The hidden meaning of color can be used as a powerful tool in art.

Once the simple principles of color are understood the artist can use color to enchant the viewer.

In fact, research shows that hidden meaning of color can play a major role in our overall state of well-being. The colors we surround ourselves with directly influence the way we feel and relax. Color allows us to create our own individuality and flare. For years interior decorators, graphic designers, advertisers and artists have been using color to enhance our environments.

Color can be used to evoke a certain mood or to create a message or sharp response in the viewer.  As artists we learn how to use the positive or negative attributes of color in our works to subliminally send a message.

The following examples illustrate how people react differently to cool and warm colors.

Cool colors

  • Based on blue undertones and bring to mind a calming effect.
  • These colors range from cold icy blues to warm and nurturing Mediterranean turquoises.
  • Many decorators use these colors in spas, bathrooms and other quiet environments.
  • Blues lower heart rate and reduces appetite.
  • Blue represents dependability.
  • It is commonly worn in uniforms and business suits.
  • Dark blue is generally used by more authoritative figures including police officers and our Presidents!
  • Blue and greens are used in advertising medicines and health care products.
  • ‘Greenrooms’ of theaters are so called because their green walls are often used to steady the nerves of actors.
  • Dark greens do well in offices and studies.
  • Greens are commonly used for outdoor products.

Warm colors

  • Based on yellow undertones and tend to convey emotions ranging from happiness to violence.
  • Red, orange and yellow colors trigger hunger.
  • This is why you see restaurants like McDonalds, Wendy’s and Burger King using these colors in their logos and advertising.
  • Safeway, Walgreens and Costco all use red in their logos.
  • Red instantly attracts, makes people excited and increases the heart rate.
  • Just think of Coke and Red Bull!

Before I share the hidden meaning of each color in the spectrum, first a brief Color Theory history lesson:

  • Philosopher, Leone Battista Alberti (c. 1435) and artist/inventor, Leonardo da Vinci (c. 1495) were the first known writings on color principles.
  • In 1666, Isaac Newton’s Theory of Color and primary colors were introduced.
  • Just over a hundred years after Newton’s discovery, Moses Harris created the first color wheel. It classified red, blue and yellow as the three primary colors. Primary colors cannot be created by mixing any other colors together.
  • Then in the early twentieth century, German painter, Johannes Itten extended the color wheel to include secondary and tertiary colors. He also pioneered the idea of warm and cool colors and principle that any shade of color can either have a warm base or a cool base.

Itten’s ground-breaking Color Star Chart featured twelve colors…

johannes itten's star chart color wheel


  • RED
  • BLUE

THREE  SECONDARY COLORS: made by mixing the primary colors together


SIX TERTIARY: made by mixing a primary and a secondary color together

TINTS & SHADES: Any color can be lightened by adding white, known as a tint. The same color can be darkened by adding black, known as a shade. Shades of white being more feminine and tints of black become more masculine

COMPLEMENTARY & COLOR HARMONY: Complementary colors have a strong visual impact when placed alongside another.  Complementary colors are directly opposite each other on the color wheel.


Harmonious colors rest alongside each other in the color wheel.

Hint:  Experiment with crayons to explore the relationship of different colors to each other and discover which combination appeals to you.

  • YELLOW + ORANGE = harmony
  • BLUE + PURPLE = harmony


RED: The color of assertion, strength, romance, excitement, vitality, physical power, outgoing, ambitious and impulsive. It is a color that flatters the skin and can make an excellent background. Pale pink are warm and peaceful and combine well with greens. The deeper reds create an atmosphere of retrained opulence and power. Red elicits an uncomplicated nature with a zest for life.  But, red can also connote danger or threats.  Fire engines, stop signs and traffic lights are a perfect example.

ORANGE: Midway between red and orange it is a cheerful color. It is a flamboyant and lively color. Orange can be assertive, dynamic, and spontaneous and signifies youth and fearlessness. Orange stimulates the brain and produces oxygen and mental activity.  Dark-orange signifies deceit or distrust, whereas red-orange can correspond to aggression, domination and thirst for action.

YELLOW: We associate yellow with sunshine and it represents light. It creates a feeling of hope, happiness and wisdom. The color evokes an optimistic sense of well being and natural light. It is airy, radiant and atmospheric. Yellow gives the feeling that all is okay with the world. An example of this is Luminism, an early generation of landscape painters who explored ways to depict light realistically on canvas by using color to depict a melodramatic or romantic mood.  But, yellow is a complicated color. On one hand, it is considered ‘light-hearted’ and childlike, but actually it is known to make babies cry.

Although, light-yellow represents intellect, freshness and joy, dull-yellow is associated with caution, decay, sickness and jealousy.  Yellow at times is cowardice.  The phrase, ‘yellow-bellied-coward” came into use around 1910 which probably derives from yellow’s association with both treason and weakness.  More than a millennium ago, Judas Iscariot was often portrayed in yellow garb symbolizing his betrayal of Jesus Christ – a cowardly act.

In America’s pioneer days, yellow dogs were considered worthless and the term “yellow dog” came to be used to describe anything worthless. Our observation of the yellow of tree leaves as they age and die, as well as the yellowing of old books and papers, led to the association of yellow with old age and illness.

