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What is Color Symbolism? The Meaning of Color

by | Last updated Feb 15, 2024

Have you ever wondered about the meanings and symbolism of your favorite colors?

Then you’re in the right place.

In this guide, you’ll learn:

What is color symbolism?
How does color evoke emotion?
What does each color symbolize?
Art and color symbolism
Literature and color symbolism
Movies and color symbolism

Before we start, let’s take a quick look at the meaning of each color.

  • Blue: Trustworthiness, peace, calm, serenity, stability
  • Red: Love, energy, passion, danger, aggression
  • Yellow: Happiness, energy, optimism, fear
  • Green: Nature, growth, harmony, peace
  • Orange: Energy, enthusiasm, creativity
  • Purple: Royalty, power, mystery
  • Black: Mourning, death, darkness, sophistication, luxury
  • Turquoise: Calmness, creativity, wisdom, good fortune
  • Pink: Femininity, love, playfulness, tranquility
  • Brown: Nature, warmth, comfort, reliability, simplicity, strength, health
  • Gray: Neutrality, sophistication, formality, restraint, tranquility
  • White: Simplicity, purity, innocence, cleanliness

Color wheel

Source

What is color symbolism?

Color symbolism is the subjective meaning humans attach to various colors. It also speaks to the emotions they evoke and other intangible ideas or messages they send.

In other words, if a color has ever made you feel or think a certain way, that’s color symbolism.

There are three ways that people respond to color: biologically, culturally, and personally.

Take the color red, for instance.

Some people associate it with fear (biological), while some cultures consider it a sign of well-being (cultural). Others might not feel either of those things, but something else entirely, such as passion because of a past experience (personal). 

While certain color symbolisms are universal, such as green (nature, growth) and blue (trustworthiness), they can vary based on things like culture, time, and context.

The truth is that there’s no right or wrong answer – it’s all subjective.

For example, some people immediately associate the color black with sadness or death, while others associate it with sophistication or luxury. 

It’s true that color is never just color in art, writing, design, and film. For centuries, people have relied on color symbolism to create more effective, engaging, and meaningful work across different mediums.

We’ll explore some of the best examples in a later section. First, let’s discuss how color can bring about specific emotions.

How does color evoke emotion?

Color has far more power than most people realize. 

After all, our brain pays more attention to objects that stand out because of color. It’s in our DNA – our ancestors relied on color to find food, notice danger, and avoid dangerous situations. 

That remains true today. Colors influence everything from our taste and temperature to how we perform, perceive people, and make decisions. 

For instance, studies have found that 90% of first impressions are made with colors and that 93% of purchase decisions are made based on color.

Across the world, certain colors are universal. For example, a study that spanned 30 countries found that 51% of people associate black with sadness, 68% associate red with love, and 52% associate yellow with joy or happiness.

Of course, the feelings evoked by color change based on context.

  • Spirituality: Colors hold symbolic and spiritual meanings in various religions. Each faith has unique color associations, often linked to deities, concepts, or virtues. For example, in Buddhism, blue symbolizes infinity; in Hinduism, it speaks to bravery; in Christianity, it represents truth; and in Judaism, it reflects the sky and heaven.
  • Culturally: Each culture’s views on color are shaped by its symbolism, traditions, and artistic expression, reflecting its natural environment and historical influences. For example, in Western cultures, blue is often associated with masculinity; in Islamic cultures, it represents purity; and in India, it’s associated with the god Vishnu.
  • Individually: Of course, how we view a color always depends on our individual experience. Our memories, associations, and personal tastes influence it.

There are a few types of colors to be aware of.

Warm colors evoke energy, excitement, and happiness because they’re associated with things like the sun. Warm colors include red, orange, gold, yellow, and bronze.

Cold colors often make people feel relaxed, serene, and tranquil. Cold colors include blue, green, and purple.

There are three primary colors, which create all other colors when mixed. They are red, yellow, and blue.

