Color or Color
(The Psychology of Color)
by Walter Graff

Look at the title of this article. Do you like the color of one word more than the other? Looking at each by itself, think of what word comes into your mind when you ‘feel’ the color and what it means to you. One color might subtly make you feel mad - the other calm. There are many ways that color affect how you feel and what you think. You’ve just touched on color psychology.

Every now and then I include a bit about color perception in my lectures. My last lecture proved that folks really want to better understand the psychology of color. So I am going to touch on it here so you'll see that color has an incredible influence on your viewer and your story.

I don't take color for granted as I studied color psychology in school and use it all the time when selling products or in how I want someone’s message to come across on TV. And here's a secret; sometimes I can even subconsciously make you like or dislike a person more as a result. In actuality you might only dislike THEM and never realize that it might be due to what I did that gave you an impression and not simply because of who they are.

Color has an incredible effect on your mood, your perception, and your likes and dislikes. It’s programmed into you, and you really have little to say about it. Your reptilian brain is the part of you that is programmed to survive. It’s what makes you instinctively know that fire is bad, that red is danger, and that green is comforting. Humans developed over millions of years and color is a big part of our perception. It’s why orange is often used to make products that are high priced look more inviting because psychologically it makes them seem more affordable. It’s why red is the most prominent color in fast food logos –red stimulates appetite and express the speed at which you will be served your meal (the real fast in fast food). And it’s why you will have trouble eating food that is blue, or should I say why so few foods sold are blue in color. And even then, it's odd. What food is blue?

The other day I was in the chip isle of a supermarket and saw those blue colored corn tortilla chips. There is something unappetizing about them but I can't tell you what. My reptilian brain knows though. BLue is not a predominant food color and hasn't been fomr millions of years. A few things are. Blueberries are blue but how about some blue mashed potatoes with blue meatloaf and blue gravy? Think about blue mashed potatoes. Does that sound like something you want to eat? See what I mean? Ever notice that appetite suppressant pills are normally blue. It is deliberate for sure. But... and here is the but... color is complex. For every color that has an effect one-way, it also has an effect another way. I told you blue food is not appetizing - but food served on blue plates is more appetizing in fact than food served on white plates. And not only food, but drink. In one study participants drank less from a red-labeled cup than from a blue-labeled cup and ate less snack food from a red plate than from a blue or white plate. So color has incredible influence on you and it is a complex process. One great example of how color influences you to buy was a large study of low-fat cheese and color. Among low-fat cheeses, color was shown to be important with consumer liking being negatively influenced when the cheese appearance was too translucent or too white. So when you look at that cheese next time, know that it's color might not be natural as much as it might be simply what most people think the cheese color should look based on consumer testing.


Corporations spend millions of dollars testing colors on consumers every day. Why? Because they know color has a huge effect on how you perceive their products.

And color also has an effect on how you perceive people. Hence, color is invaluable to making pictures that get your message across. Ever notice that luxury cars in commercials are dark gray or black? The reason is because we know from studies that black and near black are associated with affluence, so when you see the Lexus in the commercial they don’t even have to use the word affluence in the script, rather they simply have to show the car and they get you to think it is affluent.

Take a look at the photo below:



I took this picture above while staying in Century City, CA. It's the driveway of CAA. Creative Artists Agency is the world’s leading entertainment and sports agency, representing many of the most successful professionals working in film, television, music, video games, theatre, fashion, and the Internet, and provides a range of strategic marketing and consulting services to corporate clients. Notice anything about the cars? Or should I say notice anything different about any of the cars? People who work in a glamorous industry love to look affluent and the driveway reflects that. I notice lots of black and gray and white cars too because as you'll learn white is also a reflection of affluence in it's meaning. That's why most all car commercials portraying a luxury car only show black, gray or white cars.

You’ve heard the term “A picture’s worth a thousand words”? Well 99% of those words meaning is in the color of that picture, and not the words.

