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We are brought up in a black and white world, dependent on those around us. As children, shades of gray are withheld from us, because they complicate our surroundings. As we grow older and navigate through life’s nuances, we are taught to go it alone; independence is emboldened. Many of us are introduced to varying shades of gray, and in turn, view life as such. For others, however, the color spectrum widens ever so slightly, and that is the well from which knowledge is sourced. We become creatures of habit, and surround ourselves with like-minded individuals. We stand by those who see the same shades of gray as we do. The color wheel, however, offers a different perspective.

Our landscape — and what we take away from it — is greatly influenced by the way we view the colors saturating it. Though we all see color, its meanings and implications vary tremendously across cultures, neighborhoods and even individuals. The ways in which we perceive color vary greatly depending on personal experience. Color inspires and impacts us tremendously, which is why it is used to create thoughtful marketing. Painter and Art Theorist, Wassily Kandilly once said that, “Color is a power which directly influences the soul.” The juxtaposing complexities and simplicities of color theory allow and encourage us to glean valuable life lessons from the color wheel.

Here is what we know about color. And here is what color can teach us.

The standard color wheel as we have come to know it consists of three categories. We begin with the primary colors: red, yellow and blue. All other colors are derivatives of these three colors. Then come the secondary colors: green, orange and purple ‑ called as such because they are created when mixed with the primary colors. And finally, there are the tertiary colors. Tertiary colors, or colors created when mixing a primary and secondary color, are: red-orange, red-purple, yellow-orange, blue-purple, blue-green and yellow-green. All colors fall into either cool or warm categories. Warm colors exude feelings of energy and stimulation while cool colors lend themselves to feelings of calming relaxation and soothing impressions. We have analogous colors, which are any three colors that sit side-by-side on the wheel. And complementary colors, which are completely opposite one another on the color wheel, but pair beautifully together. The two play off each other’s intensities. Complementary colors create balance. They are opposites attracting at play.  

To view the world in color, is our earliest and bravest attempt at deciphering the world around us. Colors are seen before they are explained, and our instinctual feelings around the colors we are exposed to help to make sense of our brilliantly hued landscapes. Far stranger than the vastness of the color spectrum, argues fine art photographer Joel Sternfeld, is viewing the world in black and white. “Black and white is abstract; color is not. Looking at a black and white photograph, you are already looking at a strange world.”

Through life experiences, cultural differences and a range of possible outcomes, our landscape shifts over time. The color wheel is comprised of 12 parts, each achieving perfect harmony with not only its neighboring colors, but its polar opposites. The starkness of contrast creates a perfect balance of color. Embedded in the color wheel lies a far deeper lesson, a solution to our many perceptions, a peace offering, and a lesson in unity. Color exists as an unmatched force. It stands alone as a tremendously powerful entity. We can look to the color wheel to teach us. In the words of Artist Paul Klee, “Color is the place where our brain and the universe meet.”

We can view patterns in marketing messaging and their associated colors, and draw conclusions based on trends. Our personal life experiences, however, can often have a gravely different effect on our color associations. Therefore, we must distinguish, at our own discretion that even the most sound of facts when it comes to color are up for debate. We know that in a room full of people, every single one of them may be perceiving the exact same shade of red in a multitude of unexplainable shades. And due to the paired association, the colors that may calm some have the potential to have an adverse effect on others. Orange could be a warm sunrise, or destructive flames. And while yellow is the happiest color in the spectrum, a tragic accident involving a yellow car will replace feelings of joy with terror. Just like a love song gone sour, when we pair certain negative occurrences in our lives with the colors that surrounded us at that time, the same intended emotions are no longer evoked. While color theory is concrete, the human experience is far from it. For this reason, we can turn to color usage in marketing, and understand that it is only as accurate as the consumer’s association is pure.

We know that the color red increases an individual’s heart rate, and therefore acts as an urgency color. Oftentimes, red is used to indicate clearance sales, and draw’s the viewer’s attention via call-to-action and contact buttons. The color red stimulates the appetite, and is used throughout many restaurants and restaurant chain branding and messaging. Red is an extreme color. It is duality embodied. Red is what gives us life, and when released – gives us death. Red symbolizes power, passion, danger, excitement, war, and love.  

Orange emanates warmth. Combining the joyful yellow and stimulation of red, orange is optimistic, invigorating and promotes mental activity. Orange stimulates the appetite and acts as a cautionary color. We see orange in traffic cones and life rafts, but also in flowers and citrus fruits.