But, yellow is very effective at attracting attention – think of a taxi cab.  Yellow is also used as a warning symbol. In football, a ‘yellow flag’ issues a warning.  When place alongside black, yellow issues a  warning.  Yellow is also used in traffic lights and signs to advice us of danger.

The list goes on and on…

Hint: When painting light use warm and cool colors against each other, not black to white

©2021 Lori McNee, “Backyard Chicken,” 16×20 oil on canvas

The above painting has a calm, harmonious feeling.  This serene environment was created by using light-yellows and varied greens along with dashes of complimentary colors.

GREEN: The color of harmony, balance and security. Green also has a calming effect and symbolic meaning of hope, peace, gentleness and modesty. It is soothing, refined and civilized with great healing power.  Green suggests stability and endurance, hope and growth.

It sometimes denotes lack of experience, for example a ‘green-horn’ is a novice. Pale greens are particularly restful.  Dark greens remind us of money, banking and Wall Street. However, at times yellow-green is used to portray sickness, discord and jealousy.  Remember the phrase, “green with envy”???

BLUE: The color of the sea and sky, it has a quality of cool expansiveness and openness. Soft, soothing, compassionate and caring, blue is an introspective color. Blue is often a formal color which represents wisdom and steady character.  Many superheroes wear blue! It is considered a masculine color and the choice of corporate America.

But, the quiet character and poetic subtlety of blue can also be associated with melancholy and resignation. Remember Pablo Picasso’s infamous “Blue Period” of art? Picasso’s personal trauma found expression in a series of deeply sentimental paintings which comprise his “Blue Period”.  I even dedicated a helpful post to artists who find themselves Feeling Blue…

PURPLE: A combination of red and blue, purples are regal and dignified to be used with discretion. Pale shades are restful and serene, but the darker shades make it difficult to focus. Lavenders signify refined things of life, creative, witty and civilized.

Purples can be tiring on the eyes and cause a sense of frustration, but it can make an excellent foil for works of art.  Gloom and sad feelings can be portrayed by using purples.

BROWN: The color of living wood and the earth. Rich, subtle and extraordinarily restful to look upon, brown creates a feeling of coolness and warmth at the same time. It combines well with rich colors such as purple and gold (popular in the Victorian era). It is a steady, dependable, conservative, conscientious and reliable color.

Brown evokes a sense of nostalgia and reminds us of the great works of Rembrandt, Titian and Rubens. Tonalism used rich earth tones and muted colors to create moody landscapes.  Van Gogh’s used a lot of brown to set a somber and depressed mood in the famous painting The Potato Eaters .  Think back on Soviet Russia and you might remember the common people usually wore shades of brown.

GRAY: This color represents caution and compromise. Many beautiful grays can be made by mixing complimentary colors together. Grays give a sense of peace to the viewer.

WHITE: Symbolic of safety, cleanliness and purity. White emanates youth, perfection and innocence. Angels are usually thought of as white. White is simplicity and freshness, but too much can give a clinical feeling. Doctors, hospitals and sterility are associated the white.

Low fat foods and dairy products use white in their packaging. But, in many Eastern cultures, white signifies death, mourning, funerals and unhappiness.  Ghosts are white and giving white flowers to the sick is bad luck in many cultures.  In painting, use white sparingly. It can make colors chalky and lifeless.

On Edge - Magpie 30x24 2

“On Edge”  ©Lori McNee

The intensity and energy in the painting above was created by using variations of the colors, black and white.   The opposite symbology and meaning of each color strikes a hidden message and restlessness in the viewer.

BLACK: Mysterious and hidden, black can have a morbid feeling. It gives us a feeling of the unknown and negative connotations like, black-hole, blacklist, black-humor or black-death.  In most Western cultures, black is the symbol of grief.  However, black can be dignified and showy with sophistication. Black will also punctuate color schemes that rely on strong contrasting colors. Try mixing your own blacks, rather than using it straight from the tube.

a second glance 8x10

“A Second Glance” ©Lori McNee

In this painting I wanted to create a mysterious mood.  Using black and dark greens helped achieve my goal.  I rarely use black from the tube.  I can mix a great ‘black’ with Ultra Marine Blue & Cadmium Orange or Burnt Umber. Check out my Cobra Oil Paint palette by Royal Talens! 

Most successful artists know how to use the meaning of color to their advantage, but many aspiring and novice artists are not aware of the power of color on the viewer.

This article is NOT my abbreviated attempt at teaching ‘Color Theory’. Volumes of books on the subject could fill any room! But, my intention is to share a thought provoking overview on the color spectrum and its meaning. Artists are always looking for ways to create meaning in their work.

Now with a better understanding of color, I hope you can enhance your paintings with the appropriate subliminal message or meaning to capture the mood you desire to portray.

You might like to read:

Improve Color Harmony – Use Yin Yang in Painting

The Importance of Value & Tone in Painting

The Hidden Meaning of the Color Red

The Color Blue – Use the Hidden Meaning

The Color Yellow – Use its Hidden Meaning

The Color Green – How to Use its Hidden Meaning in Art and Design

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