A secondary color is a color that is made by mixing primary colors. 

Keep reading to learn what each one represents.

What does each color symbolize?

Now that we’ve covered what color symbolism is, we’ll discuss the meaning of each color.

Each one is complex and versatile, so let’s get into it!

Red

Red is often associated with love or anger but can also symbolize passion, energy, excitement, danger, power, and authority. 

Blue 

Blue is a serene color, typically reflective of tranquility and trust. It symbolizes intelligence, creativity, intuition, royalty, spirituality, and mystery.

Yellow 

Yellow is vibrant and energizing. It can symbolize happiness, optimism, aspiration, warmth, confidence, and ambition. But it can also represent caution or warning.

Green

Green is often seen as refreshing. It represents nature, growth, peace, harmony, hope, health, prosperity, and renewal. It is also associated with transformation and rebirth.

Orange

Orange is an energetic color often associated with the feeling of having a zest for life. It symbolizes enthusiasm, creativity, adventure, hospitality, abundance, joy, and optimism.

Purple

Across most cultures, purple is viewed as sophisticated and reflects luxury. It can also symbolize royalty, mystery, spirituality, curiosity, exoticism, and spirituality.

Pink

Pink is often viewed as a delicate color typically associated with femininity and romance. Other emotions include grace, sensitivity, empathy, playfulness, innocence, affection, nurturing, and sensationalism.

Black

Black is an interesting color as it can mean anything from luxury and power to negativity and mourning. Other emotions include sophistication, mystery, authority, formality, exclusivity, and rebellion.

White

Most often associated with cleanliness or freshness, white can also be used to symbolize purity, hope, peace, wisdom, enlightenment, and minimalism.

Brown

Brown symbolizes a feeling of being grounded and is closely linked to nature. Other meanings include stability, simplicity, humility, and comfort.

Silver

While it can also be associated with technology and newness, silver can symbolize characteristics. These include sophistication, mystery, creativity, and tranquility.

Gold

Unsurprisingly, gold is often viewed as a symbol of achievement or wealth. It can also represent power, creativity, spirituality, and vitality.

Grey

Grey represents feelings such as neutrality, balance, and harmony. It can also symbolize grace, sobriety, wisdom, efficiency, and modernity.

Turquoise

With close ties to healing and clarity, turquoise brings up feelings such as serenity and calmness. It symbolizes creativity, communication, balance, nature, and adventure.

Teal

Like turquoise, teal is often a symbol of balance, stability, and tranquility. It represents innovation, freshness, trust, sustainability, and spiritual growth.

Maroon

Maroon can represent things such as control, confidence, and success. It can also symbolize sophistication, elegance, romance, maturity, and timelessness. 

Beige

Don’t mistake beige for plain – it actually represents simplicity, reliability, and neutrality. It can also symbolize balance, comfort, and class.

Lavender

Lavender is a calming color that is often associated with spiritual healing. Other symbolizations can include romance, tranquility, healing, affection, and luxury.

Indigo

Often indicative of deep thinking, indigo is typically associated with intuition, wisdom, and spirituality. Other characteristics include royalty, mysticism, insight, self-discovery, and emotional healing.

Chartreuse

As a vibrant color, chartreuse is closely linked to emotions such as cheerfulness and joy. It symbolizes spirituality, renewal, uniqueness, creativity, and imagination.

Magenta

Also a vibrant shade, magenta can symbolize inspiration and transformation. It holds close ties to the physical and spiritual and is associated with spirituality and vitality. 

Coral

Coral is reflective of one’s energy, positivity, and vitality. It can also symbolize your sense of playfulness, creativity, cheerfulness, and inspiration.

Aquamarine

With close ties to transformation and rebirth, aquamarine is associated with feelings such as tranquility, clarity, harmony, and peacefulness. It also symbolizes loyalty, hope, and purity.

Olive

Traditionally, olive is used to represent peace but is truly versatile. It can also symbolize sophistication, perception, empathy, stability, and grounding, making it a calming color.

Mustard

Despite being a darker shade of yellow, mustard is considered an uplifting color and is often symbolic of optimism, motivation, open-mindedness, and diversity. It can also represent materialism and arrogance.

Burgundy

Burgundy is considered elegant and timeless, which means it is often tied to things like wealth, power, and prosperity. However, it can also symbolize reservedness, timidness, and somberness.

Mauve

As a deeper purple, mauve is reflective of youth, femininity, and renewal. It also represents gentler emotions like sensitivity, compassion, and romance.

Cerulean

Cerulean is associated with the sky and ocean as well as the clarity, purity, and peacefulness that come with them. It evokes peacefulness and represents spirituality.

Emerald

Emerald green is most often associated with royalty, wealth, and sophistication. It can also represent life, abundance, balance, harmony, healing, and growth.

Amber

The warmth of amber links it to warmth, happiness, vibrance, and vitality. It also represents energy, strength, security, courage, self-confidence, and trust.

Bronze

Because it belongs to the brown family, bronze most often reflects maturity, earthiness, and nature. It symbolizes strength, support, honesty, warmth, prosperity, and abundance.

Cobalt

Cobalt’s cool blue shade gives it an immediate connection to nature, the sky, and bodies of water. It represents authority and trustworthiness but can also represent peacefulness and wealth.

Crimson 

Crimson is representative of emotions like courage, desire, and passion but is also symbolic of things like strength, power, dominance, drama, and elegance.

Sienna

As a whole, sienna is most closely associated with excitement and security. It can also represent passion, luxury, security, adventurousness, and overzealousness.

Taupe

Though they don’t often go hand-in-hand, taupe is representative of elegance and practicality. It can also symbolize sophistication, modesty, dignity, maturity, reliability, and intelligence.

Periwinkle

Periwinkle brings about a feeling of peace, calmness, and introspection. It also symbolizes innocence and love. Being a soft color, it can represent femininity, friendship, and memories.

Salmon

Salmon is considered by many to be a “friendly” color that brings up feelings of hope. It can symbolize health, persistence, vitality, happiness, hopefulness, peacefulness, and empathy.

Azure

Azure belongs to the blue family, which means that it represents heaven, peace, purity, trust, and confidence. Because it reflects the sky, it also evokes feelings of serenity, peacefulness, and calmness. 

Lime

As a vibrant color, lime is associated with high energy and vitality. It can also symbolize freshness, liveliness, hopefulness, nature, and health.

Ivory

Most often, ivory speaks to purity, calmness, and elegance, which is why you see it in weddings so often. It can also represent peace, spirituality, holiness, nostalgia, and romance.

Fuchsia

Fuschia is considered to be a cheerful color. It represents a sense of playfulness, self-assurance, confidence, maturity, responsibility, nurturing, and certainty. It can also symbolize female empowerment.

Charcoal

Though it looks gray, charcoal has a hint of blue, giving it a more profound, modern feeling. It symbolizes independence, confidence, stability, reliability, practicality, and professionalism.

Mint

As part of the green family, mint is closely linked to vitality, creativity, growth, health, good luck, tranquility, health, and purity.

Navy

Sources of authority and protection often use the color navy. That’s why it has come to be associated with trust, reliability, tradition, stability, and loyalty. It can also symbolize masculinity, success, and sincerity.

Peach

Pastel peaches symbolize sweetness, pleasantness, and friendliness, while brighter shades are linked to energy, vitality, encouragement, and excitement. It also represents immortality in certain cultures.

Plum 

Plum is most often viewed as romantic, luxurious, sophisticated, uplifting, and royal. It can also symbolize mystery, ambition, creativity, wisdom, longevity, and resilience.

