Why So Many Colors?

The paint company Sherwin Williams have a program where they donate paint to beautify public schools. In 2006, Beach Elementary were the excited and grateful recipients of one of these donations. I set the colors, and volunteers from Hands-On Portland and numerous helpful parents showed up to paint. The school went from sporting only the drab, dirty, para-military hue the Portland Public School system seems so fond of, to being a much brighter, more cheerful, inviting and colorful learning environment. The following explanation of my choices was written for the middle school students of the school, as I wanted to share my fascination of colors and their effects on the human physiology with the kids. Here goes:

Why so many colors? Well, there are almost as many reasons for that as there are colors in here. When deciding on the colors for Beach Elementary, the attempt was made to create spaces that are both energizing and fun, while still encouraging focused thought and reflection.

First of all – color can physically affect how you feel. It can make you happy, sad, energized, relaxed, motivated, hungry, or friendly – an entire range of emotions. People who work in marketing and advertising are really good at manipulating people with their use of color. Well-known and fun scientific facts about how color affects us can be used in many different ways.

Generally, one can say that warm colors (reds, oranges, and yellows) are exciting, uplifting and energizing. If they are over-used, they can be stressful. Similarly, cold colors (greens, violets, and blues) are often said to be calming and relaxing. Used in excess, they can be depressing and make you tired and gloomy. The scientific fact that color triggers actual physiological changes in our bodies is known as chromodynamics.

If you want to get technical, you can truthfully say that color is light, and light is energy. All colors are present in daylight. If you’ve ever have had a physics class, you might remember the colors of the spectrum; ROYGBIV (stands for Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, and Violet). Sounds familiar? Sure, these are also the colors of the rainbow! A wall that seems red to us is really just a wall that absorbs all other colors and reflects only the red light back at us. Taken to extremes, a white surface reflects all colors, while a black surface absorbs all colors. This is why we often don’t count black and white as actual colors.

Physiological effects of color Every color emits a certain type of energy that our bodies and minds absorb through our eyes. Studies have shown that both seeing and blind people physically are equally affected by colors. It has to do with the energy transmitted to our brains via the optic nerve. The fact that we absorb this energy (whether we can see the color or not) is why colors can make us feel a certain way. In addition, how we mentally perceive and experience color is definitively linked with personal and cultural associations. Just try to convince someone from a beach town in the Caribbean that blue is a cold color! They will probably disagree, as their main association is the turquoise of the water surrounding them, and does not at all feel cold to them.

Having several colors present in every space provides everyone with an opportunity to take advantage of the kind of energy needed at the moment. If you feel a little tired or sad – focus your eyes on the reds, oranges and yellows. If you feel full of playfulness and spirit and have a hard time focusing and obeying when your teacher asks you to be quiet and still – try concentrating on one of the blues and greens for a little while. Psychiatrists refer to this as “chroma therapy”.

Yellow is transmitted to the brain faster than any other color. In nature it represents caution (wasps, poisonous flowers like buttercups), and people use it for warning signs, traffic lights etc. It can also help you increase alertness and concentration, which is why legal pads are often yellow. When used too much, it becomes stressful. Babies have been found to cry more in yellow environments. Likewise, adults lose their tempers more easily in yellow rooms.

Blue is almost always used in weightlifting rooms because it is a performance- enhancing color. Generally, blue represents respectability, responsibility and trustworthiness and is the number one favorite color. People often dress in blue during job interviews, to convey these qualities. When used too much, or in the “wrong” shades, it can become depressing. That’s why we often say we’re “feeling blue” when we are sad.

Red increases heart rate and respiration and is associated with passion, intensity and vitality. This too shows up in the way we use language; red-hot temper, two red seconds, seeing red, etc. Too much of it will create a stressful environment. If the manager of a company thinks the employees spend too much time slacking off in the restroom, the advise would be to paint it bright red. This will cut down on the time anyone would like to spend in there. Reds are often used in restaurants because it increases our appetite. Were you to check what kind of light is used to enhance the food displayed in the deli-counter at your local grocery store, you would most likely find that it is a light that brings out the red color of the meats. Why? Because it makes you want to eat! Red also makes you take greater risks. A good example of this is Las Vegas, which is full of red neon lights to encourage people to gamble more.

Pink is essentially a less vibrant version of red, but oddly enough has a calming effect on agitated people. When the police arrest a very upset person they initially put them in a pink-painted cell until they calm down. Once the prisoner calms down however, he or she needs to be removed from the pink environment or it will soon have the opposite effect. This fact has resulted in a color affectionately referred to as “drunk-tank-pink”.

