Editor's note: This article is the second of two parts discussing color and color theory. Part 1, "Learning About Color," appeared in the August issue of PCI.

All colors affect us in two ways: we all experience behavioral response to color, which is automatic, inherited and unaffected by sex, age, income, culture or environment; and a learned response, which does depend on sex, age, income level, cultural background, environment, and so on.

A behavioral response happens naturally without a person being aware of it. For example, when a person sees the color red, the perception heightens (or elevates) blood pressure and causes sensations of excitement and heat. Another behavioral response to red is one of wanting to "reach out and touch." Everyone loves to touch red objects.

By contrast, consider this learned response to the color red: Stop, do not enter, danger. This response is learned from the use of red in everyday life in stop signs and stoplights. These are some of the first symbols we teach our children.

As people mature, they experience events, objects or images and develop special color associations with them. Because these associations are so personal, they may not be common to other people and this may result in a natural disagreement on color preferences. For example, as a child you may have had a blue bedroom that you disliked and had to live with, so now you feel negatively about that color. It is very common for people who work in hospital environments to have a strong dislike for green and they will therefore not use it in their homes.

The behavioral and learned responses of several colors are fascinating. Many of the following examples are taken from western civilization but as the world continues its cross-cultural growth, many of the associations from other cultures such as China, Japan and Russia will begin to meld with the associations of the western hemisphere.

Remember that in looking at these colors, it is the true hue that is being discussed. Lighter and darker variations will alter the response slightly.


Behaviorally, red stimulates appetite and energy levels, raises blood pressure and makes a person feel hot. It is the first color the eye sees in the morning and the first color to which a child relates. A "touch me" color, it is frequently used for buttons and knobs to command attention. Red is often associated with square or cube shapes (that's why red-checkered tablecloths are so popular), passion and spicy foods.

A highly emotional color evocative of love and lust and associated with everything from impulsiveness and courage to revolution, rage, and anger, red appears in many old sayings: seeing red, red-blooded, red alert, red-light district, caught red-handed, red-letter days, red tape, roll out the red carpet, scarlet woman.

It was the Egyptians who began the tradition of "red-letter days." It was their custom to begin new paragraphs with a red letter and to emphasize the total of a series of numbers in red ink. Accountants use red ink to make debits in ledger books - hence the concept of being "in the red." The term "red tape" arose from the historic practice of binding legal documents with just that - red tape. Nowadays, the term is associated with bureaucratic regulations and obstructions.


Associated with things sweet, pink is a favored color for packaging candy. It is also associated with the sweetness and innocence of young females and thus a favorite color for little girls' bedrooms and clothing. Pink, known to have short-term calming effects, is often the color of walls in prison holding cells.

The color conjures up images of pink elephants, being tickled pink and in the pink.


Associated with exuberance, joviality, vigor and boldness, orange seems to suffer from an identity crisis. No one is ever "orange with envy," "orange with rage" or "feeling orange." Orange is always a hot color; unlike red and yellow it cannot be cooled down. One of the strongest associations with this color is thirst, which is why orange pop always looks so much more refreshing than a cola drink.

The behavioral responses to orange are gregariousness, activity and joviality.


The most difficult color for the eye to process and see, yellow is the least popular hue on the spectrum. Behaviorally, yellow stimulates memory. That is why legal notepads and reminder notes are yellow. It reflects poorly on the skin and often makes people look as though they are suffering from jaundice. Bright, bold, strong yellow is associated with "value for money"; it is the color of choice for generic packaging in supermarkets. Yellow is identified with enlightenment, gold and sunshine - but don't paint your house bright yellow! Studies show that this will decrease its value - an understandable conclusion when you remember that it is the least favorite color.

The color yellow is identified with high-pitched sounds, sour smells, heat, speed, and the shapes of triangles and pyramids.

Yellow suggests detachment, anticipation and a philosophical attitude. It is often associated with cowardice. Think of the phrase "yellow bellied" or a "yellow dog" - used to describe a person who crosses a picket line during an industrial strike.