Sapphire

Sapphire symbolizes wisdom, good fortune, holiness, loyalty, and wisdom. It can also be representative of dignity, serenity, faith, purity, honesty, strength, and sincerity.

Ruby

Ruby is closely associated with energy, creativity, honor, compassion, loyalty, and focus. It can also symbolize love, protection, wealth, passion, prosperity, power, and wealth.

Jade

There are several types of jade, but most often, it represents luck, prosperity, abundance, calm wisdom, and harmony. It can also symbolize self-reflection, calmness, strength, creativity, and cheerfulness.

Violet

Violet is symbolic of spiritual awareness and a stronger sense of consciousness. It can also represent royalty, creativity, imagination, wealth, extravagance, and unity.

Khaki

Because it’s an earthy shade, khaki symbolizes trust, safety, hard work, conventionality, realism, authority, hierarchy, and being down to earth. It can also represent nature.

Tangerine

Tangerine is an orange hue, making it symbolic of energetic meanings such as youth, warmth, happiness, cheerfulness, and liveliness. It can also represent sociability, creativity, and friendliness.

Rose

Rose most often evokes a sense of gratitude, grace, joy, sweetness, and femininity. It can also symbolize gratitude, admiration, innocence, and purity.

Tan

Much like khaki, tan is also used to communicate a sense of security, stability, comfort, and warmth. It also represents humility, comfort, reliability, honesty, and growth.

Chocolate

Chocolate is a dark brown, which makes it representative of security, comfort, luxury, indulgence, and strength. It can also symbolize wisdom, friendliness, stability, and dependability.

Lavender blush

Lavender blush is symbolic of love, affection, elegance, and grace. It can also symbolize beauty, femininity, delicacy, nostalgia, relaxation, and spiritual healing.

Electric blue

Because of its brightness, electric blue speaks to energy, excitement, liveliness, and enthusiasm. It can also symbolize liveliness, dramatism, and dynamism.

Lemon

Lemon speaks to longevity, revitalization, love, friendship, energy, new beginnings, prosperity, and purity. It also represents freshness, love, optimism, soul, fidelity, disappointment, and bitterness.

Midnight blue

Midnight blue represents a person’s subconscious and symbolizes mystery, intuition, and darkness. But it’s also linked to sophistication, elegance, confidence, and authority.

Forest green

Forest green is most often associated with the earth. Because of that, it symbolizes nature, spring, growth, and rebirth. It can also represent things like wealth, masculinity, and stability outside of nature.

Ochre

Ochre is the color of natural clay, so like forest green, it’s also linked to earthiness. It symbolizes stability, warmth, nature, creativity, fertility, life, and victory.

Next, we’ll talk about color symbolism in art, literature, and film and explore examples from well-known works, so keep reading!

Color symbolism in art

For centuries, artists have used colors to convey meaning, create narratives, and evoke emotion in the viewer. 

For instance, a painter might use red to convey the intensity of a love scene and green to reflect the harmony of nature.

It’s also used in abstract art. Warm colors could represent optimism or passion, and cool colors could speak to the complexity of human emotions.

Religious beliefs, philosophical concepts, and natural experiences of the time often influence the symbolism of each color. As art forms evolve and cultural perspectives shift, the meanings and associations associated with colors may also vary. 

Some of the best examples of color symbolism in art include:

  • Water Lilies” by Claude Monet: Monet uses muted greens, blues, and yellows to reflect nature’s beauty, tranquility, and calmness. 
  • The Starry Night” by Vincent van Gogh: By using grand brushstrokes in varying shades of blue, yellow, and orange, van Gogh instills a sense of wonder and awe. But by using contrasting colors like blues and greens, he also reflects the night sky’s energy. 
  • Mona Lisa” by Leonardo da Vinci: The warmth of Mona Lisa’s skin and dress stand out against the cooler background for depth, dimension, and realism.

Monet water lilies

Next, we’ll cover how color is used in literature. Keep reading!

