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  • Writer's pictureEthan A. Hayes

The Power of Psychosomatic Color Theory: Understanding How Color Impacts Mind and Body

Updated: Mar 6

Young students are taught a primative system of categorizing colors, that of warm and cool colors, yellow, orange, and red being warm, and purple, blue, and green being cool. This categorization suggests a red/blue/yellow color wheel model which is wildly distorted compared to modern color space maps giving far too much space to oranges and far too little to greens. This is unuseful for the artist aspiring toward higher level expertise and cripples the art appreciation of the non-studied layman.

In this article, more sophisticated ways of categorizing color will be established and some of color's psychosomatic effects will be discussed to elucidate a more groundedly real way of understand color effects upon human experience. Using this basis in the real physiology of color perception, the effects of colors on the mind and body can be employed toward engineering effective art and architecture. Hopefully by this exposition the artist and the non-artist layman alike might better appreciate the mechanism of color in art and in turn improve the quality of art in the word. For in the word of Owen Jones,

"No improvement can take place in the Art of the present generation until all classes, Artists, Manufacturers, and the Public, are better educated in Art, and the existence of general principles is more fully recognized." (Grammar of Ornament, 1856, proposition 37)

Advancing vs. Receeding Colors:

In 1810 Wolfgang von Goethe recorded the phenomenon that dark surfaces seem to possess properties of blue and light surfaces that of a yellow. That is to say, the relative apparent color of lit and shadowed surfaces seems to vary. Translated from the German he says,

"..white that becomes darkened or dimmed inclines to yellow; black, as it becomes lighter, inclines to blue." (Zur Farbenlehre, 1810, p.502)

This is easily elucidated by recalling that snow at night appears a blue color, and that noontime sun possesses a golden hue. By Goethe's experiments it can be proven that this observation is real with reference to a control surface. The causes here are physical, albeit psychological in effect, and are two in number.

Firstly this is due to the physical size of the light wavelength, indigo being short and red being long. Longer wavelengths, due to their size, are poorly represented in recessed areas where shorter blue wavelength can still be found. Secondly, this is due to the average color of sunlight when observed at the surface of the earth being appropriately an amber yellow.

This causes lit edges to tend toward amber, as the average wavelength of noontime daylight only slightly leans toward red, and shadowed areas to tend toward the color of the shorter wavelength, the shortest visible by humans, a deep indigo blue. It can be seen how the conventional understanding of warm and cool colors are only a small way of understanding this phenomenon of color. This effect seems to group colors on a axis between warm and cool colors represented by amber and blue extremes, but this is a crude understanding. This classifies colored light according to its human perceptions in the natural world, but fails to understand the nature of color in itself. This model excludes red in an incoherent way in order to make sense of human experience. Nonetheless, this amber vs. indigo classification is has great utility utility.

Because of this physical phenomenon, the mind can glean spatial information. The mind considers more amber colors to be spatially advanced toward the observer, and more indigo colors to spatially recessed away from the observer. This is simply calculated because relative to the local colors on a plane, lit edges do tend toward amber and shadows toward indigo. Goethe also recorded that due to this normal nature of lit surfaces, the mind similarly observed lighter and more vibrant color to be on the advanced edged of objects, a darker and and duller colors to be in recessed corner from the observer. When laying two color surfaces immediately adjacent to one another the same advance and receding phenomenon can also be observed to exist laterally, where more amber, lighter, and more vibrant surfaces seem to expand laterally against more blue, darker, and duller surfaces. This is widely employed by designers and has been firmly established by scientific observation.

Note, colors that are both very dark and very vibrant are unusual in real phenomena. As color relies on lightwaves as its material manifestation in order to be sensed, having a vibrant (chromaticly pure) lightsource that isnt very bright is quite uncommon in nature. The mind perceptions are ordered in accordance with this fact. Color divorced from light is merely an idea or at best a phenomenon. But as to whether a bright blue is relatively more advancing than a dull medium red (it is), this is subject to complex arbitration by the mind and not worth deep concern except by artists in practice. Such exact interactions of hue, vibrance, and lightness are hard to map with respect to this effect, as they are psychological and at least five-dimensional.