I’ll give you an example. Say I am casting a part of rich villainous women. I'm thinking of a women who gets her way. She is mean to her underlings and rules with a sharp mouth. Here are the options;

#1 I am going to dress her in a blue suit for the part. It’s one of those old style suits women wore in the fifties. If you don’t get what I mean think the tube-ish looking skirt with the tight fit, matching jacket. It’s kind of like what I remember Louis Lane wearing in the old Superman TV series of the fifties.

#2 I am going to dress her in a red suit for the part. Think of the same Louis Lane shape but in a blue tone.

So the options are a blue outfit or a red outfit. Which color seems more like it would represent the mean, nasty despicable, disagreeable female role? Most of you at first said red. Why? In color psychology red creates a feeling of aggravation. Yes, red clothing is uplifting and conveys power and energy but it also causes your mind to think of confrontation. Blue on the other hand portrays solitude, wisdom, loyalty, trust, security, and order so it doesn’t fit the role of this woman everyone hates. Some of you might have heard authority in what I described and as a result may have picked blue. Even better, what if I portrayed the character as a despicable, disagreeable female throughout and in the end I dressed her in blue for a pivotal moment where her bitchiness shines? By portraying her as a ruthless character while dressing her in blue, I have made her seem even nastier as she is the antithesis what blue represents... wisdom, loyalty, trust and security. The phrase a wolf in sheep's clothing comes to mind. Modern day nasty woman in movies also wear white. White? White is cold, bland, and sterile. What better way to portray the ’Queen’ than to dress her in white. She sounds like a nasty person just thinking of it. So using color can get complicated and hit your sub-conscious like you never knew. Another example of how white works... Rooms painted all-white can seem spacious, but at the same time empty and unfriendly. Why do you think hospitals and hospital workers wear white. It creates a sense of sterility and pureness. Sometimes you'll see hospital scrubs in green. Green creates calm and trust. Both work well. Hey, one more secret about red. Studies show that a woman with red clothes increases attraction behavior in men. So if you wonder why you as a male are so interested in a girl in a red shirt, you know why.

The point is that colors in your film or video from what colors folks wear to what colors you use on the walls have a tremendous effect on credibility, like-ability and, how well you message is received. Did you know that you’ll remember things you wrote down better when they were written in blue ink? So how might blue work for you when shooting? Say I wanted to give-off the message of trust, and reliability. If I wanted to ease the American people about my stance on the country as a president and try to non-verbally say that you can count on me how might blue help?


Take a look at the two photos below:

Of course the photos above are not exactly the same, but if I ask you which president you trust more, (minus any political views you might have) odds are good you’ll pick the president in the blue tie. In fact the president wears cloths and especially certain color cloths depending on the event. Why? Because the folks that dress him know how important color is. So when it’s a tribute, he has on primarily blue accents for strength and leadership. When it’s a meeting with the EU, where he wants to get his message across, and demonstrate the power of the US, it’s red for power and aggression (photo #1 below).



And when the president needs the countries support, or wants to show strength but compassion, you'll see blue tones in how he dresses because blue is a color of stability and loyalty. Fashion consultants often recommend wearing blue to job interviews because it symbolizes loyalty. As I stated, the color blue has a calming effect. It actually causes the brain to release calming hormones. Which feels better a cloudy day or a nice sunny day with a bright blue sky.(photo #2 below)

Photo #2

In a situation where the president is going as an in-between, for instance, to Israel for meetings with Palestine and Israel, its brown he highlights so that he comes off as everyone’s friend because brown is a none threatening color. (see photo #3 Below)

Photo #3


You should get three distinct feelings from the three pictures above and the colors people wear would be one of the reasons you conclude what you do about how you feel.



What happens when you put two world leaders together who want to express their leadership, trust, and compassion. Both the British Prime Minister and the US President wear nearly the same tie in the photo above, let alone the same color tie. Oh, and don't mind the same suit either. Notice how it sort of makes it hard to differentiate the feeling you might have of one from the other as if the blue uniforms represent two people on the same team.

