10 examples that explain meaning of color theory

Color theory. Rainbow flag. photopigs 2018.

Colors create depth, mood and communicate cultural meanings in images. Light colors appear closer than darker ones. Bold and bright colors convey higher energy than darker and neutral tones. However, individual colors also communicate specific meanings and experienced photographers use them to enhance the impact of their images.

Understanding color theory takes practice but knowing these ten colors puts new photographers on the right path to using color effectively.

Warm colors convey higher energy

Color theory. An angry red poo emoji with the caption "no dog poop or else". photopigs 2018.
Loring Park, Minneapolis, MN. Red means danger, passion and excitement. Photo by Benjamin Pecka.

People possess innate abilities to know good design and use signifiers like color to properly interpret the creator’s message, even if it is only subconsciously. Traditionally, the poo emoji is brown and conveys a specific cultural meaning. Among the dozens of emoji signs posted outside of an inner-city school asking people to clean up after their pets, only one stood out emotionally. It is easy to imagine that the child who changed the emoji to red and included a caption is angry for having stepped in dog poop.

Color theory. An orange bike rack on the sidewalk with the word VUE etched into the metal. photopigs 2018.
Loring Park, Minneapolis, MN. Orange means fresh, youthful, creative and adventurous. Photo by Benjamin Pecka.

Loring Park in Minneapolis, Minnesota is gentrifying and the owners of this high-end apartment building send a specific message with color. The neighborhood attracts gay men and young professionals because of its close proximity to downtown nightlife and cheaper housing. Property managers appeal to these demographics by incorporating orange branding. Apartment complexes is designed for the fresh, youthful, creative and adventurous replaces cheaper housing.

Color theory. A yellow chair with the world 'Nicollet' on the back sits in front of the YWCA. photopigs 2018.
Downtown West, Minneapolis, MN. Yellow means optimistic, cheerful, playful and happy. Photo by Benjamin Pecka.

Yellow is the most luminous of all the colors and captures the most attention. Even on a dull, cloudy day a yellow chair sitting on the transit mall shines brightly and welcomes people to sit. It is not all sunshine and happiness, though, because yellow also indicates caution, cowardice and disease depending on the context its presented.

Cool colors convey lower energy

Color theory. View of landscaping outside of a high-end apartment complex. photopigs 2018.
Loring Park, Minneapolis, MN. Green means vitality, wealth and nature. Photo by Benjamin Pecka.

The color green holds a host of associations across the world but its universal meaning is obviously nature. Well-manicured and expensive housing uses extensive greenery to communicate wealth. Although Western culture predominantly sees green as a lucky color (think four-leaf clovers), it is also represents bad luck around the world. Green is also the color opposite to red, which is why highway signs are designed to stand out against fire across the world.

Color theory. View of Alcatraz from Fisherman's Wharf. photopigs 2018.
Alcatraz, San Francisco, CA. Blue means communicative, trustworthy, calming and depressed. Photo by Benjamin Pecka.

Alcatraz viewed from Fisherman’s Wharf is indeed a depressing sight. The distance of the isolated island along with the fog and pollution makes its surroundings entirely blue. Aside from the sky and water, blue is the rarest color in nature. The color also holds the widest ranges of meanings and depends on specific shades. Darker blues convey trustworthiness and authority, while lighter blues communicate peacefulness and serenity. Unfortunately for isolated prisoners at Alcatraz, being held within a sea of blue creates a depressing environment.

Color theory. Electrical boxes are painted as red, purple and green as high-rise buildings. photopigs 2018.
Bloomington, MN. Purple means royalty, majesty, spirituality and mystery. Photo by Benjamin Pecka.

Purple is another rare color in nature and pigments for dye were scarce in the feudal era of Europe. The difficulty of finding the color meant that it was reserved for royalty. Purple is the most powerful wavelength in the electromagnetic spectrum and the closest to ultraviolet light. In Western culture, purple symbolizes valor (the Purple Heart) and was adopted to represent gay communities.

Pink’s complicated history of associations

Color theory. View of downtown Minneapolis at sunset with a pink sky from Lake of the Isles. photopigs 2018.
Lake of the Isles, Minneapolis, MN. Pink means delicate, sentimental, romantic and exciting. Photo by Benjamin Pecka.

Although pink is stereotypically associated with women, it used to be associated with baby boys because it is a stronger and more active than blue. The history of cultural of these associations is complicated and no one agrees how their meaning evolved into its modern form. However, pink is considered delicate because it is found in short-lived places like blooms and sunsets.

Neutral tones accent energetic colors

Color theory. A view of a sandy beach with sandcastles adorned with flowers in the middle ground. photopigs 2018.
Point Beach, Cedar Lake, Minneapolis, MN. Brown means organic, wholesome, simple and honest. Photo by Benjamin Pecka.

In nature, brown succeeds green in its presence on the landscape. As such, the warm neutral color commonly associates with wood and earth. Although sometimes considered dull, brown communicates dependability in addition to meaning wholesome and organic.

Color theory. Trees silhouetted against a sunset. photopigs 2018.
Minneapolis, MN. Black means sophistication, formality, luxury, sorrow and mystery. Photo by Benjamin Pecka.

Black contains contrasting meanings because of its association with power and elegance, as well as death and evil. We implemented black to convey danger in our April Fool’s article about cryptozoology. Photography is the art of capturing light and practitioners use black by using backlighting to create silhouettes to create mystery. Black remains the strongest of neutral colors and conveys different meanings when used as an accent or prominently featured. Would you enter the dark black forest at sunset? Probably not.

Color theory. A robin perched on a tree branch with a white background. photopigs 2018.
Minneapolis, MN. White means purity, simplicity, innocence and minimalism. Photo by Benjamin Pecka.

White is the color opposite to black and has a wide application of uses. Wedding dresses, angels and the white lab coats of medical staff use the color to denote purity and cleanliness. White is the popular choice for photographers, artists and graphic designers seeking to use minimalism in their work. The intentionally overexposed background behind the robin makes it  so that it appears white rather than a dull grey.

Nuances to complicated color theory

Learning how to use color is sometimes intimidating and photographers do not always possess control over them. However, knowing the basics of color meaning helps to punctuate what images communicate when the opportunity arises. Futhermore, artists use these ten colors the most but shades in between sometimes communicate different messages.

For instance, amber is a combination of yellow and orange and communicates facets of both colors. photopigs uses it in their logo because it communicates friendliness but also indicates a creative and adventurous nature.

What’s your favorite color and why? Can you identify examples of good color theory practice in your own work? Share them in the comments or head on over to our community!

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