Instinctively, green evokes a sense of relaxation, comfort and quietness. It is an undemanding color, very "middle-of-the-road," neither too hot nor too cold.

The easiest color for the eye to see, and therefore the most restful of all the colors, green is the color of concentration and relaxation. The neutral of nature, it is associated with spring, new growth and new beginnings.

The smell of the outdoors, fresh scents and rounded triangular shapes are associated with the color green.

Who hasn't at some time been green with envy, green around the gills, longing for some greenbacks (money)? Because it is such a restful color, "green rooms" are provided in theaters and television studios for actors to wait until they are to perform in front of the lights.


Variations of blue are the most popular of all the colors. Physically, blue will help to lower blood pressure on first view. Non-threatening, it is known as the color of trust (as in true blue) longevity and dependability. People who enjoy being alone choose blue for its sense of coolness. Considered a neutral color, you can live with it forever.

Blue suggests salty tastes, a compensation for sweet and musty smells, and is associated with circle shapes.

Blue appears frequently in phrases: Once-in-a-blue-moon, blue funk, crying the blues, blue ribbon, blue blood.


Behaviorally, this color can also help to lower blood pressure, suppress appetite, quell internal dialog and calm overactive glands. This is not only a hard color to figure out because it exhibits characteristics of both red and blue, it is a difficult color to live with for long periods.

Purple's strongest associations are toward floral scents, royalty and religion. Oval or free-form shapes best represent the spirit of this color.

Who doesn't occasionally enjoy purple prose? And think of the honor to have been bestowed with the purple heart for bravery. The color violet - its less-intense relative - suggests romance and imagination.


The color of non-commitment, this is an "easy-out" color. Considered neutral, it has traditionally been associated with death and mourning, although now it is a sophisticated and elegant color. Black suggests dignity, power, worldliness, aloofness, intimidation and mystery.

The negative connotations of black are many: blackmail, blackballed, black listed, black sheep, the black market. But the concept of "black tie" suggests sophistication and elegance.


A color suggestive of purity and innocence, it conjures up images of na‹vet‚, youth and cleanliness.

But like its opposite, black, white is a color of many negative connotations. Think white lies, white elephants, whitewash (to cover up an embarrassing fact), raising the white flag of surrender.


Traditionally associated with warmth and comfort, brown speaks of solidity, reliability and the comforts of home. It is a color with strong and positive food associations: Brown eggs, brown bread, brown rice, brown sugar. Brown comes from the orange family and elicits similar, although less intense, behavioral responses.


Gray suffers a lack of assertiveness so it suggests confusion, as in "gray area." But it is also associated with intelligence, as in the glib phrase, "gray matter," referring to the brain.

Gray traditionally indicates guarded behavior, as well as a sense of discipline, and deliberate or planned actions.

A bland, albeit sophisticated color at times, there is a particular shade of gray with very positive connotations: Silver. Think silver lining, born with a silver spoon in the mouth and that glamorous symbol of Hollywood, the silver screen.

Color Associations and How They Evolve

Much of the following information has been adapted from Color Compendium, by Augustine Hope and Margaret Walch.

An ability to respond to color is present soon after birth. The first color a child sees and relates to is red. The favorite toys of young children are usually red. (Is there a lot of fighting among your children over certain toys? Eliminate the red ones and see if there is a difference in behavior.) Studies show that young children cry more when they are in rooms painted yellow because yellow is the most difficult color for the eye to see. Adults can leave a yellow room when they tire of it, but babies cannot.

From the age of two months onward, color becomes one of the strongest influences in a child's life. Counselors use color when helping troubled children adjust to the demands of society; the colors for which a child shows preference offer clues to his or her emotional life. When vocabulary skills are not yet developed, color provides important clues to a child's well-being.