Color symbolism in literature

Authors describe colors within their texts to make readers feel certain emotions, pick up on specific meanings, and develop characters, plots, and themes. 

Colors can enhance the meaning and emotional impact by foreshadowing events, developing character traits, creating atmosphere, and more. Together, these things help the reader find a deeper appreciation for the story.

You’ll find warm colors in passages with themes of passion and danger, while cool colors, like blue, can signify melancholy.

Authors also use colors found within nature to reflect a change in time or a different stage of life. The changing leaves associated with autumn are a great example of this.

Even colored objects can even carry a symbolic meaning. For example, a red rose represents love and passion.

Finally, colors can be used to foreshadow events.

A few examples of color symbolism in well-known works include:

  • The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne: Red symbolizes guilt, shame, and sin, and the scarlet-colored “A” Hester is forced to wear signifies her adultery. 
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: Fitzgerald uses green to reflect wealth and desire.
  • The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkein: The One Ring, which is the crux of the plot, is made of gold and symbolizes power, greed, and evil. 

Want to find out how it’s used in movies? Keep reading!

Color symbolism in movies

Finally, color makes a movie – and tells a story.

The color palette of a film sets the overall tone by bringing up certain emotions. 

Darker colors are found, unsurprisingly, in darker movies with themes like horror, thriller, and mystery.

On the other hand, lighter colors are often used for romantic comedies, family-friendly films, and other lighthearted genres.

Colors can even define a filmmaker. Just look at Wes Anderson, who relies on hues and primary colors like red and yellow. He’s become so well-known for his unique style that he’s practically made his own film genre.

Within the film, colors help directors convey emotion, establish mood, enhance the narrative, and give life to characters and settings. It can also illustrate a character’s defining personality traits, foreshadow events, and evoke specific emotions.

Examples of color symbolism in movies include:

Inside Out (2015): Each emotion in Inside Out is the same color as the emotion it’s most often associated with. For example, Joy is yellow, Sadness is blue, and Anger is red.

This video explains how colors are used in animated movies to communicate emotions: 

The Shawshank Redemption (1992): Every scene is drenched in dark blues, from the characters’ clothing to the scene’s lighting. In this instance, blue is used to convey sadness and hopelessness. By the movie’s end, the characters are surrounded by bright blues, representing freedom and hope.

The Matrix (1999): Red and green areis a constant themes throughout The Matrix. Red and represents danger, illusion, and the false reality that is the Matrix. It also symbolizes violence, destruction, and danger. Green is used in the Matrix to differentiate between real and virtual worlds. Also blue is used in the film (safety), as the protagonist is asked to choose between a red and a blue pill. (Here, red symbolizes truth and danger and blue symbolizes ignorance and safety.)

Here’s more on cinematic color in storytelling: 

Next steps

There you have it! Everything you need to know about color symbolism.

Every color symbolizes something. By understanding this symbolism, you position yourself for a creative career.

For example, 3D lighting utilizes color symbolism to evoke emotions in movies and other media.

Want to learn more about lighting as a career?

This course will walk you through the entire process, from resume building to creating a portfolio.

We’ll also teach you how to stand out in this guide, which you can download for free here: 

 

Read more:

Creative Jobs in Tech That Pay Well

How to Build a Career in Animation

How to Become an Animator

Jasmine Katatikarn Headshot

About Jasmine Katatikarn

Jasmine Katatikarn is the founder of Academy of Animated Art. She has 20+ years of experience in Feature Animation and VFX. Jasmine’s lighting credits include movies like Ice Age, Ferdinand, Peanuts, and Rio. Read more here.

Jasmine Katatikarn Headshot

About Jasmine Katatikarn

Jasmine Katatikarn is the founder of Academy of Animated Art. She has 20+ years of experience in Feature Animation and VFX. Jasmine’s lighting credits include movies like Ice Age, Ferdinand, Peanuts, and Rio. Read more here.

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