The Psychology of Color Schemes

From the lecture series: How to Look at and Understand Great Art

By Sharon Latchaw Hirsh, Ph.D., Rosemont College

The methods used by classical artists to create the illusion of shape, depth, and distance are the same principals you likely learned in primary school. By mastering two major color schemes, they learned to draw the viewer’s eye, evoke a specific emotion, and challenge your preconceptions.

Van Gogh Self Portrait Bandaged Ear
(Image: By Vincent van Gogh – Web Museum/Public domain)

Color can have a purely symbolic function. However, when used in an artwork, color is neither arbitrary nor predetermined; it is always a deliberate choice by the artist.

Color wheel theory illustration
Color schemes (Image: Suppachok N/Shutterstock)

The two main color schemes used in art and design are analogous colors and complementary colors. Analogous colors are harmonious; placed side by side, they will soften each other. Complementary colors intensify each other; juxtaposed, they will both seem more vivid.

Learn more about the contexts and environments in which we encounter art 

A masterful example of complementary color use appears in The School of Athens (1510–1511). Here, Raphael creates a focal point in a complicated composition by dressing Plato in orange and Aristotle in blue, drawing the eye to the two most important characters in the scene.

The School of Athens (1510–1511) by Raffaello
Here, Raphael creates a focal point in a complicated composition by dressing Plato in orange and Aristotle in blue, drawing the eye to the two most important characters in the scene. (Image: Raphael/Public domain)

Learn more about the core principles of color in painting

Value vs. Saturation

Detail from Seurat's La Parade de Cirque (1889), showing the contrasting dots of paint used in Pointillism
Detail from Seurat’s La Parade de Cirque (1889), showing the contrasting dots of paint used in Pointillism. (Image: Georges Seurat/Public domain)

The lightness or darkness of a color is called its value. Intensity, or saturation, is a color’s brightness or dullness. Artists can create a sense of contrast by varying the value and intensity of nearby colors. Colors also have psychological effects. Warm colors, such as red, orange, and yellow, make people feel happy and uplifted. Cool colors—that is, blue, green, and purple—have a calming or even saddening effect.

This is a transcript from the video series How to Look at and Understand Great Art. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Most of these scientific color principles were discovered in the 19th century, and they had a profound influence on the Impressionists and Neo-Impressionists. Georges Seurat created pointillism, composing whole scenes out of tiny dots of multiple colors that, through contrast and complement, create form and depth. His technique was highly methodical and scientific, and his aim was not to use color descriptively, reproducing how his subjects appeared in nature. Rather, he chose colors to create specific effects.

Learn more about the phenomenon of Impressionism

Color And Symbolism

Image of Vision After the Sermon by Paul Gauguin illustrating the use of Color Schemes
Vision after the Sermon (1888), Paul Gaugin (Image: Paul Gauguin/Public domain)

Paul Gauguin was one of the first modern artists to expand on a Renaissance technique of using color symbolically. For example, in Vision after the Sermon (1888), a group of women are watching the biblical Jacob and an angel wrestling on a patch of red grass. Painting the grass the opposite of its color in nature is a signal that the women are not witnessing a real event but are having a religious vision.

Vincent van Gogh was a master of evoking emotion with color. His Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear (1889) was painted during one of his happier periods. Here, he paints himself in cool, calm blues and greens, but the background is orange and red. The artist himself is calm and serene, but the anger and madness that plagued his life lurk close behind.

Color can be used to evoke emotion—anger, joy, sadness, excitement—and give a deeper meaning to the works of great artists that we view.

Common Questions about the Psychology of Color Schemes

Q: What colors do people find most appealing?

The colors that are most appealing to people are mostly subjective, but according to marketing, they all influence people in different ways. Blue is well-liked by most men and is seen as calming. Red is thought to invoke urgency or anger. Purple connotes royalty, power, and magic. Green suggests nature, wealth, and calm. Yellow is thought to induce crying in babies. Orange can have a cautious effect. White implies cleanliness and purity. Black suggests power, stability, and clarity. Grey is a tricky color that points to seniority and structure but can imply depression when used frequently.

Q: What is the color of luck?

The color of luck is different in various parts of the world. In the west, lucky colors are typically green, purple, and blue, while in the east and especially in China, red is the color of luck and green is considered unlucky.

Q: What color scheme makes the best website?

The best color for a website will depend on the intention of the site (commodities, self-empowerment, entertainment), the time of year (summer, spring, fall), the audience of the site (children, teens, men, women) and where the color is placed (title, background, text, header, etc). Research has found that women don’t respond well to orange, brown, and grey but favor blue, green, or purple. Men share a dislike of orange and brown and also prefer blue or black. People tend to trust when they see the color blue. The rest are predictable such as yellow for caution and green for the environment. Green is also thought to be the best color for conversion elements such as submit buttons. White is generally best used for background and black for information. Again, though, there is a definite art to combinations.

Q: What is the least liked color?

The least popular color for both women and men is largely found to be orange.

This article was updated on April 24, 2020

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