For instance, under the age of four, children who show a preference for "warm" colors such as red, orange and yellow tend to be sympathetic, dependent on others for affection, cooperative and well adjusted. Children in that same age range who tend to favor "cool" colors such as blue and green are described as intellectually inclined, selfish, determined, and "loners."

The child who uses black in his paintings may be exhibiting signs of a troubled state. Red used freely indicates an uninhibited love of life, whereas if it is painted violently, it may reveal either hostility or a desire for affection. Excessive use of blue may indicate a controlled anxiety. A new brother or sister in a household often results in the older sibling painting in blue. Lots of yellow indicates a happy, carefree child. Green suggests self-restraint, self-sufficiency, self-confidence and emotional well-being. Purple is the least-used color among children - except at Easter times in cultures where that occasion is celebrated.

By the time children have reached their teens, all their learned responses to color will have accumulated and these will be constant throughout the rest of their lives. Color preferences and responses change in adulthood only in reaction to major life changes, such as moving to a new country, or cultural, global and environmental impacts.

Color Coding

Color coding is an integral part of our normal world. It distinguishes animals (a white polar bear, a red fox), birds (a blue jay, a red-headed woodpecker), and flowers (a red rose, a yellow daffodil).

Color connects the viewer with an object more quickly than any other identifying characteristic. For this reason, color is used as a simple code to signify complicated concepts or systems. The simpler the code, the better it is for a smooth-functioning society. That is why the color red is universally used to mean stop - it is understood by any age, culture or educational background.

Think of the telephone book. Almost everyone in western countries understands the difference between the white pages, yellow pages and blue pages, and can instantly flip to the appropriate section when desiring specific information.

There are color-specific international codes for roads, traffic and industry.

On roads and traffic:

    Green: Information
    Blue: Hospitals and quiet areas
    Orange: Work areas
    Red: Do not enter, stop, danger
In industry:
    Yellow or black stripes: Beware of stumbling
    Red: Fire protection
    Orange: Dangerous machine parts that can cut, crush, burn or cause shocks
    Green: Safety
    Blue: Equipment is under repair, do not move or use without permission
    Purple: Hazardous nuclear energy
    Yellow: Physical hazards such as projections

Color and Food

Color has a great influence on our choice of foods; consequently, food producers ensure that their foods are the correct flavor, ripeness and color.

Brown is associated with cereals, breads and well-cooked meats. One of the biggest problems that microwave manufacturers had in the past was convincing consumers to cook meat in them because the cooked meat never looked brown and, therefore, ready to eat, even though it was.

White is found in such foods as rice and bread, which often contains refined or processed flour and sugar. Dairy products such as ice cream are lightly colored to suggest sweetness.

When margarine was first introduced, it was colored yellow because white margarine would not sell. The shade of red in tomatoes often dictates the price and speed with which they will sell. Peas in the can are usually dyed so they look more appealing.

In packaging, the best color is the one that represents the food itself. Brown beer bottles enhance the amber color of the beer. Green and yellow work well on canned corn, attracting us to the natural taste and quality of content.

The Importance of Color Names

The names of colors are, for the most part, only marketing terms applied to colors to aid in their acceptance and to promote the sale of products. But names can make or break a color's acceptance - and success.

Descriptive names such as Bubble Gum Pink and Candy Apple Red evoke strong color pictures. Some color names will last a long time, while others will change as influences do. For example, Tobacco Brown of the 1960s and '70s has been renamed because smoking has been found to be a hazardous habit. Also, Chalk White - a traditionally popular color - was seen to be losing its favored ground as the message of a "clean environment" became the goal. Once the color was given a cleaner name, "China White," it soon returned to near the top of the popular colors list. By 1971, Ivory, also a popular color of long standing, was perceived as growing old, and paint sales in this color slipped. When the name was evocatively changed to Oriental Silk a decade later, it once more rose to the top where it has remained.

