It's believed that artists invented pigments using a combination of soil, animal fat and burned charcoal as early as 40,000 years ago. In this article, we deep dive into the history of colors and the color psychology behind them.
In today's society, color is perhaps something we take for granted. With one simple click, we have thousands of colors at our disposal. But, much like the science behind color psychology, there's also the history of colors. Below, we learn about how some of our favorite colors were created and how they have evolved to form meaning in society and through design.
Blue is a color that has long been associated with royalty, art, military, business and nature, making it a color with a lot of applications.
The first documented use of blue pigment is using blue azurite, a vivid deep blue naturally occurring mineral, used widely in ancient Egypt for decoration and jewellery. Later, in the Renaissance, the mineral was crushed and used as the expensive paint pigment ultramarine.
From here blue would go on to live a long life in the world of art, from stained glass windows in the Middle Ages, fine blue and white porcelain in China through to famous applications by artists such as Renoir and Van Gogh.
US and UK public opinion surveys have found that blue is a majority of men and women’s preferred color, making it quite a popular hue.
Blue is also thought to promote trustworthiness, serenity, and productivity amongst other positive traits, the use of the color dominates tech, financial and medical branding.
Red is a rich color with an even richer history. Use of the pigment can be traced way back to Ancient Egypt where it was considered both a color of vitality and celebration, as well as evil and destruction. From here on, red was a staple hue throughout history, used in ancient Grecian murals, in Byzantine clothing to signal status and wealth, and heavily applied throughout art movements ranging from the Renaissance through to modern day art.
Red is considered to be a color of intense emotions, ranging from anger, sacrifice, danger, and heat, through to love, passion, and sexuality.
In many Asian countries such as India and China, red is regarded as the color of happiness, wellbeing, and good fortune.
In the world of branding, red can signal a whole host of different ideas, depending on the specific shade. For example, a darker red often signals luxury and professionalism. A bright, intense red signals excitement, energy, and efficiency. A cooler, deeper burgundy is often more sophisticated and serious whereas a brown-tinted maroon red is courageous and strong.
Red is also a color that is thought to stimulate appetites and hunger, making it a popular choice when it comes to food industry branding. Think of Fritos, Jack in the Box, Coca-Cola, McDonalds, etc.
When it comes to branding red is also often used to promote speed, energy, and efficiency. Netflix, Suzuki, and RedBull are all brands that use red to promote life in the fast lane.
Red is also often seen being applied as a color to promote creativity in electronic/software brands. Adobe, Canon, Nintendo are all prime examples of this in action.
Heralded as the color of sunshine and gold, yellow is a vibrant, historic color. Deriving the pigment from clay, yellow is thought to be one of the first colors ever used as a paint in prehistoric cave art, with the first application thought to be over 17,300 years old.
Ancient Egyptians were pretty prolific users of the color too. Thanks to its close association with gold, the color was considered eternal and indestructible. Yellow has a longstanding relationship with the world of art, with artists such as Van Gogh adopting it as a signature color to signal warmth and happiness.
Amongst these associations, Yellow is a color that embodies many ideas depending on the shade and application. As previously mentioned it can symbolise happiness, sunshine, good energy, and joy.
However, it can also represent cowardice, betrayal, terror, and illness. Interestingly, the latter of these associations is thought to be due to the fact that yellow pigments are often found in toxic materials.
Furthermore, as yellow is the most visible color of the spectrum, it is often used for emergency and cautionary signage, clothing, and applications. If you need to grab attention fast, use a bit of yellow.
In Japan, yellow is thought to represent courage, and in some parts of Mexico certain shades can are thought to represent death.
When it comes to branding, yellow can be applied to signal a range of ideas. For example, it is often used to signal speed and efficiency, as we can see embodied in brands like Ferrari and Sprint.
It can also signal, of course, happiness and joy. Think of brands like Snapchat and McDonald’s that promote a culture of enjoyment and fun.
Yellow is also a color that promotes the idea of wisdom and knowledge in certain brands. National Geographic, BIC, Commonwealth Bank, are all prime examples of this theory in action.
Named after the Anglo-Saxan word grene meaning “grass” and “grow”, green is a color with close and distinctive ties to nature, the environment, and all things to do with the great outdoors.
Historically, green was a pigment that did not appear as early in prehistoric art as other hues as it was a hard pigment to reproduce. Due to this, many art and fabric applications of green either turned out a dull brown-ish green, or eventually faded due to the temperamental pigments used. So, it was only when synthetic green pigments and dyes were produced that green was seen more prolifically throughout modern art.
In Western countries, green is seen as a color of luck, freshness, the color for ‘go’, jealousy, and greed. In China and Japan, green is seen as the color of new birth, youth, and hope. However in China it is also a symbol of infidelity as to wear a green hat is considered a symbol of your partner cheating on you.