Yellow is the brightest color visible to the human eye. It represents happiness, cheer, and high energy. Yellow is said to inspire creativity. It is important to note that there is a fine line with the color yellow, and crossing it can display an unpleasant shade that tends to have an adverse effect on viewers. Too much yellow makes babies cry and incites anxiety. Red and yellow, when used in conjunction, strongly appeals to a younger generation. Think Mcdonalds. The same color combination that is incredibly enticing to children appears as visually jarring to the adult eye.

We associate green with wealth, nature and tranquility. The color green is attached to ecology and encourages a harmonious brain and body connection, which leads to decisiveness. Globally, green symbolizes go and is used in stoplights around the world. It is a relaxing color that reads as environmentally and health conscious.  

In Western culture, blue is both a feeling and a color. To have the blues is to be depressed or overcome with melancholy. However, blue tends to have a calming effect on viewers. It translates to trust, security and authority. It is a calming, cooling color that often shows up in healthcare, financial institutions, airlines and large-scale companies. Blue promotes a sense of security and trust within brands. The color blue curbs appetite, which is why it is so rarely shown in the food industry.  

A perfect blend of stimulating red and calming blue, purple’s attributes embody creativity, and is usually the favorite color of creative types. There is a great deal of knowledge, courage, independence, confidence and wisdom behind the color purple. This is why the U.S. military gives out Purple Heart awards. Purple is also associated with royalty. We often connect purple with opulence, wealth, power and luxury. With purple appearing so rarely in nature, it is a highly coveted color that we often pair with supernatural, intergalactic imagery. There is an otherworldly aura and classification to purple.

Pink is universally associated with love. It represents friendship, harmony, tenderness and femininity. This is why Victoria’s secret created an entire line simply titled, “Pink.” A specific shade of pink, formally called “Baker Miller” pink has had such a profoundly calming effect, that some jail holding cells were painted that shade of pink in an effort to lessen hostel behavior and calm violent aggression. Alexander Schuss, who did extensive studies on human psychological and physiological responses to the color pink, ascertained that just fifteen minutes of staring at an 18X24 postcard with this color would result in “a marked effect on lowering the heart rate, pulse and respiration as compared to other colors.” With this observation, a before and after of assault rates were noted by the Naval correctional institute directors, Baker and Miller. The Navy’s report read, “Since the initiation of this procedure on 1 March 1979, there have been no incidents of erratic or hostile behavior during the initial phase of confinement”. The report noted that only fifteen minutes of exposure was time enough to effectively ensure that the potential for violent or aggressive behavior had been substantially reduced.

We can look to the color wheel to uncomplicate, and make sense of life. The uniqueness of the color wheel lives in its ability to learn from, and work harmoniously with its counterparts. What if we allowed ourselves not only to coexist, but to depend on others to shine brighter and to illuminate one another? We should sit with our analogous neighbors and our complementary opposites and grow from them, understanding that maximum contrast breeds maximum stability. Our vibrancy increases tenfold when we allow others in. Mirroring the color wheel, we should view our opposites as our compliments, not our enemies. The color wheel’s case for balance is a strong one. In following the rules of the color wheel, we could all benefit from exiting our comfort zones and taking a walk with our orange, purple and green neighbors.

In a perfect world, the spectrum of colors presented on a color wheel as we know it would evoke the same universal emotional responses, trigger the same reactions and like that, we’d have color down to a science. Cross-culturally, what calms one nation may have the opposite effect on another. For example, in Eastern culture, red is worn by brides, and represents prosperity and happiness. Whereas in Celtic culture, red represents death and the afterlife. We can say then, that we rely on colors on a culture-to-culture basis. That is, unless a paired association comes in and muddles it. Blue in Cherokee culture represents defeat and trouble, whereas in Eastern culture it represents wealth and in Western culture, depression. Purple represents mourning in Thailand, and symbolizes royalty in Western culture. In Cherokee culture, the color white represents peace and happiness. In China it signifies death and mourning and in India, unhappiness. In America, we associate white with the “good guys,” angels, peace and brides. In Chinese culture, and particularly during the Chinese New York, red can be found everywhere. Red lanterns beautifully adorn homes and businesses. The color red symbolizes joy, vitality, success and good fortune and is used throughout weddings and festivals.  

Painter Marc Chagall once said, “All colors are the friends of their neighbors and the lovers of their opposites.” It is our duty to step outside of our boundaries and seek out the shades of gray we may never have found as children. We can learn to depend on our analogous kaleidoscopic neighbors, and we can paint our experiences in complimentary colors. Though we all see colors through different lenses, there is no color so unrecognizable that it cannot be woven beautifully into our landscapes. Let us take a lesson from the color wheel. The color wheel seeks out its opponents, and uses its differences to works in perfect harmony together.


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