Color (First part)

The perception of color and its impact on people is an issue that has occupied human reflection for centuries. An example is the contributions of Aristotle (384-322 AC), Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519), Newton (1642-1727), Goethe (1749-1832), Schopenhauer (1788-1860), Ostwald (1853-1932) , To name but a few.

Aristotle’s notion of seven basic colors – with primary tones, related to the four elements – was imposed through the Renaissance. No lasting paradigms emerged for color organization until Newton resolved that there were seven main colors to “harmonize” their categories with the seven (then known) planets and the seven notes of the diatonic scale. In the 1720s the treatise on the color of Le Blon (1667-1741) revealed how blends could create secondary colors (“Coloritto“, 1725).


The perspectives of color from different disciplines make the subject of this post multidisciplinary. It includes the different fields of art and science, philosophy and psychology, physiology and physics, molecular genetics and neural computation, neuroethology and symbolism, culture and Anthropology, naturalism and linguistics, history and history of art, design and architecture, …

Impacts of light on people

Colors are not only a quality of our senses. Light, our main source of energy, from which our perception of color comes, exerts a significant influence on our biochemical system and our relationship with the environment.

Colors play an important role in communication, especially in non-verbal language and the transmission of ideas and even our personal image.

Colors influence emotions by creating sensations or climates that can modify our behavior and even our biorhythms: pulsations, muscle tension, respiratory rhythm, concentration, relaxation / excitement, joy / sadness…

In addition, the colors interfere with the rest of the senses, for example: the color of a perfume with its fragrance, the color of a food with its appetite, etc. Some people experience one of the other four senses (smell, taste …) when they see specific colors (synesthesia). For example, colors like fresh green and blue water can be perceived as “good smells”.

Color in nature

In the environment in which we live, colors are part of the cycle of nature, marking the seasons and the passage of time in vegetation, animals, sky, seas … and pointing out the climate and therefore, the Colors intervene in our perception and connection with the earth and the cycles of the universe.

The colors tell us when the vegetation is ripe and edible. They point to opportunities for mating and the presence of prey or predators. Protective coloring allows some animals to become invisible, and others to become conspicuous. Its striking pigments warn of defensive toxins. Some flowers that reflect the ultraviolet light undetectable by the human eye, attract insects and specific birds, inviting and guiding the pollination. Most mammals are color blind, including some humans, but vision without color allows a sharper perception of different textures and camouflage. The interference of light at microscopic scale, the superimposition of scales and crests on wings and feathers creates vivid colors in moths, butterflies and birds. Chlorophyll gives green color to plants, but decays in autumn. The carotene pigments in some vegetables, flowers and leaves are unmasked, producing the golden yellows, reds and oranges of the time of the harvest.

We use the colors (lights, pigments, pixels …) for:

  • Define, differentiate, mix, suggest, …
  • modify our personal image: make-up, clothes
  • identify brands and products: strategic marketing
  • identify countries, sports teams, hierarchies: flags, uniforms
  • organize workspaces, file systems, maps, blueprints: color codes
  • all facets of art …
  • architectural designs: offices, computer workstations, schools, medical centers, industrial environments, restaurants, food establishments,…
  • spiritual, religious and medicinal influence: association of colors with objects, symbols, practices and therapies

Color affects us deeply. Some of the feelings and reactions we have about the colors we see can be attributed to culture and society, but a good part comes from our psychology. Some color researchers have worked on this relationship between colors and human perception in a field called color theory, which focuses on color mixing and visual impact.

Theory of color

Although the principles of color theory first appeared in the writings of Leone Battista Alberti (1404-1472) and Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks (1452-1519), color theory as such began in the eighteenth century with Isaac Newton (Opticks, 1704) and the nature of primary colors. From there it developed in the form of an independent artistic tradition with only a superficial reference to colorimetry and the science of vision.

Theory of Ostwald. The theory of color proposed by the German chemist and philosopher Wilhelm Ostwald 1853-1932 consists of four elemental chromatic sensations (yellow, red, blue and green) and two intermediary achromatic sensations.

Johannes Itten (1888 – 1967) is the founder of the new Chromatic Theory, and his main work is The Art of Color (1961). His theory on “the 7 color contrasts” is taught in all renowned art workshops or academies.

The theory of color by Faber Birren (1900 – 1988) postulates that warm tones are more preferred by both artists and spectators. Birren stated that introverts are usually less affected by color compared to those who are more emotionally sensitive.

