The psychology of colour

Decorating a room in your home? Then check out our guide to 10 popular colours and discover what they really represent...

Firstly, you could write a book about each of the 10 colours we’ve featured here, and secondly, everyone would write a different book depending on their age, their taste, and where and when they lived in the world.

Colour, to an extent, is full of contradictions. Red means danger and love – avoid and embrace; black is sexy and evil – we want and don’t want; yellow is joyful and cowardly – cheer and boo. In short, colour is exactly what it means to you at the moment. 

But here are some tips and facts that may help you decide on which colour scheme to go for...


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“Black is real sensation, even if it is produced by entire absence of light. The sensation of black is distinctly different from the lack of all sensations.” – German scientist Hermann von Helmholtz


Hermann is right; black is a sensation. It’s the colour of sophistication, power, mystery, formality (as in ‘a black-tie occasion’), art and style, and also evil and death, which makes its use dangerous as well as glamorous. Interestingly, black also implies weight. People will think a black box weighs more than a white one.

Black fact: It’s been the colour of mourning in many parts of the world since at least the Roman Empire, when a toga made of dark-coloured wool was worn.

In the house, it’s modern, sophisticated strong and – in bedrooms in particular – masculine.

Used sparingly in any room including the living room it can be a monochrome masterpiece. A completely black room is a mistake though. If your moody Goth teenager wants it, compromise by just doing the ceiling.

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“Oh! darkly, deeply, beautifully blue, / As someone somewhere sings about the sky.” – English poet Lord Byron.


Blue is a colour that’s supposed to represent peace, stability, calmness, confidence, tranquillity, sincerity, affection and integrity.

But perhaps more than any other colour, it refuses to be pinned down. ‘Out of the blue’ is unexpected, ‘blue-blooded’ is aristocratic, ‘blue comedy’ is socially taboo and ‘feeling blue’ is feeling sad or unhappy.

There’s a special part of your eye that senses light to distinguish day from night. Only one colour matters to this part of your eye – blue light. That’s why blue light has been used to imitate daylight and treat depression.

Blue is supposed to be calming and relaxing, bringing down blood pressure and slowing the heart rate. It’s often recommended for bedrooms and bathrooms.

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“Skipping and a jumping / In the misty morning fog with / Our hearts a thumpin' and you / My brown eyed girl” – Northern Irish songwriter Van Morrison.


Brown says friendly, outdoors, nostalgic, earthy, natural, practical, reliable and perhaps conservative. It’s also a much more subtle and changeable colour than British people think.

The Japanese, who are very precise about colour, don’t have a word for ‘brown’. They have a variety of phrases, the most-used being ‘chairo’, which is literally ‘tea colour’.

Brown has a homely association with food and drink, from bread, dark meat and chocolate to coffee, tea and beer.

Most shades qualify as neutrals, and look particularly good in a woody kitchen or living room. Add colour to liven things up, or keep it brown to calm things down – without getting into a dark brown depression.

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“Green is the prime colour of the world, and that from which its loveliness arises” – Spanish playwright Pedro Calderon de la Barca.


We associate green with life, growth, the environment, healing, money (‘greenbacks’ are banknotes in the United States), safety, relaxation and freshness. But it isn’t all safe. Green is also the colour of absinthe, ‘the green fairy’, one of the world’s most controversial drinks.

And when you look through night vision goggles, you’ll see green. That’s because the colours on the screens are deliberately chosen to make green pictures, because our eyes are most sensitive to green light.

Green brings the outside in to a home, so it’s good in the kitchen and the conservatory.

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“The fundamental grey which ... is the soul of all colour.” – French painter Odilon Redon.


There’s something very timeless about grey. It’s stable, secure, strong and authoritative, as well as neutral, intellectual (think of detective Poirot’s ‘little grey cells’), futuristic and technical.

And if you shine it up it becomes silver, which has a whole new layer of meaning, involving jewellery and wealth and power, plus the moon and movement and mystery.

Grey can be combined with colour in any room, at any time, but seems to come into its own in the kitchen or as a neutral carpet throughout a small house or apartment.

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“Pink isn't just a colour, it's an attitude!” – American singer Miley Cyrus.


Pink is romance, compassion, faithfulness, beauty, love, youth, friendship and sensitivity. In fact, it has such a reputation for discouraging aggression that some sports teams use it to paint the visiting team’s changing room.

Pink fact: Marrakesh in Morocco is sometimes called the ‘Rose City’ because of its salmon-pink coloured buildings and the red clay of its earth.

Sorry to be obvious, but the bedroom is the first choice for pink. Make it subtle for a couple or bright as you like for a small child.

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“I only wanted to see you bathing in the purple rain” – American songwriter Prince.


Purple is a colour that demands to be noticed; the colour of royalty, luxury, dignity, wisdom, spirituality, passion, vision and magic.

Purple fact: It was the colour of the first ever synthetic chemical dye, discovered by accident by 18-year-old English scientist William Henry Perkins in 1856.

Purple is an under-used colour in the modern home, which is a shame. Use its lighter shades to give romanticism to a bedroom, its darker ones to give style to a dining room.

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“Red, of course, is the colour of the interior of our bodies. In a way it's inside out, red.” – Indian sculptor Anish Kapoor.


Red is an exploding colour, implying danger, passion, daring, romance, style, excitement, urgency, appetite and energy. 

It’s also, in Britain, a very traditional colour, being the central part of the Union Jack and also an iconic colour for pillar boxes, phone booths and London buses.

The Greek expression ‘piase kokkino’ (‘touch red’) is said when two people say the same thing at the same time. It is believed that this is a sign that the two will have an argument in the future, unless they both quickly touch the closest red thing.

Red raises a room’s energy level. It works brightly in the kitchen and in its darker shades in the living room, dining room (restaurants use red a lot) and outside – a smart front door.

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“White... is not a mere absence of colour; it is a shining and affirmative thing, as fierce as red, as definite as black.” – English writer GK Chesterton.


White stands for freshness, hope, goodness, light, purity, simplicity, cleanliness and coolness – as in temperature, rather than attitude.

The colour has come to be associated with weddings in the west, but that’s comparatively recent. It was Queen Victoria who gradually popularised the colour when she married Prince Albert in 1840. Before her, any colour was fine for a wedding dress, even black.

Too much white can be cold, but used correctly it’s refreshing in the bedroom, enlightening in the living room and downright essential in the modern bathroom. The bathroom is the place with the mirrors, of course, so combine white with the colour that suits you best.

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“How wonderful yellow is. It stands for the sun." – Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh.


Yes, yellow is the happiest colour in the spectrum. It’s joyful, cheerful, friendly and warm, but also sometimes advising caution (like a yellow card in football) or donating cowardice.

It is supposed to stimulate thought and emotion, activate the memory and encourage conversation. Perhaps because of its association with the powerful sun, it was the colour of emperors in Chinese history. Emperor Huangdi, sometimes called the founder of Chinese civilisation, is also known as the Yellow Emperor.

Yellow is an awakening colour. Use it in the kitchen, particularly if you have your breakfast there, and in rooms that get the sun in the morning.

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