Colour has been understood to have effects on our mood and wellbeing since Ancient Egypt and more recent studies in colour therapy (or chromotherapy) since the 1950s have shown that different colours can affect human emotions in many different ways.
The term art therapy, which later incorporated the practice of colour therapy, was coined by the British artist Adrian Hill in 1942, while recovering from tuberculosis. During his convalescence, Hill discovered the value of occupying the minds and hands of otherwise passive patients. Encouraged by his own discoveries, Hill invited his fellow patients to engage in artistic activity and went on to record his findings in his 1945 book Art Versus Illness.
In 1911, Wassily Kandinsky wrote the book On the Spiritual in Art which spoke of colour’s connection to a spiritual dimension. Kandinsky was influenced by Theosophy, founded at the end of the nineteenth century, which had combined aspects of Eastern religion and science to point to this spiritual reality, an idea which would go on to influence artists’ understanding of abstract art and, in particular, colour.
Johannes Itten, a teacher at the Bauhaus school, was one of the first to use colour and music as a relaxation technique aimed at improving his students’ creativity. Itten developed ideas of colour during his Theory of Harmony course at the Bauhaus where he would organise colour palettes after the four seasons, which he then matched to student’s personalities. Josef Albers continued Itten’s colour theory work in education and would take these teachings to his seminal workshop Interaction of Colour at Black Mountain College in 1933, which he later developed and published at Yale in 1963.
By the 1960s, Max Lüscher, a Swiss psychotherapist, had established concrete links between a person’s colour selection and their state of mind. Lüscher believed that colour preferences depended on a person’s personality and that these colour preferences were also connected to a patient’s condition. Lüscher asserted that colour choices reflected changes in hormones produced in the endocrine system and that therefore colour might also cause emotional and hormonal changes. Alexander Schauss, a follower of Lüscher’s theories, identified a particular shade of pink labelled P-618 which was shown to have a positive calming effect, lowering the heart rate even when observed in a small swatch of the printed colour. In 1979 the experiment was extended further when prison cells were painted in this shade of pink. Schauss named the colour Baker-Miller Pink after Baker and Miller, the directors of the Naval Correctional Facility in Seattle, where the experiment took place.
The reasons why changes in mood and emotionality may happen through colour are a mystery, just as the workings and true nature of colour are a mystery. Some of the most soothing colours, such as the sky, the rainbow or pearlescent surfaces, do not contain pigmentation but produce colour through the refraction and reflection of light. In fact, none of the objects in the world possess colour; even pigments themselves do not possess colour. Rather it is light reflected from all objects that generates a colour which is registered in our minds as an experience of colour.
Esoteric philosophers might argue otherwise and attribute the essential reality of colour to be a corresponding vibration to a higher spiritual plane, a view echoed by colour therapists who maintain that the different wave lengths of colours correspond with the body’s inner vibrations. Psychoanalysts, on the other hand, may argue that these effects are related to deeply rooted cultural or formative associations connected to colours. This is a tactic often employed in advertising by associations inherent in the natural world – with the colour brown, for example, to mean stability, warmth and security.
The art of predicting future popular colours and how they might be associated with future “current moods”, is the job of the colour forecasting industry, which anticipates fluctuating states of mind in our shared society and the way this might manifest in a range of colours in the future.