Color symbolism

Color symbolism in art and anthropology refers to the use of color as a symbol in various cultures. There is great diversity in the use of colors and their associations between cultures[1] and even within the same culture in different time periods.[2] The same color may have very different associations within the same culture at any time. Diversity in color symbolism occurs because color meanings and symbolism occur on an individual, cultural and universal basis. Color symbolism is also context-dependent and influenced by changes over time.[3] Symbolic representations of religious concepts or articles may include a specific color with which the concept or object is associated.[4] There is evidence to suggest that colors have been used for this purpose as early as 90,000 BC.

Common associations


Red is a primary color. It is often associated with love, passion, and lust. It is frequently used in relation to Valentine's Day.[5] It can also be used to signify danger or warning but it is also associated with importance. For instance, it is used for stop signs[6] and fire engines.[7] In China, red is often used to symbolize good luck or happiness, and is used for many holidays or weddings.[8]


Blue is a primary color. It is the color of the ocean and the sky; it often symbolizes serenity, stability, inspiration, or wisdom.[9] It can be a calming color, and symbolize reliability.[10] In the Catholic Church, the Virgin Mary is most often depicted wearing blue, to symbolize being "full of grace" by divine favor.[11] Blue is widely used for baby boys' clothes or bedrooms, although the reason blue is so strongly associated with boys is debated.[12]


Yellow is a primary color. It is a color often associated with sunshine or joy.[13] It is sometimes used in association with cowardice or fear, i.e., the phrase "yellow-bellied".[14] Children tend to like this color, and it is used to market products to children;[15] it is also used for school buses and taxi cabs since it is such a bright, noticeable color.[15]


Green is a secondary color. It is most often used to represent nature, healing, or fertility, since it is such a dominant color in nature. It can be a very relaxing color[16] but is also used in the US to symbolize money, greed, or jealousy.[16] Saying that someone is "green" means they're inexperienced or new.[17]


Black, in Western culture, is considered a negative color and usually symbolizes death, grief, or evil.[18] People often wear black for mourning, although this practice isn't as widespread as it was in the past.[19]


White most often symbolizes perfection, faith, innocence, softness, and cleanliness.[20] Brides often wear white dresses to symbolize virginity or purity.[21]


Pink is associated with softness, femininity, sweetness, and love.[22] However, it was formerly used as a masculine color, frequently used for baby boys; it was not until the early 20th century that the gender roles of pink and blue were reversed.[23]

Color symbolism in marketing

Color plays an important role in setting expectations for a product and communicating its key characteristics.[24] Color is the second most important element that allows consumers to identify brand packaging.[25]

Marketers for products with an international market navigate the color symbolism variances between cultures with targeted advertising. The car manufacturer, Volkswagen ran a commercial in Italy with a black sheep in the middle of a larger flock symbolizing those who owned a VW Golf as someone unique and self-assured among a crowd of others who were not. In several cultures around the world, a black sheep represents an outcast and is seen as something undesirable. In Italy, a black sheep represents confidence and independence.

There are many additional variances in color symbolism between cultures. Cold is symbolized by blue in East Asia, the US, and Sweden while warmth is symbolized by yellow in the US and by blue in The Netherlands. Sometimes the meanings of colors are in stark opposition across geographic boundaries, requiring products marketed to specific demographics to account for those changes across different markets. For instance, feminity is symbolized by blue in The Netherlands and pink in the US, whereas masculinity is symbolized by blue in Sweden and the US, and red in the UK and France.[24] In some instances color symbolism in marketing is constructed. For companies whose products are defined by the name of their color their sales are susceptible to the symbolism and association of that name. In one example, a company selling a paint color named “off white” more than doubled its sales by renaming the same color as “ancient silk.”[25]

Conceptualizations of colors cross-culturally

Color symbolism has changed over time. Between the 5th and 17th centuries, color was largely related to in a religious context. Blue was symbolic of heaven and white of purity. Today, purity is still symbolized by white in Australia and the USA but by blue in other countries like India. Similarly, the church influenced the perception of colors like crimson and purple. Largely because the dyes for these colors could only be sourced from precious pigments, religious figures like Madonna, Cardinals, and the Virgin were seen in scarlet and purple.

Today, purple symbolizes evil and infidelity in Japan, but the same is symbolized by blue in East Asia and by yellow in France. Additionally, the sacred color of Hindu and Buddhist monks is orange.