Color History

The history of color through the centuries is a topic of utmost fascination and interest - as the multitude of books written on this subject proves. Anyone wanting to know how cave dwellers produced colors from plants and stones or what the traditional colors of the Victorian period were - and everything in between - would enjoy reading books on art history or color theory, such as History of Modern Arts, by H.H. Arnason.

Color Trends in the 20th Century

It is an accepted fact that the use of color is a "trendy" concept. In the 20th century, color tendencies and directions in clothing and furnishings have identified themselves as cyclical, oscillating with the changing attitudes and economic circumstances of each decade.

The 1920s, for example, was a decade dominated by two opposing design influences: Art Deco and the Bauhaus. The color direction of Art Deco design swept the spectrum and was characterized by emerald green, Indian coral, black, red, and polished chrome. The Bauhaus style emphasized the use of natural materials, and embraced white as the dominant color.

One other influence at play during this decade emerged in mid- and southwest America, reflecting the influence of architect Frank Lloyd Wright and his Prairie School Style, which was characterized by reddish-brown and ochre.

In the 1930s, bright colors were introduced to the masses and color-coordination became a preoccupation for both designers and consumers.

The 1940s, being taken up with wartime, were relatively drab and colorless, but in the 1950s, the introduction of many new technologies and the development of plastics resulted in an explosion of color. This was the first decade in which the first United Color Systems were introduced to the paint market, providing consumers with custom-mixed paints, and widely expanding the possibilities from 50 colors to 1,000.

In 1951, Forest Green was the most popular paint color, according to Benjamin Moore's archive files. A deep rich green, it is still in favor today. In 1953, Willow Green moved up to top the list and it stayed there for four years, beating out the ever-popular white shades. By 1975, this color had declined in popularity so drastically, it was dropped from Benjamin Moore's line of ready-mixed paints.

In the 1960s, color television came into millions of homes but it is the next decade that is most colorfully memorable. Remember the psychedelic '70s? This was when color was expressed in music, clothing and graphics. Empire Gold, a color that has been around for many years, reached its peak popularity just as the decade was opening but a dozen years later, it had disappeared, never to return.

By the 1980s, color had become such an obviously integral part of life that it was impossible to go anywhere without seeing color in everything.

In the 1990s, colors seemed to develop as much less saturated. A new sun-drenched, bleached-out, worn-out look came back. White and black continued to be strong, but not in their pure form. There were many different deep shades of black. There also was an overall yellowing, i.e., warming, of the palette, which was nature-inspired. Green dominated, ranging from yellow-greens to rich bronzed greens and some tinged with silver.

Decision Makers

In industry, products are manufactured with the help of designers and colorists who know that a consumer's decision to purchase any product is based about 60% on its color. Obviously, the right color can make or break a product, and determine its success or failure as a manufactured product.

Colorists look to many areas for help before making decisions on new colors for their products, including the competition, related products, past color successes and failures, global influences, and economic conditions.

Does the Past Influence the Future?

There is a school of thought that maintains if you keep anything long enough, it will come back in style. This is partly true, but when something does become fashionable again, it is usually sufficiently different to make the original not quite "right" in the new context. If a color comes back into popularity, chances are that the other colors with which it is teamed are new and different, and that its original base has been slightly altered, giving it a new appearance. For example, the green of the early '80s was blue-based; in the late '80s it was yellow-based.

In the early 1990s, the color Avocado came back in favor, but not paired with Harvest Gold the way it was in the '70s when it was last popular. Avocado in the '90s was teamed with red, violet or purple - unthinkable combinations 20 or 30 years ago! And it was given a new '90s name: Guacamole - that trendy dip for vegetables and corn chips whose primary ingredient is avocado, and whose name conjures up exciting thoughts of the southwest and its influences - a popular trend into which the color fits perfectly, thus ensuring its successful return.

