Feeling Blue?

I did so much research for my colour essay, that I’m really sad to have only been able to use a quarter of it.

So I’m going to include it here – just in case it gives me any inspiration in the future.


Temperature of blue

(Sharpe, 1975) Goethe suggested that blue, green and purple are all at the cooler end of the colour spectrum and induce a muted or even soothing response.



(Sharpe, 1975) Colours have also taken on associations usually used by other senses – such as temperature (cold), weight (heavy), sound (loud) and smell (fresh).

(Gage, Colour and Meaning. Art, Science and Symbolism, 2011) Kandinsky believed blue conveyed tranquillity and as it progressed towards black assumed “overtones of superhuman sorrow”. He found it a serious colour and believed it to be “less suited” to brighter tones which he found “remote and impersonal” – as he believed the pale blue sky to be. He refers to blue as having a sound – and different tones to different musical instruments – suggesting he may have had synesthesia.

(Gage, Colour and Meaning. Art, Science and Symbolism, 2011) Just as shapes can be associated with letters and sounds, so can colours. Whilst at the Bauhaus Kandinsky experimented by sending out 1000 postcards to the Weimar community and asked them to allocate a primary colour to the 3 primary shapes. The results were that the majority opted for a yellow triangle, red square and blue circle. He proposed that sharp colours equated sharp forms and deeper colours rounder forms.

(Gage, Colour and Meaning. Art, Science and Symbolism, 2011) The most common form of synaesthesia is colour-hearing and the best known type is musical. (Mine is only Carolyn’s Fingers with dappled sunlight through the sea – does this relate to our evolutionary responses?)

(Gage, Colour in Art, 2006) Kazimir Malevich stated “Colour and form can be examined as separate elements in physics, but in artistic creation cannot be examined as two different elements with the help of which sensation is determined, since colour and form are a result of the same single sensation.”


Colour evolution/physiology

(Sharpe, 1975) “Some infants as young as 4 months have shown a preference for red and blue over yellow and grey.”

(Sharpe, 1975) A normal person sees 3 pairs of colours: red-green, blue-yellow and light-dark and is termed a trichromat. An individual who has lost one of these pairs is called a dichromat and one who sees only light-dark is called a chromomat.

(me) Some lucky individuals (generally women) who can distinguish many millions more colours are called tetrachromats.

(Sharpe, 1975) It is always perceived that care and retirement homes for the elderly should be painted in pastel colours – because they are calming and restful. However the physiology of the older eye means that colours are dulled somewhat in comparison to those seen by the younger eye. Colour researchers have found that the elderly actually prefer brighter colours in their décor.

(me) perhaps this is because the brighter colours are both stimulating and are not perceived as bright as those doing the interior design.

(BBC, Horizon: Do You See What I See?, 2011) “Red is deeply rooted in the human psyche.” Dr Russel Hill at Durham University has been researching the effect colour has on competitive situations. Can it manipulate our dominance? He studied recordings of Boxing and Taekwondo tournaments from the 2004 Olympics. This was because contestants are randomly allocated the red or blue vest depending on their rank in the competition. If there was no influence of red on the result then you would expect an equal number of blue and red winners. But the results were anything but equal – nearly 2/3 of the bouts were won by the red competitor. Why? Hill then looked at existing research of taekwondo bouts where the researchers had digitally switched colours of the contestants’ vests. In the original footage there were more red winners than blue. In the manipulated footage of the same bouts, there were again more red winners than blue. This means that the outcome of some bouts was reversed. The fact that the competitor was wearing red was enough to “override the fundamental ability of the judges to award points.”

(BBC, Horizon: Do You See What I See?, 2011) So does this do something to the psyche of the wearer or intimidate the opponent too? Studies conducted on football players found that those wearing red were not feeling more aggressive (tested through the levels of testosterone) and all players had increased levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) but those wearing red seemed to have the rise of cortisol suppressed.

(BBC, Horizon: Do You See What I See?, 2011) Red is regarded in our society as a warning and it causes people to perform less well in IQ tests if they are exposed to the colour before the test.

(BBC, Horizon: Do You See What I See?, 2011) Prof Russell Foster of the University of Oxford is a neuroscientist who has been looking at colours in restaurants and the effects they have on us. Traditionally they are decorated in reds and browns because they are believed to make us warm, cosy and hungry. But one lighting designer – Mark Hensman – decided to light the restaurant in blue because it would make the environment and its customers appear warmer. An unexpected side effect of this lighting was that all the customers seemed to perk up around 10pm each night. To find out why Hensman asked Russell about our circadian rhythms and why the blue light wavelength would have an effect on our body clocks. In a recent discovery our eyes have been found to have a fourth eye colour receptor. Photosensitive ganglion cells have not effect on our vision but regulate our body clocks and are only sensitive to blue wavelengths of light.

