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  • Writer's pictureMac Ling

Colors & Histories

How do different colors affect your mood and your actions?

“Colors, therefore, should be understood as subjective cultural creations: you could no more meaningfully secure a precise universal definition for all the known shades than you could plot the coordinates of a dream.”

- Kassia St. Clair, The Secret Lives of Color

From viridian to vermilion

Around 2003, a color-blind man named Neil Harbisson was fitted with an innovative ear implant that gave him the ability to perceive color as tonal sounds. Surprisingly functional, this implant gave Harbisson access to color in an enlighteningly unique way. In his TEDTalk, Harbisson describes a visit to the grocery produce aisle as a rapturous experience, akin to the multi-melodied din of a nightclub. At an art gallery, he can “listen to a Picasso.” He recalls being served an appetizer with colors that that sound to him like a “Lady Gaga salad.” Finally, he discusses an interesting feedback effect: how his brain now has enough tonal memories of color to reverse the process—to represent sounds as color, instead of the other way around (for the audience, Harbisson displays the sounds of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a dream" speech as color art).

What can we learn about our mental associations once we learn to recognize the world through color, momentarily dampening other experiences and conscious thoughts? What of evolutionary biology’s survival-based reactions to colors shine through; what cultural inculcations are stubbornly persistent; what color associations are tied to specific life experiences; and what remains then, ineffable, inexplicable even to yourself, of the burst of feeling that a certain color evokes?

Though theories of color psychology (how certain colors affect our moods) have been probed by scholars in numerous disciplines, many anthropologists and scientists agree that there are too many strains of influences on the human psyche to create a one-size-fits-all map for colors to emotions. (Though consumer behaviorists have been significantly more successful in tying marketing colors to sales.)

Nevertheless, you will find no shortage of articles on the internet attempting to feed you just such "color psychology" schemas, citing handfuls of studies with less than universally conclusive results (see a comprehensive scientific review of these studies here). Though it may be marginally helpful to learn how the psyches of others tend to work, for this month's activity I encourage you to ascertain your own behavior. Instead of researching outside of yourself and conforming to the findings of studies conducted on other people, you have the power to create your own mood-color map. Once you have created this schema, hopefully, you can use it to help you accomplish concrete goals: What color do you most associate with confidence? Wear this to your Zoom meeting. What color helps you do math problems more quickly? Paint your office this color. What color makes you feel happiest? Surround yourself with this color when you feel an approaching gloom.

YOUR TASK FOR THIS MONTH (...should you choose to accept it)


Most of us experience color the entire time our eyes are open. Thus, it stands to reason that those colors have meanings grafted upon them every moment of our lives. Every time we dip into the pool of a particular hue, then, we stir a million associations. In this activity, you will explore some of these associations to ultimately devise a template detailing when and how to use them to your advantage.

STEP 1: Explore your personal color history

In this step, you will free-associate items for the following colors.

  • Red

  • Orange

  • Yellow

  • Blue

  • Purple

  • Gray

  • Black

For each color, list following associations (the first thing that comes to mind—don't overthink it!):

  • Object

  • Personal experience

  • Cultural meaning (in your society)

  • Activity

STEP 2: Match colors with optimal performance for situations and activities

This step will inevitably require some trial-and-error experimentation. List some of the major activities or habitual situations you encounter in your life and then try to match them to colors for optimal engagement. The following are examples of activities you might include on your color map:

  • Exercise (wear workout clothes in this color)

  • Quantitative mental work (color of walls, papers, pens, desk decor)

  • Verbal mental work (color of walls, papers, pens, desk decor)

  • Healthy eating habits, choices, and portions (color of plates/bowls)

  • Memory (wall color)

  • Relaxation/lower heart rate (wall color)

  • Sleep (bedding color/wall color/furnishings)

  • Meditation/prayer (color of items)

For more examples of activities, you can look here.


The story of colors has all of the dramatics and the tenderness, the wit and the bite of a Shakespearean play—the harnessing of pigments, after all, is embedded in the teleology of history, the stirring of emotion, the breath of art; in the infrastructures of politics and commercialism.

For instance, take the following passage from Salvador Dali’s “50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship,”in which he waxes poetic about a color called “Veronese green”:

The Marshal of all the greens, as you now learn from Secret Number 34, is the Veronese green, which you may and you must consider as the generalissimo of your whole palette, and when all the arms of heaven and earth seem to you insufficient to dominate the retreats and adversities of your picture, it may be that your hope will revive by the simple fact of watching the gallantry of your Veronese green, seated proudly, straight and almost upright on his horse—and learn now that his horse is cadmium yellow, cadmium lemon and cadmium red. For Secret Number 35 is that these three colors form but the body and the legs of the same gallop, the gallop of the blanc d’argent which is like the froth of the panting and snorting mouth of the said horse.”

