Mixing Art with Science: How does colour affect you?


Have you ever thought about how colour impacts you?

You’re most likely familiar with the idea of colour symbolism (conscious associations and meanings we attach to certain colours), but what about the physiological and psychological affects of colour?

I began thinking about these things recently when I changed up my usual painting methods by experimenting with strongly coloured under-paint.

I’m too new to painting to have established real habits or to have observed genuine patterns in the way such things affect me, but I could’ve sworn I painted more freely on a red surface than I did on blue (not pictured).

Mustard yellow was a kind of neutral state from which to proceed, much like the Burnt Umber wash that I’m most familiar with using.


My curiosity was piqued:

Would painting on different coloured backgrounds affect the mood with which I paint?

Would it affect the way in which I paint?

Can I influence the outcome of a painting just by choosing a particular colour as my base?

Perhaps other, more experienced painters might have thoughts on this matter.

I decided to turn my attention to a couple of other artists whose work I admire and who also use strong colours as a leaping-off point for their paintings.

This is what I learned:

: :

Sara Mullen


…is a Canadian landscape artist who began painting with acrylics, but switched to oil paints about five years ago.

Notably, she covers her canvases with a distinctive layer of Burnt Sienna (rust red), before inking in her drawing and then painting over the top. Sara’s brushstrokes are energetic and her work is beautifully colourful.

Here’s a snap of some under-painting I lifted off of Sara’s Instagram page:  @saraalexmullen

Here’s a snap of some under-painting I lifted off of Sara’s Instagram page: @saraalexmullen

When I asked Sara how she came to use coloured backgrounds like this, she replied that this was a method she was taught to use and is something she’s always done. She adds, “I like it because I can paint more expressively without having to cover the whole canvas. The base layer adds another dimension and tricks the eye to complete the picture while also adding warmth.”

Though she has experimented with other colours of under-paint, she’s happiest using Burnt Sienna. Since a lot of her paint colours are also mixed with Burnt Sienna, it gives the painting more harmony overall.

When asked to consider how using a coloured background affects her mood and painting style, Sara felt that while using a base colour aided her looser, expressive technique with the brush, it didn’t necessarily affect her mood while painting. Understandably, her main concern with colour and its affect on moods lies primarily in the paint colours she chooses to place on top of the canvas to create her landscapes.

: :

Teddi Parker


…is an artist from the USA who has been ‘painting seriously’ since 2012 (though there is nothing ‘serious’ about her colourful, light, bright still life paintings!).

Teddi uses acrylic house paints and always starts with a coating of either pink or orange.

When I asked her about this, she responded that it was an idea she picked up from an art book years ago which has proved useful ever since: “I played with a bunch of different colors, but eventually landed on using bright orange or a bright pink.  They seem to just warm everything up so nicely, and I love leaving little peeps of it poking through to the top layer.”

Hence the option of two colours: “When I'm painting pink things I can use orange, or if I'm painting something with orange in it I can use pink.” They pop better that way.


And here’s some work I pulled from Teddi’s instagram page: @teddiparkerart

As for the psychology of using colour this way, Teddi admits that at the very least the orange and pink of her under-painting make the canvas less intimidating to start work on. Though she’s hardly aware of the surface colour while she paints, she considers that having so much pink and orange around her studio probably goes some way to warming up her mood!

For these artists at least, colour is certainly used very deliberately to achieve desired end results (no surprises there). What’s happening behind the scenes on a brain-level during the painting process is trickier to pin down.

Which leads back to my original question: Is there a brain-thing going on with colour? