“Light is a thing that cannot be reproduced, but must be represented by something else – by color.” – Paul Cezanne

Humans are visual beings. Our eyes always seek all the possible visual stimuli from our surroundings. Colors make it possible for us to gather detailed visual information by stimulating the sense of sight. Color is omnipresent, even if we don’t realise it is. Our surroundings may be natural or built by humans, colors distinguish, make spaces coherent and in many ways affect out behaviour and activities.

To understand color, one has to understand light. When a beam of light splits as it moves through a prism, the dispersion is visible as a spectrum of colours. Colors are just reflection of the part of the  spectrum we see, and absorption of the parts we don’t. When light enters the eye, the sensitive cells in the retina send electrochemical signals to the visual cortex where images are formed for us to see.

Different perceptions induce different emotions and can affect moods, alertness, drowsiness, heart rate etc. A color may evoke different emotions in different individuals.

Nicholas Humphrey in his paper The Colour Currency of Nature says:

“Mankind as a species has little reason to boast about his sensory capacities. A dog’s sense of smell, a bat’s hearing, a hawk’s visual acuity are all superior to our own. But in one respect we may justifiably be vain: our ability to see colours is a match for any other animal. In this respect we have in fact surprisingly few rivals. Among mammals only our nearest relatives, the monkeys and apes, share our ability – all others are nearly or completely colour-blind. In the animal kingdom as a whole colour vision occurs only in some fishes, reptiles, insects and birds.”[1]

To have this brilliant sense, us humans rely on vision and our activities are often easily guided by the use of color in our surroundings. Natural or built by human, use of color in spaces of human habitation has evolved with the evolution of mankind.

The earliest civilizations associated certain colors and materials like Ochre to spirituality and purity. As spirituality travelled from soul to temples, colors of the nature were adopted as materials like stones and earth were used for building the structures. As civilizations settled and expanded, the use of color evolved too. As indicators of demarcation, identification and at times to distinguish between the different social tiers.

As our society embraced new ideas, out built forms further developed into different building types as institutional, religious, residential, commercial, healthcare and recreational. The use of colors in, on and around them is has coherence.

Colors in spaces – Not just decoration

FrankH. Mahnke states,

“Color is an integral element of our world, not just in the natural environment but also in the man-made architectural environment. Color always played a role in the human evolutionary process. The environment and its colors are perceived, and the brain processes and judges what it perceives on an objective and subjective basis. Psychological influence, communication, information, and effects on the psyche are aspects of our perceptual judgment processes. Hence, the goals of color design in an architectural space are not relegated to decoration alone.”[2]

Color in a built form can make it memorable, can establish identity, give direction and induce interest. Its purpose is much more than being an entity which decorates. Visual communication is the easiest way to communicate. Colors help us remember and recognize. They are the carriers of memories.

An institution chain uses the same color scheme in all its buildings, so even if its structure is different, what makes it establish its identity is the color. A religious building has certain key elements and colors to help in identification by the masses. The health care industry strives on cleanliness, so a designer may prefer soothing cool pastels and blocking.

Commercial spaces need a more passive yet straightforward approach in design which is reflected in the choice of colors as well. Residential architecture is a whole new realm where they add personality to a space as per the user, singular or multiple.

Color needs light, texture with coherence when being used. A well lit room can display a color in different light throughout the day. While no light can ruin the of brightest of colors in a space.

The psychology of color as explained by Carl junge,  defines the four temperaments in terms of colors: Sunshine yellow, earth green, cool blue, and fiery red. Blue shows no Bias, Green is the tranquil one, yellow is ever enthusiastic and red is assertive and bold. Although the theory was a psychological one, colors in our surroundings affect us, and are drivers of our behaviour and activities.

The Colors:

White.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton: “White is not a mere absence of color. It is a shining and affirmative thing, as fierce as red, as definite as black.”

Photo by Henry & Co. from Pexels

The color white is associated with Purity, cleanliness. In a space, white being the most reflective, brings a sense of vastness. It is the simplest backdrop to accentuate a feature. White makes spaces look endless and works as a great backdrop for the

Black

“True equilibrium is expressed by the straight line,” -Piet Mondrian.

Photo by James Lee from Pexels

Black is a definitive color. Its powerful, authoritative and strong. Black can bring in focus or engulf the entire space into darkness. It is bold and sophisticated.

Red

“Red is the most positive of colors, the most violent, aggressive and exciting. It attracts the eye more than any other,” said Eric de Maré.

Photo by Prashant Gautam from Pexels

The color of warmth and energy. It is intense yet gentle, comforting yet exciting. Found in natural materials and synthetic too, it accentuates and stands out. It can warm up a cold room, is known to be appetizing.

Blue

“Blueness doth express trueness,” -Ben Jonson

Photo by Engin Akyurt from Pexels

The color of the sky and water, truth, blue is calm but cold. Associated with wisdom and serenity, blue is the colour known to bring a calming effect, for a room which has less light, blue may seem ‘chilly’ on walls being less reflective. It creates a contrast when used with warm colors and pops out!

Yellow

“How lovely yellow is! It stands for the sun.” – Vincent Van Gogh

The color associated with happiness, joy, energy and the sun. It is an uplifting color which when used in the right shade, can be a bright addition to any space. Yellow seeps optimism, intensity and seeks attention.

Green

“Suffice it to say that black and white are also colors… for their simultaneous contrast is as striking as that of green and red, for instance.” – Vincent van Gogh

The color of nature. Green embodies growth, fertility, health, harmony and coolness. Restful for the eyes, it calms down the perceiver and gives a vibe of composed serenity. While the darker shades are often associated with greed and jealousy, the other hues can bring brightness paired with contrast to a space. Much like architecture, color in our surroundings transform our lives. A bare room can light up with walls reflecting sunlight through the day. Colors in a space shall be used with light, direction, purpose and mood in mind. A sharp contrast or a subtle harmony of colors is what makes a space liven up.


Suruchi Sharma is an Architect and a Photographer; She strives to show through her pictures, the wonderment and beauty that everyday, seemingly mundane things possess. She believes that spaces are experiential, spaces speak and do deserve a sensory approach by its users, as she points out in her dissertation titled “Architecture for the senses ” capturing it through her photography and writings.

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