Veronese green is just one of a series of pigments upon which Dali chooses to expostulate in this magnificently creative and sardonic volume; the book contains many passages like the one above, demonstrating the drive to imbue colors with the vicissitudes of a life cycle and with the traits of characters.

There is something of a poetic circularity to the dramatic and the mundane, the ubiquity and the incessance of colors. The person who first “discovers” (that is, commercializes and mass produces) a pigment usually spots something in the humdrum (and sometimes downright putrescence) of daily life. Some of the more unsavory sources of early pigments include insect fluid, ox blood, lantern gas, or dung left behind by all manner of livestock.

In “The Secret Lives of Color,” Kassia St. Clair continues in the vein of Dali's romanticizing personification, offering heavily-researched “character sketches” of various colors. Here is a sampling of the insights to be found therein:

Is orange the fruit named after orange the color, or vice versa?

The latter. Most likely, the first instances of what we consider the orange fruit were grown in China and then, as the fruit migrated, the name traced its seed across the continents: narang (Persian)... naranj (Arabic)... naranga (Sanskrit)... naranja (Spanish)... orenge (French)... orange (English). Its earlier name, yellow-red, must have seemed infinitely replaceable.

Why is silverware silver?

Silverware is the much-mythologized antipode to gold; while gold stands often as the symbol of the sun, silver, with its patchwork lifestyle of becoming polished and tarnished and polished again, is thought to resemble the phases of the moon. Scottish folklore—one story among many—considers the silver branch to mark the entry to a fairy otherworld. Werewolves were also thought to have been finally vanquished by silver bulletsin Greifswald, Germany in the seventeenth century. This protective quality, as well as the belief that silver changes color when it comes into contact with certain poisons, made it a ripe choice for spoons and forks.

What is cochineal and what does it have to do with Starbucks?

The elusive E120 label is a cover for a red dye ingredient that manufacturers are hesitant to reveal: cochineal. Cochineal comes from the historically prized liquid that emanates from the crushed beetle Dactylopius coccus(70,000 bugs for 1 pound of dye!), and it has been used in M&Ms, sausages, Cherry Coke, and, until a public outcry in 2012, Starbucks’s strawberry Frappuccinos and cake pops.

Why is gold leaf in painting considered ethereal and redolent of the divine?

Gold does not reflect light the way that most other pigments do—that is, light falls evenly across gold leaf instead of, as St. Clair writes, “glinting white off the highlights and falling blackly into the shadowed areas as it would do naturally.” Thus, items painted in gold leaf (often halos) seem to be immune from the same rules of perspectives that govern their surrounding painted objects, rendering them a divine immutability.

What is the origin of “puce”, the favored color of Marie Antoinette?

Literally, it means “the color of fleas.” It was uttered by King Louis XVI as a witty barb about Marie Antoinette’s dress, in an effort to sting her into curbing her sumptuous ways. The Queen only redoubled her exhibition of the color, however, and 17 years later—after the fall of this royal line—was imprisoned and allowed to keep clothing only of a color that befitted her new lowly status; among the clothes delivered to her were her beloved puce dress.

The Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St. Clair This riveting book contains heavily-researched narratives and exciting histories of a host of colors; excellently designed, it also makes a beautiful coffee table book. "Colours in Cultures" by David McCandless (Infographic) Did you know 74% of countries, as of 1999, used the color red in their flags? This infographic arranges colors according to cultural significance and symbolism. Color: A Natural History of the Palette by Victoria Finlay This part- history of color and part- travel narrative follows a "journey" format, as Finlay travels to the locations that originally sourced certain interesting pigments.

"I Listen to Color" by Neil Harbisson (TEDTalk) In this short and humorous talk, Harbisson—a color-blind individual—discusses an artificially forged relationship between certain sounds and certain colors. He demonstrates his working color-to-sound ear implant and describes its reshaping effects on his neural wiring. The 50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship by Salvador Dali As in all of Dali's writing, the sardonic humor is difficult to separate from the monomaniacal intensity of his artistic passion. To whatever extent it can be taken seriously, Dali offers an artist's perspective on various colors and he does so in delightfully dour verbiage.


If you're ready to take that first step towards creating a shift in your life, send me a note to learn more about receiving a free 60-minute session!

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