Perceived color

It is defined as the visual perception aspect by which an observer can distinguish between two fields of the same size, shape and texture based on differences in spectral composition of observation-related radiations (CIE definition).

* CIE = Commission Internationale de l’Éclairage

The impact power of color depends on the perception that a person has of it. Different environmental conditions can cause a certain color to look different to the human eye, or more accurately, to the human brain.

Experienced artists can achieve the perception of luster, iridescence and luminosity with careful color combinations. Artists can present a work that leads the viewer to perceive transparency, solidity and / or texture.

Perceived color is an attribute of visual perception, and can be described by color names (white, red, blue, etc.) as well as by color combinations. It is complemented by a series of attributes:

  • Luminosity: attribute of the visual sensation according to which a surface emits more or less light.
  • Tone: attribute of visual sensation according to which a surface appears similar to one, or proportions of two of the colors perceived yellow, orange, red, green, blue and purple. Thus a color can be achromatic if it is perceived without tone, or chromatic if it is perceived with tone.
  • Color content: attribute of the visual sensation according to which a surface appears to show more or less chromatic color.
  • Clarity (of a color dependent): luminosity of a surface evaluated with the luminosity of another equally illuminated surface that seems white or highly diffusive.
  • Saturation: color content of a surface evaluated in proportion to its luminosity.
  • Chroma (of a color dependent): color content of a surface evaluated in proportion to the luminosity of an equally illuminated surface, which appears white or highly diffusive.

Favorite colors

In a survey of more than 2,000 people between the ages of 14 and 97 of the German population at the beginning of the 21st century Eva Heller (see bibliography at the end) has the following results: Blue is the color with the most fans. It is the favorite of 46% of men and 44% of women. Almost no one does not like it: 1% of men and 2% of women. Blue is the preferred color to wear and also for automobiles. Blue is used in bedrooms. Blue does not enjoy acceptance in food and drinks. Blue is the color of all good qualities that are credited with time, of all good feelings that are not dominated by simple passion but are based on reciprocal understanding. There is no negative feeling in which blue dominates. No wonder blue has so much acceptance. [We speak of only one color to exemplify the psychological and cultural discourse].

However, if instead of asking the German population we analyze the symbolism of the colors (for our case of the blue color) for the different countries of the world, we find some meanings and different uses, for example:

  • In Mexico, blue dresses in case of mourning.
  • For the inhabitants of the Caribbean countries the blue symbolizes Pirates, death and patches on the eyes.
  • For the Argentines, the blue means to travel, to reach goals, ambitions, great spaces, the sky. It is also the color of your flag and your soccer team.
  • For Eastern Europe, blue is associated with art and uniforms.
  • For the French, blue is the color of jewelry as well as street signage.
  • For Scandinavians, blue is the color of hospital supplies and of being out of money.
  • For the independent states of the former USSR, blue is the color of the Virgin Mary.
  • Turks see in the blue avoid the evil eye (amulets) and art.
  • For the countries of the Balkans, blue is the color of art and frescoes of churches.
  • For Israelis, blue is the color of the Lord, of glory (in addition to his flag).
  • For the Egyptians, blue is the color of truth and justice, of stones and flowers.
  • For the Chinese, Koreans, Japanese and Indonesians, blue is the color of clothing.
  • For the inhabitants of India, blue is the color of Krishna’s love and skin.
  • For Australians, New Zealanders, and Filipinos, blue is the color of the ocean.


If you want to know more … (will continue …)


Itten, J. (1975) Johannes Itten Arte del Color. Aproximación subjetiva y descripción objetiva del arte. Edición abreviada. Editorial Bouret. Paris.

Birren, F. y Itten, J. (1970) The elements of color: A treatise on the color system of Johannes Itten, Based on his book “The Art of Color”. Van Nostrand Reinhold Company.

Safran, A.B. y Sanda, N. (2015) Color synesthesia. Insight into perception, emotion, and consciousness. Current Opinion in Neurology. Vol. 28. N.1. February 2015.

Heller, E. (2004) Psicología del color: Cómo actúan los colores sobre los sentimientos y la razón. Ed. Gustavo Gili. Barcelona.

Collectif (2017) Book of Symbols. Taschen.

In Spanish:

ARAS (2014) El libro de los símbolos. Taschen.

Other websites of interest:

De Bortoli, M. y Maroto, J. (2001) Translating Colors in web site localization. ELICIT 2001: European Languages and the Implementation of Communication and Information Technologies : Proceedings of the First International ELICIT Conference, Held at the University of Paisley on 9th and 10th November 2001.