(BBC, Bang Goes the Theory, 2011) One of his text subjects who had no function in either rods or cones in the eye could tell when lights were being switched on and off. This was due to the photosensitive ganglions. These receptors are also allowing us to see how artificial light is playing havoc with our circadian rhythms. Although artificial light looks like natural daylight, the spectrum of the light it generates is far removed from it. It lacks the vital wavelength of light that the ganglions respond to. This is most prevalent in morning light and is, at present, only available outdoors. Subjects lacking in this wavelength are less alert. One source of this wavelength though is computer screens – meaning to ensure a restful sleep, we should avoid these in the evening. The light is important for regulating more than just your sleep though, it regulates all of the body clocks – so if your sleep is irregular, so are the rest of your clocks and you feel worse and worse. This may lead future light architects to produce lighting that changes its spectra during the day to imitate that of the natural outdoor range. It also means that Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) lights should be used in the morning.

(BBC, Horizon: Do You See What I See?, 2011) Prof Jay Neitz at the University of Washington, Seattle is looking at why people think of colour emotionally. He believes it comes from our evolutionary history. The single-celled organisms that lived in the sea that we once were needed to obtain their energy from the sun. They needed to avoid the shorter (bluer) and more deadly wavelengths of light and convert the longer (yellower/redder) wavelengths of light into energy and moved up and down in the sea to do so. Therefore our earliest response to light was to distinguish between blue and yellow. As life evolved we developed another colour receptor in our eyes. He concludes that “The earliest colours we learnt – blue and yellow – have hard-wired emotional connections. Our associations with red and green, we had to learn.”

(BBC, Horizon: Do You See What I See?, 2011) Beau Lotto has been able to predict what coloured tiles subjects would surround another one with from a specified set of 49 colours. The clue to the predictions was that these patterns all occurred in nature. They are colour structure we see every day. “We can’t escape from our ecological history. We can’t help but impose that structure onto the world.” What we think looks good together is hard-wired from what we see in nature.

(BBC, Horizon: Do You See What I See?, 2011) Sex, age and status/mood all affect the way we see/perceive colour. Suggesting we all perceive colours differently to one another and indeed differently to ourselves on any given day. The more something is linked to a shared evolutionary experience the more we are likely to see the same colour. If it is shaped by our own individual experiences, the less likely we are to see the same colour as another person or even as we did before that event.

(Ries, 1998) Redder colours focus slightly in front of the retina and blue behind it. That is why blue appears to recede.

(Ings, 2007) “The gene for blue cones is ancient: it predates the entire mammalian line, it is common to many different vertebrates.” But although the gene for our red/green receptor may be as old, it appears to have mutated, been lost and reacquired many times over the history of evolution. Therefore our perception and ability to see colours has changed many times too. (me) which is probably why it is more associated with language.

(Ings, 2007) The human red/green gene mutated into2 separate genes to give us red and green receptors rather than the reddish-greenish type receptor all vertebrates have. The gene for the blue receptor is in a very stable place on chromosome 7 (me – probably because it is so old) which is shared by both men and women. Therefore yellow/blue colour-blindness is much rarer and not hereditary. But the red and green genes are virtually identical and are right next to each other on the X chromosome – hence “misaligned and redundant ‘red and green’ genes account for 95% of all variations in human colour vision.”

(Gage, Colour and Meaning. Art, Science and Symbolism, 2011) In 1894 Jonas Cohn discovered that his subjects (a group of educated men) had a colour preference for combinations of highly saturated colours – particularly saturated complementaries (me me!!!)



(Sharpe, 1975) Children can show their emotional states through the use of colour in their drawings. Blue has also been associated with self-control and this could be seen through the behaviour of one of the children Sharpe studied. When her home life was instable and she was disturbed she chose to use red/yellow/orange, but when she was happy and stable she chose to use blue and cooler colours. Red has often been associated with extremes of feelings – love, affection, hate and aggression. Another child, who generally used cool colours, on one occasion used only red. This child was neglected and her choice of colours reflected this. However, on the day she used red was a day when she was receiving an unusual amount of attention and affection.

Sharpe has concluded that red seems to equate to strong emotional drives and that blue reflects a “drive towards control”. The use of blue also seems to be used more as children refine their drawing skills and move away from drawing masses and into lines – possibly reflecting a desire for more control.

(Sharpe, 1975)Experiments have shown that those with neurotic tendencies will choose red then yellow as their favourite colours from red, yellow, blue and green, whereas psychotics choose blue then green. Sharpe suggests that colour on its own as a personality indicator is more valid than any other test with content because it is less likely to be misinterpreted or clouded by the other factors in the content.