Here the concept of advancing and receding colors has been seen and established. Advancing colors center on the spectrum around this forementioned amber yellow, a range generally between chartreuse and orange. Receding colors center around the deepest indigo blue, a range generally between cerulean and violet. Greens and magentas tend to be somewhat neutral or borderline, making neither movement strongly or only seem to advance or recede when compared to stronger colors on this axis. This movement itself on the human mind is mysteriously experienced as advancing colors will psychosomatically seem to jump out to the observer and receding colors will actually draw the human body forward by way of the mind's sense of space. Some individuals of a more symbolic bent might say advancing colors seem more masculine and receding more feminine.

Thus by painting flat or textured surfaces in varying color, the mind is subtly influenced to believe that the surface is more or less spacially advanced with respect to the observer, even when such an arrangement is not technically real or perhaps even physically possible. This creates a fourth pseudo-spacial dimension and does not necessarily mean the observer believe that a surface is closer or farther away but rather it draws or pushes the observer in this psychic space. The artist will use this toward his ends for good or ill, drawing the body by the eye up and down, in and out. When the beauty of the message of such experience does not to allign internally with itself or with truth it is only base propaganda, a lie. When this experience is an experience of the true world, it can be a vehicle for God to touch the person. This dimensions can be as a pocket of heaven which pulls the observer out of himself and into somewhere else where art can facilitate either religious experience or else some petty other thing.

Modern man insists on strictly material and physical sense of reality because he knows no means to transcend it. Because of this, he is wont to say that such psycho-spatial movements led the observer to believe himself to be in a non-real location, that this is all just clever tricks. Perhaps this is why some have difficulty explaining the strict difference between propoganda and art. If it is impossible for an observer to be swept into a non-material location, all such artistic effects are propoganda as none of them are 'true'. Conversely, the experience of art often brings the observer into a truer sense of reality. If this is true, how can such a psychological location be non-real only because it bends a conventional Cartesian sense of place? Rather, such a location maybe actually more real than anywhere else, as it is an interface with God.

High Interest vs. Low Interest Colors:

In humans, the mind cares greatly about color as it bears valuable information useful for assessing its surrounding as seen in advancing vs. receding color. Nonetheless, it does not consider all detected colors to be equally valuable. It seems to focus on some colors rather than others with greater interest. This interest seems to be consistently applied.

Firstly, it is should be self evident that the mind considers vibrant colors as more valuable than low vibrancy colors. The human eye does indeed have color vision; if it did not consider more vibrant colors as more worthy of interest, the mind would find no especial interest in its own perceptions and fail to notice that which it perceives, which is nonsensical.

Secondly, red is clearly the most interesting color to the eye as evidenced by knowledge of natural life. Consider the things of most compelling interesting to natural man: human faces, blood, meat, fire, ripe fruit, useful metals, poisonous plants and animals, sunrises and sunsets, and flowers. Determining the identity of these things is often very valuable, if not urgent information, and yet they all are often red in color. One struggles to find anything of especial interest to man that is clearly not red; from roses to the rusty riverbeds of mineral-rich waters, these objects of interest are overwhelming red in an undeniable way. Red is clearly of extreme interest to man. This observation is not claiming a cause, but rather merely noting a strong correlation. Due to the universal and primitive nature of red color in man's interest it is hard to argue that this interest is culturally arbitrary or socially taught. This seems to be a strong psychological quality of color perception. However the biological cause here is not as clear.

From a basic knowledge of eye anatomy it is shown how a great amount of resources is spent in determining the shaded difference between red and greens. The color spectra detecting cones for red and green range light in fact highly overlap, so much so that the primary occupation of color vision sensors seems to be careful assessing the gradient between reds and greens. Blue detecting cones seem to be doing somewhat else, functioning as a somehow ancillary secondary pole but also used to further differentiate red and green. Blue cones detect spectra well into the green cones range. Note that the distortions of the old standard RBY color wheel shows evidence of this axis, as it shows colors by how humans ignorantly think they are perceived, skewing toward red and away from green.

