In Western art, for a hundred years or more, it has been the accepted right of individual artists to assert their personal judgement in the choice and application of colour. However, particularly before the rise of Symbolism in the 1880s (exhibited in the work of such artists as Gustave Moreau (1826-98), Odilon Redon (1840-1916), Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) and Émile Bernard (1868-1941) in France, artists usually had to conform to accepted conventions, usually of the ‘normal’ colouring of objects, and to accepted codes of colour symbolism.

When Shakespeare’s Henry VI asks, ‘How might we see Falstaff bestow himself in his true colours?’, the reference is to how colours included in his coat of arms might somehow reveal his inherent character or motive. Though their main purpose was to identify factions on the battlefield, the colors (or tinctures) of heraldry evolved also into a visual code intended also to represent various gallant and moral qualities ideally held by those individuals permitted to wear them. Such a combination of functional and symbolic colour used is still evident in team games at local, national and international sporting events (as at the Olympic Games).

In ancient Greece, physicians believed that the human body generated with in it four main fluids, known as the humours. Their relative mixture was assumed to determine an individual’s state of health and wellbeing. White was associated with the phlegmatic mood of apathy or indifference, thought to result from excess phlegm. Red blood was associated with a ‘good-humoured’ state of sanguine or cheerful optimism. Yellow was identified with the choleric mood of anger and irritation, thought to result from an excess of the ‘bad humour’, gall or yellow bile; and black symbolised the melancholic mood of sadness and despondency (a state now associated with ‘the blues’ by the Afro-American).

In Christianity, St Peter was traditionally associated with the phlegmatic humour, St John with the sanguine, St Mark with the choleric, and St Paul with the melancholic. In the Hindu religion, the priestly brahman caste was associated with white, the combatant kshatriya with red, the trading vaisya with yellow, and the lowly sudra with black.

As an example of religious colour symbolism in the twentieth century, paintings by Piet Mondrian not only sought a perfect visual balance between the red, yellow and blue components of each, but also the ‘human harmony’ (as he called it) of their symbolic meanings. Arising out of teachings of the Theosophy, this was red for the body, yellow for the mind, and blue for the spirit. The same, emblematic set of colours was adopted in the 1920s in the graphics, textile and theatre designs of the Bauhaus school of art.

While there are no consistent rules about which colours symbolise which personal or moral attributes, general guidelines can be proposed, as follows.

Black, the most sober of colours, is traditionally symbolic of humility and self-righteousness; as such, it represents the ‘denial’ of colour (and other vital pleasures), outwardly advocated by the puritan. Since ancient times, it has been associated with Capricorn and Aquarius, the astrological signs ruled by the saturnine planet and god Saturn. In heraldry, black is associated with grief and penitence, and with the diamond gemstone.

White has traditionally symbolised purity. In ancient Rome, for example, it was the custom for candidates (from the Latin word candidus, meaning ‘shining white’) seeking election to the Senate to wear white to infer their virtuous intent. In astrology, white is associated with Cancer, the moon, and the goddess Luna. In heraldry, white, silver and the pearl are associated with innocence and purity.

An appetite for coats of many colours is typical if the cavalier, and bright red specifically symbolises the most mortal human passions: physical love and infatuation, courage, bravery and revenge. Those who favour red typically show a willingness to be involved and take part in activities around them. In this sense, red opposes grey, since grey can represent indecision, withdrawal and non-participation. In astrology, red is associated with Aries and Scorpio, ruled by the red planet and martial god Mars. In heraldry, red and the ruby gemstone represent audacity and valour.

Orange signifies vitality, single-mindedness, and self-centred determination. Owing to its possible confusion with red, vivid orange is absent in heraldry, and replaced by brownish-orange or tawny, associated with topaz, and symbolising strength and endurance. Tawny is associated with the astrological signs Pisces and Saggitarius, ruled the jovial planet and god Jupiter.

Green is traditionally associated with growth, hope and the nutrition offered by natural fruits and foods. It is commonly linked with balance, well being, and processes of healing. In astrology, green is affiliated with Libra and Taurus and the planet and goddess Venus. In heraldry, green and the emerald gemstone are associated with regeneration and the manifestation of desire, while blue and the sapphire signify piety and spiritual contemplation. In contrast to red, symbolising physical passion, blue (owing perhaps to an association with the intangibility of the sky) is more often affiliated with immaterial and ethical aspects of human experience. In astrology, blue is associated with Gemini and Virgo and the mercurial planet and god Mercury.

Those who favour green are often seen as stubborn and resistant to change, while those preferring yellow are typically alert to all the future has to offer. In astrology and heraldry, yellow or gold, associated with the sun and its star-sign Leo, represent flexibility and optimism, wisdom and honour, and reaching one’s goal. Yellow tinged with green is sometimes associated with deceit and dishonesty.

An eighth heraldic tincture, purple or murrey, was associated with royalty and rank, and traditionally reserved for kings, emperors and princes. Violet is commonly associated with mysticism, clairvoyance and idealism, and pink or magenta with impulsiveness and immaturity. Finally, those who favour brown typically seek refuge, greater security and a desire for more permanent and stable home-base.

Extracted from The Color Coursebook (1999).


Probably the first book on colour symbolism, Del significato de Colori, by Fulvio Pellegrino Morato, was published in Venice in 1535 and 1555. A new translation by Don Pavey (from the original Italian), edited by Roy Osborne, will be available from Micro Academy ColorDome in mid-1999.

Other sixteenth-century publications include De gemmis et coloribus (1563), by Girolamo Cardano (1501-76), a book on the significance of gemstones, and Trattato dell’arte della pittura (1584), by Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo (1538-1600), a practical artists’ manual, parts of which were translated into English by Richard Haydocke as A Tracte containing the Artes of Curious Paintinge, Carvinge and Buildinge (1598). A facsimile of this edition was published by Faber Birren (1969, New York).

A major contribution to the subject was made by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) in his Zur Farbenlehre (1810, Tübingen), translated into English by Charles Eastlake as Theory of Colours, and published in 1840. Recent editors of the original work include Rupprecht Mattaei (1961, New York) and Deane Judd (1970, Cambridge, Mass.). See also Chromatics; or, an Essay on the Analogy and Harmony of Colours (1817, London), by George Field (1777-1854).

A number of occult books on colour symbolism appeared in the late nineteenth century, including The Wonders of Light and Color (1879) by Edwin Dwight Babbitt (1828-1905), followed by others (mostly inspired by Theosophy) early in the twentieth century, including Man Visible and Invisible (1902) by Charles Webster Leadbeater, The Mysticism of Color (1912), by Finetta Bruce, Über das Geistige in der Kunst (1912, ‘On the Spiritual in Art’), by Wassily Kandinsky, and The Symbolism of Color (1921) by Ellen Conroy.

In 1948, Max Lüscher first published his Colour Test (Klinischer Test zur Personlichkeitdiagnostick), utilising colour-selection in the diagnosis of personality. The first of numerous popular books on the symbolism associated with so-called colour therapy and healing began to appear in the 1970s, including The Seven Keys of Colour Healing (1973) by Roland Hunt, and The Ancient Art of Color Therapy (1975), by Linda Clark.

With the publication of Color Me Beautiful (1981), by Carole Jackson, a new (primarily American) industry evolved, the aim of which was to offer advice on colour imaging, and the personal or ‘seasonal’ symbolism of colour. Carole Jackson’s Color Me Beautiful Updated! and Color For Men (both 1984) have been followed by numerous guides on colour in dress and colour in furnishing throughout the 1980s and 1990s.


Copyright © 1998 Roy Osborne.

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