(Sharpe, 1975) General thinking has always been that depressives show less and less interest in colour. However in experiments Sharpe conducted she found the very opposite. “…several depressed groups have revealed as strong interest in, and preference for, bright, deeply saturated colours.” This leads her to surmise “Perhaps colour serves as both a stimulant and compensation for lack of emotional tone and colour.” Could a depressive’s preference for bright colours be their way of trying to achieve a mood equilibrium? “Bright colours, of course, would balance the slowed physiological process in response to the psychological process.” She suggests that the preference for bright colours (across the spectrum) “…seemed to me a compensatory reaction to the bleakness of their inner lives and/or an expression of a need for an energizing stimulus.”

(me) As a long-term depressive I certainly find this to be true. Saturated bright colours (always including blue and yellow) fill my house in the images on the walls. I believe this to be a form of self-medication as looking at these images always makes me feel better. Whether it is because of the associated memories or the sense of well-being the colours give me I can’t be sure. But there are some images that have sadder memories or no memories at all attached to them which give me the same feelings – so this must be to do with the response to the colour.

(Healey, 2008) Brand designers take into account colour psychology when designing logos – especially in the corporate sector where the logo needs to convey so much – but the client’s personal colour choices can often override this carefully researched advice.



(Sharpe, 1975)Most cultures use black to signify dirt and evil and white to signify purity and good.  She states “Early childhood experiences of fears of darkness, black (dirty) face and hands and the rewards of cleaning them are universal experiences.”

(Sharpe, 1975) Racial groups have been colour coded by the colour of their skin. Because colour is so closely linked with language, it brings with it very many (unintentional) connotations for each race. It subconsciously affects the way we perceive each race.

(Sharpe, 1975) In the 50’s a colour dictionary was produced which had 5,000 names in it. This has grown over the years though – driven by need. The names often consist of the basic colour and a modifier – such as pea green or shocking pink. It is unlikely we would ever need as many as these though and they would have little meaning for the average person who does not work with colour.

(me) Blue is frequently used in the logos of large corporations because it is perceived to have gravitas and conservative qualities. It is very hard to use the word conservative here as it is almost synonymous with politics and is, indeed, the colour used by the Conservatives.

(Sharpe, 1975) Language is so intrinsically linked with language that teaching the concept of colour to the blind has been shown to be relatively easy by JC Wheeler in the USA. He suggests utilising concepts that can already be understood. For example “Blue is represented as the colour of dignity, poise and reserve. It is associated with the US flag, the poiceman’s and sailor’s uniforms, and the décor of restful rooms.”

(BBC, Horizon: Do You See What I See?, 2011) We all link colour with emotion whether we can see colour or not.

(BBC, Horizon: Do You See What I See?, 2011) Language affects the colours you see too. You are not born with colour vision; it develops over the first three months of life. But the words you learn impact the way your brain processes colour, switching from one hemisphere of the brain to the other as you start learning colour words. “The way you process colour and how you learn language are connected.”

(BBC, Horizon: Do You See What I See?, 2011) Serge Caparos has been studying the Himba tribe in Namibia who have a different colour language to us. They have only half the words/categories to describe colour than we do. Does describing colour differently mean they see it differently? It seems it does. Caparos showed the Himba 12 swatches of green – one of which has a slight differentiation in hue. This is very hard for us to spot – but the Himba spot it instantly. He then showed the Himba another 12 swatches – this time 11 of them green and one of them cyan. We are able to spot this instantly – it is obvious – but to the Himba, who have no separate category for the cyan colour it is the same as the apparently different greens. This is solely down to the language and categories we use. The number of words we have for describing colours depends on how much we need them.

(BBC, Horizon: Do You See What I See?, 2011) Colour perception is affected by our knowledge of the colour of something. i.e. the colour of a banana is more constant than asking us to spot the colour of a swatch because we know what a banana looks like. Therefore aspects of an individual go towards making up a colour.

(Finlay, 2002) Some paints have been given names that hint at the colours origin – such as cobalt blue and phthalo blue.

(Finlay, 2002) The English word blue represents “…depressing as well as transcendent things; that it should be the most holy blue and the colour of pornography.” (citing Brewer’s dictionary…)

(Finlay, 2002) Lawrence Herbert created Pantone’s ‘internationally accepted standard of colours’ at least within printers and graphic designers in order to accurately match colours rather than use language. This use has now spread much wider than the printing industry and is now used to helping restorers in Venice, maintaining consistent colours in flags, defining the quality of gemstones and even in determining the ‘health’ of transplant organs.

(Me) Whilst this is a great leap forward in consistency it is also desperately sad that we are exchanging our language history for a PMS number.