Green is a soothing, relaxing color and it makes us feel secure and tended. Our emotional response to it stems from our origins as part of a natural environment. Because of its calming qualities, green is often used in clinical environments such as hospitals. Some health disorders such as eczema, diarrhea, and stomach upset actually tend to lessen in green rooms. Those of you who took part in the Beach Talent Show might remember that before it was your turn to perform, you spent time in something called “the Green Room”, where you could focus on what you were about to do. Brown, like green, brings us back to our beginnings and thus has a friendly, calming effect.

Orange, like reds and yellows, is a color that when overly used will increase your heart rate and trigger your adrenaline production. Used in moderation, it will bring out warm emotions such as fellowship, camaraderie, accessibility and loyalty. A paint company executive whose employees complained about feeling cold in their blue office, re-painted it in soft orange tones. Instantly the sweaters came off, even though there was absolutely no difference in actual temperature. In marketing it is used to convey bargains and lower cost/quality.

Purple has historically always denoted wealth, reverence, royalty and higher ranking officials. This stems from the fact that the pigment used to make the dyes was very rare and extremely expensive. After we discovered how to make synthetic pigments, purple has become a much more commonly used color, but the symbolism remains. Bright purple can trigger emotions of instability and uneasiness. In some cultures purple is the color of death.

What color where?

Manipulation of space You can manipulate space with the proper use of color. Corridors can be made to appear wider, less long and daunting by painting the two long sides a different color. This is the reason the walls in the corridors and stairwells are painted in different colors.

The warm colors of the spectrum appear visually closer to us and the cool colors increase the apparent distance. The reason the ends of the main corridor were painted red is that it visually shortens the length of the corridor.

The windows in the stairwell that have windows, are painted yellow in order to “replace” the sunlight on the many overcast days we experience here in the Pacific Northwest. Not only is yellow the color of the sun – it is also the also the only color that will remain bright and colorful while still being a light color. (“Light” in this context means that it falls on the whiter end of the gray scale.)

Using darker colors along the bottom half of walls “grounds” the composition and makes the spaces appear loftier and airier.

Color as a directional tool Color is great as a descriptive. It is much easier to understand that “we’re located on the second floor on the green side” than it is to remember ”go up the stairs, hang a left and go through the doors on your right”.  Similarly, saying “the Office is in the blue area on the main floor”, makes it easy to find.

Since blue and red were the colors we were using in the main floor corridor, it made sense to include them when designating the main floor bathrooms. It became blue for boys, and red for girls as the two colors can be used in a traditional, gender-specific way. (Although, I must confess that is not how I prefer to think of them.)

User-friendly color I tried to assign darker, more fingerprint-friendly colors around the banisters in the stairwells, in hope that the walls will look good as long as possible. Likewise, the colors along the cafeteria entrances are of the darker varieties to stand up to the heavy traffic of those areas.

My hope is that you enjoy the new colors of your school environment, and that reading this made you more tuned in to what colors can do for your emotional and physiological well-being. That kind of awareness will allow you to – in the future – manipulate your surroundings to your advantage. For now, the colors around you can help you focus on what you need to do. I wish you all the best, and a colorful future.


About annamadeit

I was born and raised in Sweden, By now, I have lived almost as long in the United States. The path I’ve taken has been long and varied, and has given me a philosophical approach to life. I may joke that I’m a sybarite, but the truth is, I find joy and luxury in life’s simple things as well. My outlook on life has roots in a culture rich in history and tradition, and I care a great deal about environmental stewardship. Aesthetically, while drawn to the visually clean, functional practicality and sustainable solutions that are the hallmarks of modern Scandinavia, I also have a deep appreciation for the raw, the weathered, and the worn - materials that tell a story. To me, contrast, counterpoint, and diversity are what makes life interesting and engaging. Color has always informed everything I do. I’m a functional tetrachromat, and a hopeless plantoholic. I was originally trained as an architect working mostly on interiors, but soon ventured outside - into garden design. It’s that contrast thing again… An interior adrift from its exterior, is like a yin without a yang. My firm conviction that everything is connected gets me in trouble time and time again. The world is a big place, and full of marvelous distractions, and offers plentiful opportunities for inquiry and exploration. I started writing to quell my constant queries, explore my discoveries, and nurture my curiosity. The Creative Flux was started in 2010, and became a catch-all for all kinds of intersecting interests. The start of Flutter & Hum at the end of 2013 marks my descent into plant nerd revelry. I occasionally contribute to other blogs, but those two are my main ones. For sure, topics are all over the map, but then again - so am I! Welcome to my blogs!
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