Culture, Religion, and the Impact of Color

psychology of color

“The mainstream of creativity appears to be the same tendency which we discover so deeply as the curative force in psychotherapy – man’s tendency to actualize himself, to become his potentialities.” ~Carl Rogers On Becoming a Person

“Nature always wears the colors of spirit.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

“The whole point is to live life and be – to use all the colors in the crayon box.” ~RuPaul

The Impact of Color

Color plays a big role in our feelings, perceptions, and actions. It can set a mood, draw attention, and even influence purchases. Color has historical context and cultural effects. Different colors invoke physiological reactions and impact our thinking. Color is a powerful influencer for our behavior, physiology, and mood.

Cultural Context

Culture can sway many meanings we have for color. Common phrases like “green with envy,” “the grass is not always greener on the other side,” “red with rage,” or “feeling blue” portray shared cultural influences.

Cultural associations have malleability. They change with time. For example, in the 2000’s, the color red emerged as an association with the Republican Party and the color blue implied the Democratic Party. Pink is also on the forefront that represents breast cancer.

History of Color

The first discoveries of cave paintings dates back to 25,000 BC wherein red ochre compared to the common place of black today.  Iron-rich soil made the red pigment readily available for expression and communication.

Over time, a palette of black, brown, yellow, red, and white emerged as artists mixed animal fat, burnt charcoal, chalk, and soil.

Iconic hues progressed from cochineal insects that produced a popular red pigment. Later lapis lazuli, a gemstone from Afghanistan created some of the most sought after and hefty priced paintings.

Green came from toxic arsenic and then later mixed with copper. Cezanne, Monet, and Renoir all used the vivid yet poisonous pigment.

Colors of Religion

Color helps express core beliefs and traditions of the foremost religions. The Christian Bible, the Buddhist scriptures, and the Torah have many references made to color and symbolize specific principles and ethics.


In Christian countries, red is linked to the blood of Christ. It symbolizes pain and suffering and some times used as an alternate color for the Season of Lent.

Blue is the color of royalty. The hue is used to welcome the coming of a King, symbolizes the night sky and the birth of Christ with the rising star.

Violet is associated with repentance from sin. Black is a traditional color of mourning. White and gold partake in celebrations, holy days, festivals, and any presence of joy and brightness.


In Buddhist traditions, the highest level of meditative achievement is the rainbow body wherein the body is transformed into pure light. To achieve the rainbow body is to possess pure light, which contains all colors.

Red is one of the five color bands in the flag. Red (Lohita) is the Blessings of Practice, wisdom, virtue, achievement, dignity, and fortune. Red is a marker of sacred areas and a protective color often seen on the garments of monks and shamans.

Orange, also in the Buddhist flag refers to the Buddha’s teachings of wisdom.

Blue, a strip in the Buddhist flag is representative of healing, tranquility, purity, wisdom, and universal compassion.

Yellow is the middle path in Buddhism. It means avoiding extremes and emptiness.

Similar to Christianity, black refers to darkness, hate, anger, and evil. White represents purity, longevity, and knowledge.


The history of Judaism dates back to 2000 BCE. It is one of the oldest religious practices in place today. Blue is a common pigment of the Jewish faith. It represents the Divine and the color of God’s Glory. Blue is part of the Israeli flag, the Star of David, and in fringes. The blue threads, or tzitzit often are worn on the corners of garments to separate the eating habits from those of gentiles’ and discourage acts of sin.

White symbolizes purity, intelligence, and innocence.  Red has contrasting symbolism of joy and happiness and sin.   Purple is the purification from sin.

Psychological and Physiological Effects

Color influences our physiology. For example, the primary color red is often associated with injury accompanied by the sight of blood. Red often associated with anger or embarrassment may cause a flushed face. Red also has been known to increase heart rate and blood pressure.

Red is also stimulating and evokes passion often times seen in women’s cocktail attire, ruby red lipsticks, and in sports. Research conducted at the 2004 Summer Olympics found competitors who wore red were more likely to win.

Blue, another primary color is often associated with tranquility, relaxation, nourishing, and calmness. It is the color of the sky, water, and sea. Blue is a cool color of sadness and may evoke feelings of depression for some.

Yellow, one of the three primary colors has shown to speed up metabolism. Yellow requires intense focus and grabs people’s attention.

Bubble gum pink tends to relax and have a calming effect on children. A pilot study conducted at the San Bernardino County Probation Department in California showed that a room painted bubble gum pink tended to reduce violent behaviors of children. When the youngsters were put in the 8-foot by 4-foot cell painted pink, they stopped yelling, banging, and fell asleep within ten minutes.


Color has many common associations. Readily obtainable mineral mercury gave way to the use of cinnabar, or red, during rituals in the Iberian Peninsula territory between Spain and North Africa, burial sites in the ancient culture of Yangshao in China, and in weddings and special occasions in the Chinese culture. In India, red is seen as a color of luck.

White across all cultures and religions symbolizes purity, light, and innocence.

Blue is also quite popular and universally represents wisdom. Red esteems condescending meanings across all cultures from passion to anger.

However, there is no definitive connotation to pigment. The article is intended to stimulate your thinking about color and its personal meaning to you. Colors can be contradictory and ambiguous. It is up to you to explore your color palette and what associations you have concerning color.

Here are some inquiries to ponder taken by Cathy A. Malchiodi, ATR, LPCC Using Art to Express Feelings: Drawing on Loss.

  • How do you use color in your dress, in your images, in your home décor, to express emotion?
  • Do certain colors have specific meanings for you?
  • Does your family, religion, ethnicity influence your associations to certain colors?
  • Do certain colors remind you of a specific holiday or event?
  • Are there colors that you wear for a specific occasion or situation?
  • What colors have you used the most in your artworks, wardrobes, or decors?
  • Are there areas of heavy uses of color? Light uses of color?
  • Do you like to use particular combinations, such as black and white; earthy, golden colors, pastels, deep, dark tones; colors found in nature?
  • Have you noticed any changes in your feelings, meanings, and preferences for colors over the years?

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.