(Gage, Colour and Meaning. Art, Science and Symbolism, 2011) The precise specification of pigments meant that the affects colours had on spectators could now be more clearly studied than depending on language – and the associations that unavoidably came with it.

(Ries, 1998) “Blue is a corporate colour and is used to communicate stability.” Over the years the colour has acquired the attribute of leadership.

(Wikipedia) “Many languages do not have separate terms for blue and/or green, instead using a term to cover both.” This is often referred to as Grue in English.

(Wikipedia) Although blue is more commonly thought to represent sadness, it can also “represent happiness and optimism as days with clearer, blue skies tend to be considered times when these emotions are more easily expressed… If this were untrue there would obviously be more complaints about days with clear blue skies.”

(Siefring, 2004) True Blue: “The sense of someone being true blue may derive from the idea of someone being genuinely aristocratic, or having ‘blue blood’. In recent times, the term blue has become particularly associated with loyal supporters of the British Conservative Party.”

(Atavar, 2009) “Perhaps you like blue – that is your vocabulary.”

(Gage, Colour and Meaning. Art, Science and Symbolism, 2011) The introduction of gas heating has meant that blue can also mean very hot, as blue is the hottest part of the flame – but on the whole the cool colour reference for blue still holds true.

(Albers, 2006) After imaging. Albers suggests that it happens because staring at one colour (e.g. red) will fatigue the red colour receptor in the eye. When you shift to a white panel and see blue and yellow again as well as red, the red receptors are too ‘tired’ to work and you only see green (the mix of blue and yellow) which is the complement of red.

(Albers, 2006) “He who claims to see colours independent of their illusionary changes fools only himself, and no one else.”

(Gage, Colour and Meaning. Art, Science and Symbolism, 2011) Names for colours are often fashion-led and change over time and therefore cannot be relied upon.

(Gage, Colour in Art, 2006) In the early 1980’s Anish Kapoor made sculptural shapes that he believed represented the colour he made them.



(Sharpe, 1975) Colour is relative and cannot be made consistent. It is open to each person’s interpretation and individual physiology. Even though viewing conditions can be made consistent, the mechanics of an individual’s eye and brain cannot, so perception of any given colour is always different. She states “The normal human eye is capable of discriminating approx. 7 million different colours, but there are only about 150 discernible wavelengths in the visible spectrum which stretches from approximately 380 to 780mu” … “the average observer can name with a reasonable degree of accuracy only about 12 or 13 of these wavelengths.”


Time perception

(Sharpe, 1975) In general warm colours speed things up and cool colours slow things down.

(me) this is why MacDonald’s choose red – along with other fast food restaurants – as it is meant to encourage people to leave faster and maintain a faster turnover of customers.

(BBC, Horizon: Do You See What I See?, 2011)Beau Lotto conducted experiments with ‘light pods’ at the Science Museum. He asked people to spend time inside an inflatable pod illuminated with coloured light. White light was used as a control and the other two pods were coloured red and blue respectively. The subjects were asked to tell Beau when they thought they had spent a minute inside each pod. Red was chosen because it causes us to perform less well and blue because it induces feelings of calmness. You would expect time to go faster in the red pod, but it was exactly the opposite. In the blue pod a minute was perceived to be 11 seconds shorter than in the red pod. He proposes a very logical reason for this which is rooted deep in our evolutionary responses. We would usually be in the ‘aroused’ state that red light induces if we were in a ‘fight or fight’ scenario. In this state you need to be hyper-aware of everything going on around you and it would be highly advantageous if time appeared to slow down to give you more time to respond.


Albers, J. (2006). Interaction of Colour. Revised and expanded edition. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Atavar, M. (2009). How to be an Artist. Kiosk Publishing.

BBC. (2011, Sept 7th, 7.30pm). Bang Goes the Theory. BBC 1/BBC HD.

BBC. (2011, Aug 9th, 8pm). Horizon: Do You See What I See? BBC2/BBC HD.

Finlay, V. (2002). Colour. London: Septre.

Gage, J. (2006). Colour in Art. London: Thames and Hudson.

Gage, J. (2011). Colour and Meaning. Art, Science and Symbolism. London: Thames and Hudson.

Healey, M. (2008). What is Branding? Switzerland/Hove: Rotovision.

Ings, S. (2007). The Eye. A Natural History. London: Bloomsbury.

Ries, A. R. (1998). The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding. London: Profile Books.

Sharpe, D. T. (1975). Psychology of Colour and Design. Totowa, New Jersey: Littlefield, Adams and Co.

Siefring, (. J. (2004). The Oxford Dictionary of Idioms (2nd Ed). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wikipedia. (n.d.). Blue – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved Oct 26th, 11.27pm, 2011, from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blue







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