility, trust, loyalty, faith and wisdom. Blue is considered beneficial to the mind and body. It slows metabolism and produces a calming effect. Lighter blues are associated with health, tranquility and understanding, while darker blues are associated with power, strength, integrity and knowledge.

    * Green is the color of nature. It includes all the qualities of yellow and blue (its parent colors), and is associated with hope, growth, freshness, soothing, sharing, and good health. It is the most restful color for the human eye, and can suggest safety and purity. Darker greens can be associated with jealousy, greed and ambition. When yellow is dominant in green, it can indicate sickness, cowardice, and discord.

    * Orange combines the energy of red and the happiness of yellow. It can symbolize steadfastness, courage, confidence, friendliness and cheerfulness. Orange is not as aggressive as red, but nonetheless stimulates mental activity and invigorates the body.

    * White is almost always associated with positive emotions. It is the color of purity, goodness, innocence and virginity. It is considered to be the color of perfection.

    * Black is a mysterious color, associated with evil, shadow, death, formality and ultimate power. It usually has a negative connotation, but can also represent elegance and prestige.

While in the past, some black and white purists have decried color photography as less artistic than black and white photography, I would tend to disagree. While no one can dispute that black and white photography can create some beautiful images, color — if used properly — can induce a stronger emotional impact.

Though most of us will look at the colors in art and simply enjoy the emotions produced, learning to intentionally use these colors can be an important artistic tool and even a lifelong obsession.


Paul Wood has been capturing light, both traditionally and digitally, for over 25 years. An avid hobbyist turned semi-pro, he uses his experience in many different walks of life to shape his images. He has worked as a photographer, sailor, electronics technician, computer programmer, teacher and web designer, among many other specialties. He has traveled the world over, and is fascinated by the many different types of culture, people and traditions that can be found in the most unexpected places. Some of Paul's favorite images can be seen at his daily photoblog, Moments in Time.

 
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