Psychologically speaking, green is thought to help balance emotions, promote clarity, and create an overall feeling of zen. Green is obviously the color of nature and health, thus it also has close ties with emotions of empathy, kindness, and compassion.
Paler, softer mint greens often promote ideas of youth, inexperience, and innocence, while deeper, darker greens draw out notions of success, wealth, and money. Vibrant lime green shades promote energy and playfulness, and deeper olive greens are seen as representing strength and endurance.
It can also signal prestige and wealth, as demonstrated in luxury car brand Jaguar’s logo, or the high-end fashion brand Lacoste.
Green can also be used to promote health, the environment, and all-natural products. Just check out Whole Foods or Animal Planet’s logos to see this eco-friendliness exemplified.
Sitting in between red and yellow in the color spectrum is orange. Historically, orange was used prolifically by the Ancient Egyptians and Medieval artists, the pigment often made out of a highly toxic mineral called orpiment, which contained traces of arsenic.
Before the late 15th century, Europeans simply referred to orange as yellow-red until they were introduced to orange trees, when the pigment was finally awarded its true name. During the 16th and 17th centuries, orange became a symbol of Protestantism and an important political color in Britain and Europe under William III’s reign.
Throughout art in the 18th and 19th centuries, orange became a symbol of impressionism thanks to artists such as Renoir, Cezanne, and Van Gogh.
Orange has different tones and shades, each with different meanings and effects.
For example, light pastel peach tones are seen as sweet, conversational, and affable, whereas more intense, vibrant oranges are seen as representative of vitality, energy, and encouragement.
Deeper amber shades are seen as confident, a symbol of pride and self-assertion, and darker orange-brown tones promote ambition, adventure, and opportunity.
In Western countries, orange is often linked to inexpensive/affordable products and is heavily used in relation to Halloween. In Thailand, orange is the color of Friday, whereas in the Netherlands it is the color of the Dutch Royal Family.
In terms of branding, orange has a few different applications.
First of all, orange is often used to communicate a product that is affordable and/or inexpensive. Think of Amazon, or Payless shoes’ logos and how they use orange to suggest this.
Orange is also used to elicit feelings of adventure, excitement and risks. We can see this in Harley Davidson, WNBA, or Rockstar Games’ logos.
Alternatively, vibrant oranges are used to promote energy, enthusiasm, and fun. Think of Nickelodeon’s signature orange hue, or Fanta’s bright, enthusiastic use of the color.
Sitting in between red and blue on the color spectrum is none of than purple. Purple has long had a noble and fairly regal history surrounding the hue. Due to the fact that producing purple pigments was expensive and difficult, the color was often worn by those of high status and royal descent throughout the Byzantine and Holy Roman Empires as well as Japanese aristocracy.
From here on out purple remained a color to symbolize royalty and nobility throughout history until 1856 when the color became more accessible to the every person and simply became a signal of fashion and style instead. However, purple is still a color used by the British royal family and will forever remain the color of the royals.
Purple is a color that sits in an interesting place on the color spectrum – right in between warm red and cool blue – making it a color that can be both cool and warm depending on the specific shade.
Thanks to this, different shades of purple can have significantly different effects.
On the lighter end of the spectrum is lavender. This pale, soft shade communicates femininity, nostalgia, romance, and tenderness.
More vibrant purples promote royalty, nobility, extravagance, and luxury. While deeper, darker shades of purple such as mauve can promote ideas of seriousness, professionality as well as gloom and sadness in certain applications.
When it comes to branding purple is used in a multitude of ways. One common application is to draw on the historic ties of the color with royalty to help build a luxurious, expensive, high quality brand. Think of the logos of Hallmark, or luxe whiskey brand Crown Royal.
Purple is also a color that can promote fun, creativity, and play. Thanks to this, it is often used in children-oriented brandings such as Wonka candy, or platforms that encourage play, such as video game streaming service Twitch.
Purple is also often used frequently in branding to promote knowledge, innovation, and intelligence. Take a look at Yahoo!, SYFY, and NYU’s logos and see how they each use purple to evoke these ideas.
Named after the flower of the same name, pink is a vibrant, feminine color with an interesting history. Pink does not have as prolific a history in art and culture as some other colors, as more intense shades of red and crimson were often preferred. However, during the renaissance, pink pigments started to be applied more often, as from thereon, the color worked its way into the world of fashion, art, and design.
Pink is regarded widely in the western world as the color of femininity. Because of this, it is used to bring awareness to breast cancer, applied to many women’s products, and considered a color predominately used and worn by women. However, this has not always been the case. Originally it was considered to be a color suited to little boys, as red was a man’s color, and pink it’s younger sister hue. Similarly, in Japan pink is a color associated with masculinity, the pink cherry blossom trees thought to be symbols of fallen Japanese warriors.