Strength and conviction


Here is the US president trying to sell his strengths on energy solutions to the US public. A blue tie would show he is not about being strong. Red shows he is serious and a fighter. Now look at the first photo above then look at the same person below. Feel anything different?

Trust and empathy


Here is something to try. Go to Google pictures and type in the word OBAMA and notice how he wears ties representative of what feeling he is portraying at each event. You will NOT find him in a red tie in an official portrait. No, he has sold himself as a healer to the country and healers show grays and blues. Grey represents timeless, practical, and solid. Blue represents trustworthy, dependable and committed. Look at all the photos in that Google search and notice how when his colors change, your sense of what emotion he represents changes. And I'm just talking about ties. Blue jackets, gray jackets, etc. all add to emotional feeling and are important in how you perceive a person. Here's a fun experiment – on Google pictures try searching the term - official presidential portraits. Then look at each president and think about what his administration represented in history, then notice how his tie reflects his term.

Why does color have such an influence? It all started when we were less developed animals and we used color to survive. That is still burned into our lower brain and while we like t go telling the world that humans are not animals, much of what you do is still based on very rudimentary senses and brain activity. We don't need color as much to survive today, but it still has a great deal of effect on you. When you look at a beautiful flower you see bright colors. A bee sees ultraviolet light from that flower (something we cannot see). It is partially that spectrum of light that tells the bee that food is in that flower. A bee can also detect an electric field around a flower, but that is for another article. When we were more like bees, we knew that reds and oranges meant food. We knew that green meant safety (we lived under tree canopies). And we ignored blue because only the sky was blue so it didn't represent food, only that we would not get wet and that made us feel good. At a lecture once, a participant told me of his newborn son and how he was having an issue. He said that his son was crying much more recently and he wanted to know if there was anything he could do with color. I asked him if the child had always cried like this and he said, no. The strange part was this was a newly developed issue. I asked had anything changed. He thought for a moment and then said yes, he had just refinished his room. I asked him what color was the room. He said yellow. I told him to get his kid out of the sun. He looked perplexed. Yellow is a color children avoid because it is like sunlight to the reptilian mind and that is bad. So infants cry to tell the parents that they need to be put in the shade. I suggested he try painting the room green. Green is safety and security (think of that green canopy of trees we lived under). A few months later I followed up him. He tried my suggestion. He said his son never cried again once he had painted the room green. Lesson learned.

Many times colors can backfire on you. Problem with color is that we know from studies that not only do people in different cultures prefer some colors over other but that genders have preferences too. For instance Middle Eastern men are not fond of green yet it is a favorite color of western men. French males in particular despise green. Overall woman are not fans of the color orange. This might be a reason why the home improvement chain called the Home Depot may be having trouble getting women in their store. Lowes, their competitor has a much higher percentage of women visiting their stores. Lowes color schemes are blue and white... you'll get a woman to trust you more if she sees blue.

In fact, if you are single and want a woman to be attracted to you, wear blue. It has an affect on her mind related to honesty and trust in a man. And if a woman wants to submit to a man (in his reptilian mind), she will find that wearing black portrays that to the male. A recent study of top three colors of males found Blue, Green and Black to be best. While the least favorite male colors are Brown, and Purple. Add more complexity, preferences for the color green decrease with age in both males and females. And among the least favorite colors of both genders, distaste for brown and purple decreases with age while the dislike of orange increases with age. So knowing about the good and bad about color is complex but important for what you sell, who you sell it to, and how you sell it. Would you more want to visit a fruit and vegetable stand that is painted orange or one that is painted green?

Here is an interesting color tidbit that goes back to my female character wearing red. Woman will tend to unconsciously wear reds when they are ovulating according to research at the University of Rochester. This could be good news for those trying to conceive, and a warning for a kid out on the town looking to meet a girl. It seems that overall, in social settings women wear red in order to appear more attractive to men, with the majority of cases taking place during ovulation. Some scientists say it has something to do with a flushing of the face following sex. It seems that the reptillian brains of men awaken when confronted with some deep primal force, in this case, the color red.

