Sunday, March 23, 2008

Healing Colors

Can certain colors—or certain groupings of colors—promote well-being, or even healing?


I created this montage of photo samples by snipping random bits from the pages of a single catalog from the mid 1990s called the Red Rose Collection, consisting of products designed to promote inner peace.


The photographer and graphic designer were evidently working from a controlled chart of colors, which I’ve graphed with the color wheel mask, above. The color scheme includes violets, greens, and cool reds, but avoids hot reds and yellows.

An entire field of alternative medicine called color therapy or chromotherapy has grown up around the belief that colors have specific therapeutic properties on the mind and body.


These practices are rooted in very old beliefs of the Ayurveda in India, and in ancient Egypt, where rooms were built with colored glass windows to promote effects on the body. In China, specific colors were associated with certain organs of the body.

In various practices of color therapy, patients observe colors through special viewers, or colors are applied to accupoints on the body, using gemstones, candles, prisms, penlights, colored fabrics, or tinted glass.


Although not all systems of color therapy agree on the associations of each color, most agree that red signifies blood and the base passions, including anger and power. Orange is associated with warmth, appetite and energy, followed by yellow, which represents the energy of the sun, and which is used for glandular problems.


These bright, warm colors are also almost univerally used by advertisers to sell fast food and soda pop.


The spectrum of colors continues through green, blue, indigo, and violet, moving more and more toward states of serenity and meditation.

This progression corresponds to the ascending chakras of yogic practice, and can be charted on the body by superimposing the progression of hues on each of the seven spiritual centers of the body.

The association of spectral color with chakra centers has recently been taken up by mainstream marketers, even appearing on the website of major interior paint manufacturers. (Link).

Critics of chromotherapy argue that these designations are nothing more than pseudoscience, because the health benefits can’t be proven by clinical tests. If the contemplation of certain colors has any effect on a patient’s recovery, they would argue, it’s simply due to the placebo effect.

To some extent, the color symbolism of catalogs like the Red Rose Collection owes as much to fads and fashions as it does to physiological response. Recent catalogs, like Gaiam Harmony have a rather different palette than we would have seen ten years ago; these days health-promoting catalogs tend to sport golds, dull olives, and venetian reds.

I haven’t made my mind up about all this, and would be curious to learn more. In any event, I believe that we artists, designers, and photographers should remain open to the general idea that color can affect us at a physiological level. Color can stimulate us, and it can soothe us—not just psychologically and emotionally, but at even deeper levels.

We should fine-tune our awareness of how we are influenced by the colors around us—not isolated individual colors, but combinations of colors.

Further reading
Interior decoration and associated chakras, Link
More on associations of each color, Link
Outline of contemporary theories and equipment, Link

7 comments:

Meredith D. said...

I have a book on Feng Shui which I consulted when I decided to repaint my bedroom. In it shapes and colors are related to "energies," such as red=triangular=fire which lend themselves to certain qualities, in this case, action, enlightenment, self-esteem and public status. Fire energy also can create negative results if used incorrectly such as creating an atmosphere conducive to arguments. There's even a kind of color chart in Feng Shui called the Ba Gua. Scientific basis aside, it's pretty fascinating.

Erik Bongers said...

This is such a coincidence !
Currently on my drawing table is the 2nd of two comic book pages that visualize a legend as it is being told by an old woman on a Scottish island (google on "St. Kilda" if some of you have the time to surf a bit).
I apply color directly to my inkted drawings and so I hesitated a lot on choosing the colorset for the legend - wich had to be non-realistic.
Brown would suggest 'ancient', but that was not what I was looking for, and it would be to evident too.
I finally decided on the purple 'healing' set as shown in this post, with orange and brown washes and a touch of yellow for highlights.
But the result didn't heal me as it turned out to be too strong a purple cast for my taste.
I also find the overall effect a bit to religious sect looking.

But you seem to be asking for points-of-view on this subject, so here is mine, and I quote your post :
"...color can effect us at the psychological level...", period.
Although I do believe that "...we should remain open..." but also sceptical to whatever idea.

And I would be carefull with generalizing effects of colour - it may be very personal : my own sensation of purple has changed drastically the last couple of days !

Dinorider d'Andoandor said...

A teacher told us that orange helped him with his asthmatic problems, reality or not? I don't know, he just said so once.

Eric Orchard said...

Sometimes I'm too cynical for my own good. However, I have to say that I believe colours used in Renaissance paintings had the same and probably more emotional impact on the viewers at the time. I wonder if the symbolic meanings alter our emotional response? Purple being a royal colour etc. And I wonder how many artists plan thier colours around the viewers emotional response? I think I'm drifting off topic.

Sydney said...

One of my favorite books is "The Owner's Manual for the Brain" by Pierce Howard. It has a brief section on color with people's response and suggested colors for work areas, referring to a study from 1978. They do recommend caution when applying the information from this report because of so many contradictory studies. There is a brief mention of a study where patients in rooms with yellow walls required more pain medication. My copy of this book is an older one though, so this information may have changed.

emcguire said...

I've heard it's a bad idea to paint a baby's room or nursery yellow, that it's a bit of a stressful color?
Also, I heard a story about a high school football team that painted the visitor's locker room baby blue, and the home team's locker room bright red, in an effort to make the visiting team pacified and calm, and the home team energetic.

a. fortis said...

I remembered reading something ages ago about a study done on the color hospital walls were painted, and all I could remember was that pink was shown to have a calming effect and some other color (red?) had a more agitating effect. I tried to poke around online and found this interesting article.