It Had to be Hue

If you’ve ever been “tickled pink” or accused of being “yellow bellied” you know that, through color, we humans can have a “spectrum” of experiences.

When I was in eighth grade, my science teacher introduced us to his friend Roy and gave us all cards bearing Roy’s full name – Roy G. Biv. If you’re familiar with the colors of the visible spectrum, you no doubt can recite what the letters in Roy’s name stand for: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. These seven colors, when atmospheric conditions are just right, create a rainbow. To me, each color had its own distinct personality, and this helped me to remember the sequence.

Fellow Toastmasters and honored guests, as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated with color and its effect on people. For my speech tonight, I want to talk about three ways in which the experience of color has influenced humans.

photo by Sean Hillmeyer via PhotoRee

First, a quick color theory lesson. If you’ve ever taken an art class you’re probably familiar with this. If not, it’s the color wheel. Now, when we’re talking about light and rainbows there are seven colors but in the pigments used for paint, there are only six. If you’re familiar with the color wheel, you know that red, yellow and blue make up the primary colors and orange, green and purple are the secondary colors. Mixing a primary color with a secondary color results in what is called a tertiary color, such as red-orange or blue-green.

Each color on the wheel has an opposite, known as its complementary color. Mixing a color with its opposite cancels the two colors out. The combinations are:

Red –> Green

Orange –> Blue

Yellow –> Purple

Notice in each case that a warm color is paired with a cool color.

So that concludes the color theory lesson – now, about how color impacts us.

Colors have psychological and physiological effects on people.  Business owners know this. Have you ever noticed how many restaurants use red in their interiors? That’s because the color red increases blood pressure, respiration and appetite. If you stay the night at a B&B, you’re likely to notice the rooms are decorated in shades of blue and green. That’s because these are calming colors designed to make you want to spend more time there. One interesting thing – if you look at the opposites on the color wheel, you’ll note that each pair has a sort of yin and yang effect on the human psyche. Whereas orange is a very energizing color, blue is more calming and soothing. Yellow can lift the mood or make you feel anxious, but purple can bring you back down into a more sedate mood.

This impact on human emotion is noted in culture as well. Picasso had his Blue Period. In music we have terms like “the blues”, for example, to describe a particular style of music. In psychology, we have phrases like “feeling blue” “seeing red”, or “green with envy”.  For all of recorded history, colors have played a significant cultural role – red for alerts and stop signs, and purple for royalty, for example. Not all cultures ascribe the same meanings to all colors, although there are some similarities. You’d be hard pressed to find a culture that does not use color in a meaningful way.

It seems that color is a universal experience, and for the most part it is. Less than 9% of people have some form of color blindness and of those who do, most perceive at least some color. People with protanopia, for example, see all colors but red. With deuteranopia, green is missing from the person’s visible spectrum. And with tritanopia, a person cannot see blue.

Even without color blindness, we each perceive color somewhat differently. When I was an art student at SRJC, the instructor had us stare at various colors on the color wheel for about 30 seconds and then look at the white wall. We would each then see an afterimage – an optical illusion in which a person who has a lot of exposure to a particular color will see the color’s opposite on the color wheel. If you stare at a red circle long enough, you will see a green circle on the wall.

My classmates and I found that our personal afterimages varied wildly – some saw vivid ones and others were more pastel. Each and every person had a different afterimage for each color. To put it another way, everyone’s color perception is a bit unique. A perfect example of this is the argument my mom and I had on Friday night – she insisted that this sweater is blue and I was convinced that it was purple (dark periwinkle, actually). Who’s right? We both are! Talk about eisegesis!

Whether you’re an art student, a designer or simply someone who has strong opinions about which colors you like and dislike, you have a unique relationship with color and its affects on you. I urge you to savor this experience by painting a sunset or photographing wildflowers. Share your vision with the world.