The Renaissance was also a time in which black and purple were colors of mourning. Today, Mourning or death is symbolized by white in East Asia, black in the US, and blue in Iran, while happiness is symbolized by white in Australia and NZ, and yellow in China.[24]

There is a general disagreement over whether reactions to color and their symbolism are a result of cultural conditioning or of instinct. Several studies concluded that color is part of the social learning process because of the significant symbolism within the culture. High quality, trustworthiness, and dependability are symbolized by blue in the US, Japan, Korea and green and yellow in China - as well as purple in China, South Korea and Japan. Because of these variances, critical cues vary across cultures. Warning signs are coded differently as danger is symbolized by green in Malaysia, and red in the US and Mexico. The same color of green symbolizes envy in Belgium and the US, but envy is symbolized by yellow in Germany and Russia, and purple in Mexico. Even the colors that denote powerful emotions vary. Love is symbolized by green in Japan, red and purple in China, Korea, Japan and the USA. Unluckiness is symbolized by red in Chad, Nigeria and Germany. Luckiness is symbolized by red in China, Denmark and Argentina. The traditional bridal color is red in China and white in the USA. Ambition and desire are symbolized by red in India.[24]

See also


  1. Smith, N.S.; Whitfield, T.W.A.; Wiltshire, T.J. (April 1990). "The accuracy of the NCS, DIN, and OSA-UCS colour atlases". Color Research & Application. 15 (2): 111–116. doi:10.1002/col.5080150209. ISSN 0361-2317.
  2. Birren, Faber (2006). Color psychology and color therapy: a factual study of the influence of color on human life. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing. ISBN 978-1425424107. OCLC 74452551.
  3. Edith Anderson Feisner; Ronald Reed, eds. (2016). "Color symbolism". Color Studies (3rd ed.). New York: Bloomsbury. doi:10.5040/ ISBN 978-1-50130-336-4. OCLC 1053938255.
  4. "Encyclopaedia Britannica" (in German). doi:10.1163/9789004337862_lgbo_com_050367. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  5. "valentine - Google Search". Retrieved 5 November 2018.
  6. Road vertical signs. Variable message traffic signs, BSI British Standards, doi:10.3403/03263875u
  7. "Why are fire trucks red?". Retrieved 5 November 2018.
  8. "Color Symbolism in Chinese Culture: What do Traditional Chinese Colors Mean?". 16 January 2015. Retrieved 6 November 2018.
  9. "Meaning of The Color Blue". Bourn Creative. 15 January 2011. Retrieved 5 November 2018.
  10. "Blue Color Meaning - The Color Blue". 1 March 2013. Retrieved 5 November 2018.
  11. "Why is the Blessed Virgin Mary always wearing blue?". Aleteia — Catholic Spirituality, Lifestyle, World News, and Culture. 24 June 2017. Retrieved 5 November 2018.
  12. Wolchover, Natalie (1 August 2012). "Why Is Pink for Girls and Blue for Boys?". Live Science. Retrieved 7 November 2018.
  13. Morton, Jill. "Yellow". Retrieved 5 November 2018.
  14. "yellow-bellied - Dictionary Definition". Retrieved 5 November 2018.
  15. "Meaning of The Color Yellow". Bourn Creative. 5 February 2011. Retrieved 5 November 2018.
  16. "Meaning of The Color Green". Bourn Creative. 25 January 2011. Retrieved 5 November 2018.
  17. "Green definition and meaning | Collins English Dictionary". Retrieved 5 November 2018.
  18. "Black Color Psychology - Black Meaning & Personality". Color Psychology. Retrieved 5 November 2018.
  19. Jalland, Pat (7 November 1996), "Death and the Victorian Doctors", Death in the Victorian Family, Oxford University Press, pp. 77–97, doi:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198201885.003.0005, ISBN 9780198201885
  20. "Meaning of The Color White". Bourn Creative. 5 December 2010. Retrieved 6 November 2018.
  21. Davis, Lexxi. "Why Do Brides Wear White? And Other Questions". Retrieved 6 November 2018.
  22. "Meaning of The Color Pink". Bourn Creative. 15 November 2010. Retrieved 6 November 2018.
  23. Ant, Puja Bhattacharjee, CNN Animation by Giant. "The complicated gender history of pink". CNN. Retrieved 6 November 2018.
  24. Aslam, Mubeen M. (2006). "Are You Selling the Right Colour? A Cross‐Cultural Review of Colour as a Marketing Cue". Journal of Marketing Communications. 12 (1): 15–30. doi:10.1080/13527260500247827.
  25. Popa, C.N.; Popescu, S.; Berehoiu, R.M.T.; Berehoiu, S.M.T. (2013). "Considerations regarding use and role of colour in marketing" (PDF). Scientific Papers Series - Management, Economic Engineering in Agriculture and Rural Development. 13 (1): 269–274.
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