So how does all this fit in with you and what you do as a filmmaker? Let me show you some examples and then give you some of the science on colors and leave you at that for now. First. Let’s look at these two photos:


At first you might say the upper picture (all blue) is more pleasing, but look again and you should start to realize that it’s like a head in a field of blue. I’d rather have some color contrast, so I’d probably what to use a warmer color for a backgrounds than a cool tone like her shirt. What I’m getting at is that there is more to lighting than setting up a few instruments to look good. Color and how you use it from the background to what the talent wears is important.

In some cases, you have no control over what your talent wears. In that case you still have plenty of control over the background and how that appears, so understanding how color contrast works and how color creates an emotional mood is useful.

I often use color to create subliminal moods in a scene. And sometimes I just use color to help create a better look. Let’s look at two more examples:


Ask me which of the shots above I like more and I’ll say, it depends. It’s about what feeling I want to portray. Both backgrounds work for me, but the blue background makes her more trusting than the orange background which might be better if I want the information she says to be more believable.  How?

It’s all about color. And color has a very definable effect on us. It’s one of the reasons why most fast food colors are orange and red and why the color yellow makes babies cry. We know through many scientific tests that red causes us to feel hungry and we know that yellow makes babies think they are in the sunlight so thy cry to tell their moms that they don’t like it.

All colors have two effects on us. In many ways colors have bipolar effects. Red symbolizes passion, love, warmth, power, and excitement –all positive traits.  But it also symbolizes aggression. In studies red elevates blood pressure and respiratory rates. It stimulates hunger as I mentioned. We know that it also has the effect of stimulating people to make quick decisions and increase expectations. That’s one of the reasons why it’s a favorite color scheme in casinos. It’s an attention grabber. Words and objects in red get peoples attention immediately. When it comes to cars, there is a positive correlation between the color red and theft rate. So as you can see there is so much more to red than it just being red. Understanding more about how to use it in television and help you to create a mood or feeling, sometimes subconsciously. Oh yeah, if you write words in blue ink odds are good you'll more easily remember what you wrote.

In the previous pictures I talked about blue and the warm orange and how it might affect my audience. Let me explain more.

First the bipolarness of blue. Every color is bipolar meaning it has both a positive and a negative effect, depending on how you use it. On one end blue represents solitude, sadness, and depression. On the other end, wisdom, trust and loyalty. So wearing blue to job interviews could help you because it shows dedication and loyalty. And it might be a good color for a talent to wear if you want his words to convey that feeling too.

 The trust factor I mentioned in the earlier photos has to do with how blue relaxes our nervous system. As I mentioned, your brain actually releases calming hormones when you are exposed to blue. It has a sobering effect on the mind and can cause people to be more contemplative. So blue is for when you need your audience to feel good about what you are saying and you want them to feel like they can trust you.

Brown, or what I see in that dark orange background in the earlier photo represents earth. Earth tones are about reliability. It’s similar to blue but more about neutrality credibility, solidity, strength and maturity. Where might I use brown as a background? A perfect place is with a tape I’m making showing sales people telling me why the company they work for is great. I might use a brown cloth background for such. Doing so creates a sense of solidarity amongst the speakers. It makes what they say credible. And I would use blue for a CEO that was telling his staff that while times have been tough, he has a plan that will help everyone feel safer about their jobs and about the future of the company. I could use brown also for the warmth factor, but I find that blue leans more towards authority and trust and brown is more of color that represents unity amongst head-shots better. Did you ever wonder why most police forces developed wearing blue uniforms? What was it I said about authority? And why do police assault teams wear black? Is it because of its slimming quality? Or that black is the color of authority and power, stability and strength? I'd say all. Nothing more menacing than a fit looking team all dressed in black. Just the color alone will automatically make your brain want to give up.

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