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An Essay on Color
Jul 1, 2001

Light reveals a world of colors by painting everything it touches. Our plain and soulless furniture gains meaning. Our brown bookshelf, gray study table, green mug carpets, rugs, curtains the yellow wheat fields in the harvest picture, the blue china vase, our favorite brown sweater the striking green of a tree surrounded by concrete buildings, the blue sky, and the carousel of life that becomes worth living by being embellished with colors.

Let's travel through the wonderful world of colors. Each color conceals a story. Some virtuous and sensitive eyes see the truth through them, while others see rage, anger, and all the evils dictated by the alter ego. Colors carry such feelings as anger and hope, and symbolize such concepts as sinfulness and innocence. They are abused or sacrificed, and widely preferred or despised.

Literally, color is a phenomenon of light or visual perception that enables people to differentiate otherwise identical objects. Being one of matter's distinguishing characteristics, in a sense its meanings are the meanings of life. As truth is interwoven with life, truth might be viewed through colors.

Their Influence on People

The most important aspect of color in daily life is probably the aesthetic and psychological responses that they evoke”our psychological perception”and the resulting influences on art, fashion, commerce, and even physical and emotional sensations. For example, reds, oranges, yellows, and browns are warm, whereas blues, greens, and grays are cold. Reds, oranges, and yellows are said to induce excitement, cheerfulness, stimulation, and aggression; blues and greens to induce security, calm, and peace; and browns, grays, and blacks to bring sadness, depression, and melancholy. However, we can only generalize about such subjective perceptions.

Age, mood, mental health, and other factors affect color perception. People sharing distinct personal traits often share color perceptions and preferences. For example, schizophrenics are said to have abnormal color perception, and very young children learning to distinguish colors usually prefer red or orange. Many psychologists believe that analyzing one's use of and response to color reveals relevant physiological and psychological information. Some even suggest that specific colors have a therapeutic effect on physical and mental disabilities.

In China, India, and Japan, colors are used in alternative medicine. Orange is considered good for depression, yellow for diabetes, green for ulcers and spiritual fatigue, and blue-violet for epilepsy. What is important here is the body's receptor of color, such as eyes or skin. Each color's wavelength carries and transmits energy to the bodily part having that color. This energy removes physical and emotional disorders, and colorful rays directly influence the neural system. Thus, different illnesses are treated with different rays of colors having different tones and impacts.

Although these medical benefits are still in question, color does cause definite physical and emotional reactions. Rooms and objects that are white or have light shades of cool colors may seem larger than those with intense dark or warm colors. As designers and decorators know, black or very dark colors have a slimming or shrinking effect. A cool room decorated in pale blue requires a higher thermostat setting than a warm room painted pale orange to achieve the same sensation of warmth.

People viewing unusual colors produced by special illumination may experience headaches and nervous disorders. Tasty wholesome food served under such conditions appears repulsive and may induce illness. Other colors induce pleasure. When an affectively positive or pleasurably perceived color is viewed after a less pleasant color, it produces more pleasure than when viewed by itself. This effect is known as affective contrast enhancement.

What Colors Have Experienced

Colors are not universal. Some languages do not have separate words for green and blue or yellow and orange, whereas Eskimos use 17 different words for white to describe different snow conditions. Comparing color terminology reveals certain consistent patterns. All languages have designations for black and white.

If a third hue is distinguished, it is red; next comes yellow or green, and then other colors.

Consider soccer fanatics who so love their team's colors that they tear and burn the other team's flag. They dye their hair and faces yellow-red, blue-white, or red-white to match their team's colors, but cannot stand the opponent's colors. They taunt the opposing team with clothes in their own team's colors, even to the extent of injury or death. Most important, they gain identity, send a message, and enjoy the confidence that comes with belonging to a peer group.

Colors are gifts, not a cause of separatism. As sociologist Orhan Kologlu points out, people of different religions and nations chose different colors. In the Balkans, blue and white are considered to be Greece's colors (its flag is blue and white). During conflicts, people do not use the colors of other nation's flags. But this is emotional and irrational, for no nation owns a color. During a time of Turkish“Greek tension, red-white clothes were despised in Greece, and blue-white clothes in Turkey. Bulent Ecevit (current prime minister of Turkey) broke a taboo with his poem Blue Magic, which contains the lines: Like a blue magic, lies a warm sea between us / We are two nations, as beautiful as the other, at its shores. He also chose blue and white as his political party's colors. Ironically, this party whose emblem is in Greek (!) colors now is now in power Turkey.