Red spectra detecting cones cells in the eye are the most plentiful but the least sensitive. However, one must not read too much into this as the human visual system is not intuitional.  Comparsions weighing these relative sensitivities have never been calibrated by scientific study. Conversely, blue is the least plentiful but most sensitive, this is partial because blue light waves carry the most energy, the most easily detected but the most easily disturbed, and thus also travelling the shortest distances in media.

Tangentially, this reality is the cause of sunsets appearing from the largely white light of the sun. Blue waves, when cutting through increasing thick sections of atomsphere, are increasing lost leaving only long wave lengths to reach the observer. This is also the forementioned cause of natural daylight appearing slightly yellow. The actual light of the sun is ever so slightly green, but some of the shortest blue and ultraviolet wavelengths are lost but not so much as to make sunlight only retain long red waves such as at sunset.

Circling back, the we see the mind caring greatly about strong red signals, especially with respect to differentiating it from green signals. There seems to exist a psychological axis of color in humans between this red and green. In this axis, the opposite of a bright red is an especialy dull blueish-green. Red seems to be a 'high interest' color and cool greens, especially dull ones, a 'low interest color.

This effect is usefully applicable in various ways: Firstly it can be used to dictate priority of information. This is generally well known; stop signs, stoplights, many national flags, advertisers and marketeers openly utilize red when communicating important information. Commerical usage is not especially poignant, but proves the strength of the psychological effect as evidenced by their incentive for greater profit shares.

Noting the use of dull greens as of low interest, the Walt Disney Company came to the same conclusion in the formulation and usage of their propriety 'Go Away Green' throughout their theme parks in to hide eyesores and redirect focus.

Secondly, it controls the amount of time spent on specific areas of a scene. The eye naturally moves quite quickly as the mind splices together the sense of a space. The speed and direction by which the eye moves around a scene is dictated by the physical arrangement of lines and shapes; the psychomotor phenomenon here is content for another article. Color however, has effect over how often the eye will revisit given areas. Assuming that the eye moves across a scene a uniform rate, the overall amount of time spent in any given area can be controlled by color.

concepts such as eye rests and Hogarth's line of beauty, again content for another article, the artist can carefully guide the observer to dwell on the areas of interest by way of color. Without this direction, the observer can become disfavorably lost in the scene in odd areas, and in the case of architecture, even physically lost. When the observer is not directed in this way, the function of the art often collapses. Often in the West strong color in institutional buildings is highly discouraged. This leaves a major aesthetical tool unemployed Considering religious art, this might seem concerning, where due to modern man's weak tolerance for color, the Church projects lukewarm pastoral strength and shaky confidence in the truth of the Gospel. Unfortunately, as aesthetic taste falls, the technical ability to utilize potential tools adeptly also falls. This leads to more lack of confidence in the ability of art to facilitate religious conversion and greater fear and skepticism of high level aesthetics in general. Unfortunately the modern world has increasing hated color.

Between the concepts of advancing/receding and high interest/low interest, a synthesis of qualities can be made, by which the eye seems to classify color. This system first proposed by Elwald Hering in 1892 is the basis of modern opponency theory. Note how this system seems incongruous with the physical nature of light which exists only on a single axis as a discrete collection of varied wavelength within the small band of the visible spectrum. Indeed, this is so disrespective of such a physical model, that it must be pointed out that magenta does not exist as a real spectral range, as it is a mix of long red and short blue wavelengths.

Instead a very complex and synthetic color map emerges that elucidates the true qualities of color with respect to human vision. Not a simple distorted circle, rather a collection of axes maps human perception in a graded yet true way. From the study of these interactions, art can be produced that measures and affects the heart authentically through the body. Colors can then take on true, non-arbitrary, and human symbolic meanings, blues relating depth and calmness, reds strength and passion, greens energy yet relaxation, et cetera. Then the mystics and theologians can step forward to both depict the grace of God and shape the hearts of men toward him faithfully. This is the only worthwhile usage of this skill, all else being mostly ash and diversion.

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