When it comes to shades of pink, softer, lighter tones often promote innocence, girlhood, nurturing, love, and gentleness, and these soft shades are actually thought to increase female physical strength.
However, brighter, more intense shades of pink are instead thought to promote sensuality, and passion, as well as creativity, energy, and, as studies have suggested, the color is thought to raise pulse rate and blood pressure.
When it comes to branding pink is used in a variety of ways. Arguably the most common application is on brands that predominately cater towards women. As pink is a symbol of femininity in Western cultures, brands like Victoria’s Secret, Priceline, and Cosmopolitan all use the color to get the attention of their demographic.
Pink is also a color used to promote creativity, artistic expression, and innovation, as seen in Adobe InDesign’s logo, as well as graphic design social network Dribbble’s branding.
Arguably the sweetest color of all, naturally pink is also used for sweets, candy, and dessert food brands such as Dunkin Donuts, Baskin Robbins, and Trolli.
Hailed as what studies have shown to be “the least favorite color of the public”, brown is not a color to turn a blind eye to. Brown is considered to be one of the first pigments ever used in prehistoric times and has been a staple of art and culture ever since.
Brown has long been a symbol of the lower-class, this association stemming from Ancient Rome when the color was donned only by barbarians and people of low social and economic rankings. It is also a color that was worn by the monks of the Franciscan order as a sign of poverty and humility.
However, brown has had quite the revival in modern culture. Now a symbol of all things organic, natural, healthy, and quality, it is a color with many positive associations.
Brown is not a color applied throughout branding as prolifically as other hues, but when it is used, it has a few distinctive effects.
As brown is a color often seen in nature, it has become a symbol of all things organic, authentic and/or natural. We can see this in the branding of brands such as Ugg and Cotton.
Brown is also a shade that promotes reliability, efficiency, and high value service, as seen in the UPS and JP Morgan logos.
Deep, rich browns are often applied to signal high quality and luxe style. Two prime examples of this are Louis Vuitton’s signature brown, and Hollister’s deep brown logo.
And finally, brown is also often used as a color to communicate warmth, relaxation, and indulgence. It is often chocolate and coffee brands such as MnMs, Nespresso, Hersheys, and many small coffee chains that make use of this application of the hue.
White is an achromatic color, meaning it is a color without a hue. It has been a staple of art, history, and culture for many eras. In fact, it is recorded as the first color ever used in art, with Paleolithic artists using white calcite and chalk to draw.
Throughout much of history, white has been elected as a symbol of goodness, spirituality, purity, godliness, and sacredness. Ancient Egyptian gods, Greek gods, Roman goddesses were all depicted as clad in white to symbolize their deity.
White is considered the symbolic opposite of black, with the two colors together forming symbols of good and evil, night and day, light and dark, etc.
In Western cultures, white is the classic color of wedding dresses, symbolizing innocence and purity, whereas in many Asian cultures white is the color of mourning, grief, and loss.
White is a tricky color to work with when it comes to logos and brand applications as you can’t have a purely white logo. However, many brands choose to either use slight off-white, grey, or silver tones, or combine the white with black to create striking high contrast logos. White and light off-white colors are often used as a very luxurious color in branding. Brands like Swarovski use it to promote elegance, sophistication, and to draw comparisons between their logo and crystals/diamonds.
White is also the color of modern day technology. It is seen as clean, sophisticated, streamlined, and efficient. This association is likely in part thanks to Apple’s prolific use of white throughout their branding.
Earning the title of darkest color thanks to its total absorption of light is none other than black. Similarly to white, black is an achromatic color (a color without a hue) and is one with a long history of use and importance that extends into modern day.
Alongside white, black is one of the first recorded colors used in art, the pigment created by paleolithic who used charcoal, burnt bones, or various crushed minerals.
Throughout much of history, black has been a symbol of evil, (such as the Greek mythology underworld), mourning, sadness, and darkness. However, in Ancient Egypt, the color had positive connotations of protection and fertility
Black went through many shifts in meaning, application, and perception from era to era and culture to culture. Eventually the color was revolutionised and given a prominent standing in the world of fashion, quickly becoming a symbol of elegance and simplicity.
Black is seen as a sharp color that can promote many ideas ranging from sophistication, mystery, sensuality, confidence, through to grief and misery, depending on the application.
In the world of branding, black is a staple. While color is thought to increase brand recognition by up to 80%, many brands opt for a sharp black logo thanks to the versatility of the shade. Black can promote ideas of power, elitism, and strength. This is often seen in sports brands such as Nike, Puma, and Adidas. The use of bold flat black logos creates striking, bold, punchy brand marks.
Conversely, black is also often used to promote elegance, luxury, and status. This is why we see plain black logos used for beauty and fashion brands such as Schwarzkopf and Chanel as the color is thought to be timeless and never out of style.