The Therapy of Colour

What’s your favourite colour? How many times can you recall being asked that question?! It’s a bit like, what’s your star sign! Back to the colour question though, what does the answer actually mean and what do we make of it?

Although colour is constantly around us, be it in nature or manufactured, most of us probably take it for granted much of the time. Recently I witnessed a perfectly formed rainbow, with incredibly vibrant colours. It was a beautiful sight and I was struck by the number of people who stopped to admire it in silent awe, almost as though it was a bearer of information. It made me wonder about the power of colour and the role it plays in our lives.

Colour certainly appears to have some affect on us. Our language is filled with expressions which use it to represent sensory data and emotional experience, such as; “feeling blue”, “seeing red” or “colourless”. It seems to be a powerful communication tool which can signal emotions or even action (think traffic lights) and can create specific moods. Our preferences in colour can influence what we wear, how we decorate our environments and in choosing objects in colours that evoke a particular feeling.  I recently listened to an ABC Radio National podcast called, “All in the Mind”, May 18, 2022,, which was about “Synesthesia”, a phenomenon where people see sounds and hear colours. So colour seems to not only be linked to language, but also to sound.  

The significance of colour has been evident for centuries in religious and cultural expressions and was once believed to be the characteristic of an object. Then Isaac Newton discovered that “the colour of an object is created by light falling on it. Experimenting with a prism he saw how it changed a beam of sunlight into narrow bands of colour creating a complete colour spectrum. He established that white light is a mixture of different light rays that are separated by a prism into 7 major colours – red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet” (Colour Therapy.  Julie Gunstone and Pascale Osanz. Viking, Penguin Books Australia, 1994, p.5).  

In the 17th century, philosopher, J.W Goethe, saw a hidden language in the phenomenon of colour and published a colour wheel showing colour as a living sensation, or an experience. Max Pfister and Max Luscher, Swiss Psychologists, both studied the psychology of colour and developed colour tests they believed revealed personality characteristics. Hermann Rorschach’s Inkblot test is well-known in psychology and said to show an individual’s psychological state, using form and colour. These systems and many others have used colour, in some capacity, to assess personality traits in helping to understand people’s psychological states more fully.

There appears to be scepticism, however, in modern psychology, about using colour in therapy. "Given the prevalence of colour, one would expect colour psychology to be a well-developed area," researchers Andrew Elliot and Markus Maier noted. "Surprisingly, little theoretical or empirical work has been conducted to date on colour's influence on psychological functioning, and the work that has been done has been driven mostly by practical concerns, not scientific rigor."

Art Therapy has, however, been a separate discipline within psychotherapy for many years. There are different ways of practice and analysis, but in general it is about the client connecting with their thoughts and emotions through creative mediums, including painting and drawing. As colour communicates meaning, clients work with their therapist to unpack what they have created, including their use of colours, which convey a message (often unconsciously) or perhaps trigger a certain feeling. 

The ancient practice of Chromotherapy, or light therapy, continues to be popular in many alternative healing therapies. Each colour is thought to benefit different parts of the physical, mental and emotional states. It is accepted that light enters the body through the eyes and skin and Light Therapy believes that each colour falls into a specific frequency and vibration. As specific colours enter the body it is said to activate a chemical reaction which in turn affects the body physically, emotionally and mentally, hence assisting the body to heal. In short, the theory is that the specific properties of colour can be used to affect the energy and frequencies within the body, examples include;

  • Red activates the circulatory and nervous system.
  • Orange energises the lungs and increases energy levels.
  • Yellow reactivates and purifies the skin. Helps with indigestion and bodily stress.
  • Green acts as a relaxant.
  • Blue stimulates muscles and nerves. Soothes stress and nervous tension.
  • Indigo helps address eye inflammation and ocular fatigue.
  • Violet relaxes the nerves and lymphatic system.   

Marketing, art and design use the psychology of colour widely. Artists and interior designers spend much time getting colours “right” and have long believed colour affects mood, feelings, emotions and behaviours. Our feelings about colour are however, subjective, often deeply grounded in our personal experiences and culture. White, is a good example of a cultural difference, in that it is used in western countries to represent purity and innocence, but is a symbol of mourning in many eastern countries.

It is generally considered that colours in the red area of the spectrum are known as warm and include red, orange, and yellow. These are thought to evoke feelings of warmth and comfort, at one end of the spectrum and feelings of anger and hostility, ie “seeing red”, at the opposite end of the red area. Colours on the blue side of the spectrum are known as cool and include blue, purple, and green. These are often described as calm, but are also considered to represent feelings of sadness, ie “feeling blue”, or indifference.

Research, which can be found at;  discovered that colour can impact people in the ways below;

    • Warm-coloured placebo pills were reported as more effective than cool-coloured placebo pills in one study. 
    • Blue-coloured streetlights can lead to reduced crime according to anecdotal evidence.
    • Black uniforms are more likely to receive penalties. Additionally, students were more likely to associate negative qualities with a player wearing a black uniform according to a study that looked at historical data of sports teams and how they were dressed. 
  • Red causes people to react with greater speed and force. 

The recent furore over Nick Kyrios, the Australian tennis player, wearing a red cap when he received his trophy at Wimbledon this year, is evidence that colour continues to play an important role in current traditions.

Although the influence of colour is certainly subject to personal and cultural factors, it cannot be argued that it does not impact on how we feel and potentially how we act. Perhaps asking a client “What’s your favourite colour?” might open up a meaningful exchange and, to quote a Cyndi Lauper song, allow their “true colours to shine through!”