A nation's color choices change over time. Ancient Turks considered blue as sacred, for it was the color of the sky. Some Turkic nations still use it as their national color. In medieval Europe, blue stood for nobility and aristocracy, and the latter were believed to have blue blood. But in America, blue is associated with low spirits, melancholy, and depression (a blue funk). For women it means learned and intellectual, while in morality it means puritanical. It also means profane or indecent (blue movies), off-color or risqué (blue jokes), and a kind of music (the Blues) dominated by sad and melancholic themes.

Red and black are most commonly associated with sociopolitical conflict. For years red symbolized violence, pillage, murder, oppression, anti-democracy, and terrorism. In emotional terms, it means a face flushed with anger or embarrassment (red in the face), or bloody (red eyes).

In politics, it means inciting or endorsing radical sociopolitical change, especially by force, as in red uprising or anything associated with communism (the former USSR's Red Square). There are even two Red armies: the Soviet army established after the 1917 Revolution, and the Japanese Red Army formed in 1969. The first was renowned for its strict penal codes and discipline, such as punishing battalions by sending them on suicide missions. New regulations in 1960 considerably lightened the Soviet Army's redness. The second army, a small-structured Japanese terrorist organization, remained active until 1990.

Italy's Red Brigades, an extreme left-wing terrorist organization, chose red and violence as it sought to prepare 1970s Italy for a Marxist uprising. Chinese revolutionaries seeking to end China's traditional culture chose red and violence, as did Cambodia's radical Khmer Rouge (Red Khmers). This latter group massacred an entire generation, an estimated 1.5 million people out of an estimated population of 5.7 million, during their 3.5-year reign. 

It is used for heavy or serious (black intrigue); dirty and soiled (black hands); thoroughly sinister, evil, or wicked (black deed); negative (a black mark in one's record); the supernatural or Satan (black magic); very sad, gloomy, or calamitous (black despair); a disaster (black Saturday); hostility, angry discontent, sullenness (black resentment); grim, distorted, grotesque satire (black humor); or covert intelligence operations (black government missions).

Although we associate black with negative meanings, we cannot deny that it also symbolizes seriousness, respectability, and nobility. There are occasions when white, the symbol of purity and innocence, is inappropriate says social psychiatrist Ibrahim Ballioglu. Colors should be used with the proper tones and combinations. He claims that it is logical to associate white with positive and black with negative concepts. Black and white are like night and day. The dark of night scares people, whereas the light of day relieves them. The colors hidden at night come forward in daytime. People are inclined to like light and bright colors. We apply white light in our depression patients' therapy. One's interest in dark colors gives clues about one's mood. A patient's wearing white signals that he or she is getting well.

In history, such groups as the Black Hand,1 Black Faces, and Black Shirts favored violence and vandalism. Mussolini's fascist Black Shirts group is the most interesting. After his overthrow 1943 and the Black Shirts' dismissal, people avoided wearing black shirts.

White means free of color; light or pallid (white hair, lips white with fear); without spot, blemish, or moral impurity; innocent or chaste (white wedding); harmless (white lie, white magic); and favorable or fortunate (white days of life). It also means politically conservative or reactionary people who undertake counter-revolutionary measures (white terror). In music, it is associated with a musical tone quality characterized by a controlled pure sound and a lack of warmth, color, and resonance.

Green means mild and clement (green winter); pleasantly alluring; youthful and vigorous; not ripened or matured (green apples, tender green grasses); fresh and new; marked by a pale, sickly, or nauseated appearance; envious (green with envy); somehow deficient or unsophisticated; and an environmentalist political movement (Green Peace) or individual working to preserve environmental quality.

Yellow is associated with sensationalized scandal items or distorted ordinary news (yellow journalism), and cowardice (a yellow streak up one's back). Pink signifies moderately radical and usually socialistic political or economic views, as well as emotional excitement (tickled pink).

Do Nations or Religions Have Their Own Color?

