The Hidden Meaning of Colours, in Art


Art often has a hidden meaning when it comes to the colours used in the paintings, which can be used as a powerful tool to invoke emotions in the viewer. Once you understand the principles behind using colours in your paintings, you can utilize these to enchant your viewers.

Research has shown that the colours around us have a direct influence on the way we feel and hence can help us relax. Artists often use colours to send out a subliminal message.

Before we dive into what each of the colours could mean, let’s briefly revise on our primary and secondary colours knowledge from elementary school. Red, yellow and blue are considered as the primary colours. The secondary colours are the ones you get on combining any two of the primary colours – mixing the colours red and yellow gives you the colour orange; mixing yellow and blue gives you green; mixing red and blue gives you purple. You will get tertiary colours upon mixing the secondary colours. If you want to darken any colour, you can do so by adding a little black to it. If you want a lighter shade, you can get it by mixing a little white in it.

Let us move on to understand the meaning of colours.


Red is considered the colour of assertion, romance, strength, excitement, vitality, ambition, impulse and physical prowess. It is a colour that can create a beautiful contrast to all skin types and make them look flattering. The pale pinks go well with green and create a peaceful look. Red can mean danger or threat as well and is used symbolically with respect to fire engines, stop signs and traffic lights.


Orange is the shade between red and yellow. It is flamboyant, lively and cheerful. It signifies youth and being fearless, spontaneous, dynamic and assertive. This colour stimulates the brain while also promoting mental activity. Dark orange can mean deceit and distrust while an orange that is closer to a red, can correspond with aggression, domination and the thirst for action.


Yellow is often associated with sunlight. This colour creates a feeling of hope, happiness while also denoting wisdom. It evokes a feeling of optimism and well-being. It is not only a radiant colour but also gives one a feeling of all being ‘okay’ in the world which can be refreshingly peaceful.

“Under Vanilla Skies” by Lori McNee © 2009

The above painting has been carefully painted to give a calm, harmonious feeling. This painting has used yellows and greens, with a dash of complementary colours in a beautiful manner, to reflect a serene feeling.


Green is the colour associated with harmony, security and balance. It creates a sense of peace, gentleness and modesty, especially the pale green shade. Green also symbolizes hope. Sometimes a yellow-green mix is used to indicate sickness, discord or jealousy.


Blue is the colour of the sky and its reflection on water surfaces. Thus, this colour is often used to show a kind of expansiveness, similar to the skies and oceans. Blue is also considered a colour with formal undertones. Blue is not only considered a masculine colour but is also, interestingly, associated with a soft, soothing and compassionate vibe, thereby representing a character with wisdom and steadiness. Blue is also often associated with the feeling of melancholy.


Born from the mixture of blue and red, purple is a regal colour considered to be associated with dignity and hence to be used with discretion. The paler tones of purple are restful and serene but the darker ones can make it harder to focus. Lavender is a lighter shade of purple which signifies the refined things in life that are creative, witty and civilized. On the flip side, purples can also be tiring to the eyes. Sad and gloominess can also be portrayed using this colour.


Brown is the colour of living wood and the earth. Calm and soothing to look at, browns are extraordinarily restful to look at. This is a colour that symbolizes steadiness, dependability, the conservative nature of things and is cool and warm, both, at once. Brown also tends to invoke nostalgia. Using the combination of browns and muted colours, ‘Tonalism’ is often used to paint a rich, earthy and moody landscape.


Gray is considered as the colour of compromise and caution. Gray also gives a sense of peace to the viewer.


White symbolizes safety, cleanliness and purity. It emanates innocence, youth and perfection. It also means simplicity and freshness. Usually, white should be used sparingly in a painting with the other colours to make sure it doesn’t look lifeless and chalky.

“On Edge” by Lori McNee

The intensity and the depth in this painting have been intentionally created using whites and blacks, strategically. The opposite nature of the colours used has a hidden message and creates a sense of restlessness in the viewer.


Black is often used to symbolize mysteries and secrets. But black can also give a morbid feeling so it should be used carefully. In most Western cultures, blacks symbolize grief. However, black can also resonate with someone being dignified with a hint of sophistication.

“A Second Glance” by Lori McNee

The black in this painting has been used beautifully in layers that bring out a feeling of mystery, invoking a sense of curiosity in the viewer.

Did this article help you understand your colours better? Do let us know in the comments section, below.

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