(Originally posted on Monday, June 29, 2009)

by Gerald Boerner

As a photography student, I was recently reminded of the important role emotions have with regard to color. I have adapted my photo shoots to take place at or shortly after sunrise or just before sunset; these times yield some of my best photos. I’m sure that many of you have had similar experiences. Prof. Nancy Gall (Riverside Community College, City Campus, Riverside, CA) challenged us to capture photos that incorporated different colors in our photos and then explain the emotions that they evoked. As I did so, I was taken back to my grad school days where I studied these phenomenon in a different context. This photo experience from this class let me integrate my understanding the perceptual psychology of color with my photography.

image There is a complex process which mediates the viewer’s responses to our photos. These involve both the dynamics of the sensory responses within the eye and our interpretation (‘perception’) of those colors. While these dynamics are beyond the present posting, we will deal with them in a future posting. For now, let’s just say that the color that we capture in our photos triggers an emotional response in our minds and direct our attention to appropriate elements within the photo. When a color triggers certain emotional reactions, we tend to react to them in appropriate ways — motivated to act in accordance with our learning and culture.

Basic to this understanding is the realization that we respond to the perceived color, not just the physical sensation of color. We are all probably aware that some colors are considered ‘warm’ while others are considered ‘cool’ — the exact applications of these labels to specific colors depend to a large extent on one’s cultural mileu, our individual learning, and our native language. Therefore, ‘red’ in some contexts signals an emotional response of excitement or sexuality while in a difference context it may trigger a fight-or-flight response. So, to understand the effect of color in our photos will direct the viewer’s attention to those colors that tend to be pre-potent in that individual and culture. This helps explain why we consider some photos exciting while others consider them ‘ho hum’.

Let’s take some time now to examine some of these emotional responses associated with color. We will start with the Black and White set that focus on tonality and luminosity factors and then move on to the examination of the primary colors associated with the mixing of light (‘additive’ mixing). In the next posting, we will extend this examination to the secondary and some tertiary colors as well as some of the color relationships (‘schemes’) that may come into the act. So let’s get started…

Tonality and Luminescence: Using Black and White

Black and White is the color system that most of us photographers began using in our formal photographic training. Why? Probably the most important reason was that color film required an expensive, complex process while the Black/White film processing was relatively straight forward. Beyond that, the use of Black/White film required us to look at the scene with a view of tonality changes and the use of light and shadows to create an impacting image. The emotional effects of these basic colors tend to be at the two extremes of the spectrum of light mixing, so let’s see just how…

PantoneBlack Black… Black represents the absence of light of any of the three primary colors. It exudes authority and power. It is stylish and timeless. It also implies submission, but the wearer may seem aloof or evil. Furthermore, black may be overpowering and is not always considered trustworthy. As a background, it will set off other colors in the foreground.

Emotional terms associated with Black:
power, sexuality, sophistication, formality, elegance, wealth, mystery, fear, evil, unhappiness, depth, style, sadness, remorse, anger, death, serious, heavy, classic, dynamic, expensive

PantoneWhite White… White represents the full, equal presence of all three primary colors. It symbolizes innocence and purity. It also is associated with summer and indicates light. Furthermore, it tends to be neutral and goes with anything. However, pure white can cause glare and produce optical fatigue. Above all, it represents the absence of objects (‘white space’).

Emotional terms associated with White:
reverence, purity, simplicity, cleanliness, peace, humility, precision, innocence, youth, marriage, purity, honesty, pristine, pure, bright

If we are looking at a grayscale mode, we can also have intermediate values — shades of gray. The emotional concomitants of grey have not been studied as thoroughly as has black or white. Therefore, the most we can say about gray and emotion is that it elicits the feel of business, is cold, and tends to be distinctive.

Basic Light Mixing — The Primary Colors

When looking at the response of the eye to color, there are three basic colors to which the cones respond: red, green and blue. These are also the pigments that color film and our digital sensors respond to when we capture an image. As we examine the effects of these primary colors, we generally conceptualize these colors as existing around a circle — the Color Mix. Here is an example…

additive_color The non-overlapping spots of light correspond to the three primary colors that lay equidistant around a color circle. These are on red, green and blue. This color example represents the ‘additive’ colors that are appropriate to mixing light; a different example is required when we consider ‘subtractive’ color mixing that must be used with pigments.

So, lets start our examine the emotions associated with these primary colors…

PantoneRed Red… Red is on the lower end of the visible light spectrum. It is probably the most emotionally-charged color and has been found to stimulate the pituitary gland to produce the hormones that trigger the body’s flight-or-fight response. It is the sexiest ot all colors and is more potent at attention-getting than any of the other colors. Being a warm color, it energizes and makes the heart beat faster and increases the respiration rate. Most importantly, it is the color of love and used for Valentine’s Day.

Emotional terms associated with Red:
love, danger, speed, strength, violence, anger, emergency response, stop, negativity, excitement, heat, exertion, passion, provocative, dynamic

PantoneGreen Green… Green is in the middle of the visual light spectrum. It tends to symbolize nature and is the most often cited ‘favorite’ color. It is the easiest color on the eye — a calming and refreshing color. Dark Green reflects masculinity and maturity while Blue-Green elicits pleasant responses.

Emotional terms associated with Green:
nature, environment, health, good luck, renewal, youth, vigor, spring, generosity, fertility, jealousy, inexperience, envy, misfortune, growth, positivity, organic, comforting, soothing, refreshing, freshness

PantoneBlue Blue… Blue is at the upper end of the visual light spectrum. It tends to elicit the opposite reaction than red and calms the body by triggering the brain into producing claming chemicals (hormones and/or neurotransmitters). It slows the pulse and lowers the body’s temperature. It is the color of business (think IBM). Being a ‘cool’ color, it can be depressing (think of the ‘blues’). On its positive side, it elicits stability and encourages intellect. On the negative side, it feels cold and unfriendly.

Emotional terms associated with Blue:
peace, tranquility, calm, stability, harmony, unity, trust, truth, confidence, conservatism, security, cleanliness, order, loyalty, sky, water, cold, technology, depression, constant, quiet, serene, dependable, reliable, committed, trustworthy

Emotional terms associated with Dark Blue:
stability, calm, trust, maturity

Emotional terms associated with Light Blue:
youthfulness, masculinity, coolness

We have finished the first installment of our examination of the emotional concomitants of color.

Next posting: we will continue this examination by looking at the secondary and tertiary colors as well as color schemes. Join us on that adventure…