Color harmony, preferences, symbolism, and other psychological aspects are culturally conditioned and vary with time and place. For instance, American and Japanese concepts of warm and cold colors are essentially the same. However, Japanese consider blues and greens good and the red-purple range bad, while Americans consider the red-yellow-green range good and oranges and red-purples bad. In the West, black signifies mourning; other cultures use white, purple, or gold.

Orhan Kural says that societies tend to use colors that comply with their culture and belief: In Indonesia's Banggai Islands, people believe that their ancestors arrived in brown canoes. Their houses look like brown-painted canoes. They sacrifice a water buffalo and hang its head at their doors to make funerals more elaborate. During these rituals they wear red. Since the streets are filled with blood, red is dominant in their culture. In Mongolia, green is dominant. Mongolians has five times as many animals as people. I think they paint their tents and furniture green due to their love of animals and nature. In Guatemala, the Spanish invaders forced each clan to wear a different color in order to differentiate them. This seems to be welcomed and accepted by the people, for it remains in force. All women I saw in the bazaars wore the same color. The city of Varanasi in India and the sacred Ganj river reminds me of orange, and the Taj Mahal reminds me of white.

Nevval Sevindi, who lived in Iran for some time, says that Iranians consider black to be holy and noble. According to her, Iranians and Westerners both see black as a symbol of mourning. Iranians use black to commemorate their Imams, and Westerners wear it at funerals and to commemorate their saints.

It seems that they are always mourning, since they keep Karbala' alive in their memories.2 Red is a color of disgrace in Iran. However in Turkey, China, and India, red is the color of weddings. In Turkey, the bride wears a red veil over her head on the eve of the wedding day and a red belt on the wedding day. Women wear a red ribbon after giving birth. Red means a new future and abundance. Turks do not consider black the color of mourning. They attend funerals in ordinary clothes, for death is an ordinary part of life. Africans and Asians like to wear many colors. I associate this with their living in bright and sunny countries and within nature. Sunlight affects their clothes and moods. Violet is the Byzantine Empire's color, for only the emperor wore it. This tradition continued after the emperor's death, for his grave was built with violet porphyry stones, says Sevindi.

Tumulus-hillock excavations in Tekirdag, Turkey, reveal that Alexander the Great's father wore mostly purplish colors, like that of a judas-tree. Maybe this is why Byzantine emperors valued purple tones so much. Other researchers give different reasons. For instance, historian Haluk Dursun states: There is a belief in Christianity: Judas Iscariot, one of the 12 apostles of Jesus Christ, betrayed him at the Last Supper. Romans arrested and crucified Jesus. Judas, full of regret, hung himself from a tree full of white flowers. This tree felt so ashamed that it reddened. Hence it is called judas-tree. It also is said that the Byzantines recaptured Constantinople from Latin invaders when the judas-trees were blossoming, and so value this color.

Do religions have colors? Yes and no. Muslims favor green, as the covers of tombs and sarcophagus are green, and green is common in mosque decorations. Otherwise, Islam does not have its own color. Perhaps people associate green with Islam because Prophet Muhammad liked green, as it relaxes the eyes and connotes nature. In fact, he advised people to dress in plain and clean color-compliant clothes that would please the eyes.

Eastern Orthodox priests dress totally in black and wear a black cap. But this is probably not a religious color, for black is favored by Catholic priests and nuns as well, maybe for its simplicity and sobriety. Some Protestant (e.g., Lutheran) priests wear white or gray, which might be a reaction to the Catholic Church. Also, many Orthodox Jewish sect members wear long black coats and hats, usually during religious or important events to signify the occasion.


Colors are used for many purposes, ranging from medicine to art, politics to anthropology. They are an indispensable ingredient of our lives. But no matter how they are used, the best use of colors is observed in the works of the Great Artist.


  1. The Black Hand is associated with two groups: immigrant Sicilian and Italian extortion rackets in America's Italian communities (roughly between 1890 to 1920), and a secret Serbian terrorist society that promoted the liberation of Serbs outside Serbia from Habsburg or Ottoman rule.
  2. Karbala': A place in southern Iraq where Imam Husayn's forces were defeated and killed by the Umayyad caliph Yazid I in 680.


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  • (especially the shades of meaning for different colors).