There is More to Color Than Meets the Eye

By: Melissa Berman 
April 11, 2021

I was walking to the local market last week in Sag Harbor, New York, on an overcast, gray March day. There was a chill in the air. The trees were also a Winter worn shade of gray, spreading their bare branches against the dusty sky like outstretched, tired fingers. I was cold and feeling rushed and kind of blah. As I approached the entrance to the market, three giant planters popped into my view, bursting with pink and yellow happiness. One look at the big, bright, pink tulips and other blooms, and suddenly it felt like a warm Spring day. I stopped, and went from planter to planter, taking in the colors, like an infusion of cheer and hopefulness. I suddenly felt more vibrant. I was smiling. I took a photo of the flowers, focusing in on the muted daylight landing on the magenta petals. There was a hint of yellow just behind my cropped image. Color!

flower that is pink

What is it about color that makes us feel, react, engage and even heal? Why is a black dress what you wear to a funeral? Why does an orange kitchen make you more hungry? Why do studies show that wearing red on a date is more appealing? Science has even shown that blue light accelerates a psychological calming response, after a social stressor, and reduces suicide at Japanese train stations.   

The mysteries of the effects of color have been peaking the minds and senses of scientists, healers, philosophers, artists and mystics since ancient times. The ancient Egyptians are noted for using color to treat various ailments - the first practice of what is known as chromotherapy. They built special rooms in temples for this type of healing and used gems (crystals) through which the sunlight shone, emitting different colors that they attributed to different bodily systems and illnesses. For them, color was curative.

In Ancient Greece, the concept of color as diagnosis and remedy, incorporated the four elements of air, fire, water, and earth and four humors or bodily fluids -- choler or yellow bile, blood (red), phlegm (white), and melancholy or black bile. These all manifested in four organs - the spleen, heart, liver, and brain - and determined emotional and physical disposition. The idea was to balance all of these for optimal health, and to treat any imbalance. Color was a part of the balancing process, with colored garments, oils, plasters, ointments, and salves.

These ancient traditions looked to nature to inform their understanding of life, and what is nature, if not colorful? They also blended spiritual practices with physical healing, where color and light were largely featured.  

illustration of people

The rainbow of color, that we are familiar with today, was discovered by Isaac Newton around 1672, when he held a glass prism to pure sunlight and identified the color spectrum: 7 colors comprising red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. These colors also correlate to the yogic chakra system assigning a color and ‘energy’ to various parts and aspects of our body, defined as our chakras. Today, phrases like ‘open your heart chakra’, or ‘connect to your root chakra’ are as commonly heard in yoga class as ‘downward dog’.   

So much of what is drawn from these color-coded systems has made its way into our daily vernacular. Being ‘green with envy’ links back to the heart (green) chakra, or feeling ‘hot’ for someone, connects to our sacral (orange) chakra, the fiery center of sex and reproduction. Being a color fanatic myself, I am attracted to the chakra system and its associated meanings. I spoke with yoga therapist, Cathy Maguire, about how she uses color and chakras in her work. “When I was 5 years old, I remember loving the easel corner in kindergarten. I would stare at that big white blank paper and scribble all over it with pencil. I would then fill in each part of my design with a different color. My own abstract! The colors made me so happy. I now realize color was opening up my heart and creative urges.” Cathy explains that each chakra corresponds to the colors of the rainbow, and to the notes of a musical scale.

RED - Root chakra.
Body parts: base of spine, legs, feet.
Energy: Survival and security.
ORANGE - Sacral chakra.
Body parts: below navel, bladder, kidneys, reproductive organs.
Energy: sexuality, creativity, emotions.
YELLOW- Solar plexus.
Body parts: stomach, liver, intestines, digestion.
Energy: power center, our beliefs, direction in life.
GREEN - Heart chakra.
Body parts: chest region, heart, lungs, circulatory system.
Energy: compassion, love, forgiveness.
BLUE - Throat chakra.
Body parts: throat region, thyroid, neck, jaw.
Energy: Authentic voice, truth, communication.
INDIGO - Third eye chakra.
Body parts: center of forehead, between the eyes, eyes, nose, ears, brain.
Energy: intuition, wisdom.
VIOLET - Crown chakra.
Body parts: upper brain, nervous system.
Energy: higher states of awareness, inner peace, universal consciousness.

She explains that once she identifies an imbalance in her client, she uses color as part of the therapy. “For example, if my client is suffering from issues and anxiety about communicating their truth, I may bring in the color blue, have them chant that sound, or play the singing bowl associated with the throat chakra.”  

Cathy isn’t the only one using color as a therapeutic tool. Light color therapy, modern day chromotherapy is a popular adjunct to infrared saunas, employing colored lights in the sauna experience, based on the frequency of each color (yes colors can be measured by their light frequency) to address different health concerns.   

Whilst methods like these are a pretty way to take care of our health, we can also use color in our daily lives to influence our mood and physical comfort. Many a study has been conducted, and an entire color consultancy industry exists, working with hospitals, prisons, schools and offices, to put color to work creating desired mood and effects in various environments. And of course, color in our homes is a driving force in interior design, creating living spaces that reflect and support lifestyle and personality. 

green room
purple room

Well known interior designer, Ondine Karady is known for her stylish, and very often colorful aesthetic. “The color of a room can change how a room feels dramatically, and how a person feels when spending time in that room”, she explains. “Bright colors often emote fun and playfulness. I like to have elements of whimsy.”  

 “I love to add pops of color in unexpected places. I just designed an elegantly muted kitchen, with a bright orange pantry and a yellow storage area.” When it comes to sleeping though, Ondine notes, “Bedrooms for adults are typically a sanctuary. I usually choose a muted, calming color palette for bedrooms.”

The key, she says, is to understand how her clients feel about color, and go from there.   

High-end paint brand Farrow and Ball addressed our current pandemic lifestyle, and its effects in a 2020/21 colour trends report. With people spending more time at home than ever, Colour Curator Joa Studholme presented a palette of rich, warm, earthy colors with an intention to convey a sense of ease and familiarity, “a result of wanting to find a calm within the chaos of our turbulent world.” Deep reddish browns, natural greens and marine blues are featured, to foster comfort and rejuvenation.  

I recently spent hours poring over paint samples with a friend who is re-doing her vacation home. Her goal is to make it more cheerful and uplifting after this rough year, with the use of carefully selected accent colors. Her 17 year-old daughter and I spent an afternoon painting sample boards to try out against the walls. With each dip of the brush into a new color, we felt something different. We held a blue sample up and asked, “does that make me feel peaceful and ready for sleep?” We chose a cool shade of teal for the home office, remarking how it seemed a great choice to inspire productivity. Mostly we had fun, like 5 year-old Cathy, playing with color and marveling at its effect.  

Just as nature colors our world, and our experience of it, we can choose and use color to heal, explore and express our own version of our lives.