Color Cycles

Color cycles - a term to describe the shift of color popularity - last about seven years. In fashion, you may see color cycles change more quickly but in the home, seven to 10 years is a common cycle, since practically, it is not economical to change color more often. When purchasing an expensive item, which is expected to have a long life, the consumer would be wise to make sure it is of a classic color, because these have a very long color cycle. Not all colors will have the same color cycle; bright strong colors will have shorter life spans than classics such as navy blue, black, and white, which can be timeless. c

This article is an excerpt from the book Color: A Stroke of Brilliance, published by Benjamin Moore & Co.

What is the Color Taupe?

One of today's most popular neutrals, and the most unknown color, it is a combination of beige and gray. But since there are more than 500 variations of beige and gray, there are even more variations of taupe.

At Dawn and Sunset, Why Does Daylight Tend to Appear Reddish?

The mixture of colored wavelengths are not always consistent during all times of the day. In the morning or at night, there is a lack of blue-green light, thus resulting in the red fire glow of a sunrise or sunset. On cloudy days, daylight usually has less red and orange, resulting in a drab day.

White Elephant

Why is a hard-to-get-rid-of item sometimes referred to as a white elephant? It started with a long-ago King of Siam who used to make gifts of white elephants to countries he wished to ruin by the cost of the animals' upkeep.

Remembering Color

We have all tried, but it is harder than we think to carry a color in one's "mind's eye." It is said that we remember colors for only two to three seconds. The moral of this story? Take color samples to the store when trying to match colors.

How Do Iridescent Colors Come to Be?

The iridescent colors apparent in birds' feathers, flies' wings and soap bubbles come not from the color of the objects themselves, but from light rays that are, themselves, colorless, striking these objects.

Why Do Apples Look Riper on the Tree Than in Your Hand?

When complementary colors are viewed next to each other, they tend to enhance each other's color quality. Red and green are complementary colors, so when the red apple is seen hanging amid the green leaves, the green makes the red look redder and the red makes the green look greener.

Why Are Peaches Packed in Purple Paper Cups?

The purple enhances the unripe color of the peaches, making them appear more appetizing and riper. Peach producers use this technique to encourage consumers to buy their product even though it's not quite ripe and ready for eating.

Why Do Butchers Display Their Meat Trays Divided by Rows of Plastic Grass?

Even though enlightened consumers know that the redness in meat - beef, in particular - is not necessarily a mark of quality or freshness, they still prefer to buy beef that is bright red in color. What color would make red look its reddest? Green, of course, being its complementary color. The green "grass" dividers are there to enhance the color of the meat.

What Makes a Rainbow?

Rainbows are created when the sun's rays are reflected and refracted by the falling raindrops during a shower. The size of the raindrops determines the intensity of the rainbow - the larger the drops, the brighter the colors of the rainbow. Very bright-colored rainbows are produced by intense showers of large uniform-sized raindrops.

Flags and Color

There is a strong relationship between the geographic location of a country and the colors of its national flag. In northern-hemisphere countries, red is the predominant color; in southern-hemisphere countries, green predominates. The colors selected for flags are also chosen for their instinctive qualities. For instance, red, white and blue are favorite flag colors - the red signifies courage, white for virtue, and blue for wisdom and truth.

A nation's population tends to have strong positive associations with the colors of their national flags. For example, Italians will choose reds and greens over other colors, while French, British, and American citizens prefer red, white, and blue, and Germans tend to like reds and yellows. Many companies with headquarters in these countries have capitalized on these associations such as IKEA (a Swedish company) and Air Canada in Canada.


A color with only a short term of popularity in the marketplace, fads usually have a lifespan of six months to a year.


The popularity of a color that lasts longer than a fad, possibly as long as six years or more. While trends have been known to develop out of fads, this is rare. Trends are usually based on issues that affect everybody, such as environmental concerns, politics, technology, globalization, etc.

What's in a Name?

Professionals in the color business prefer to discuss colors using a numerical notation system. Most people, however, like to have a name attached to a color because it allows them to visualize the color in their mind. Successful color names allow one to immediately recognize the color without ever seeing it, such as Candy Apple Red or Sky Blue.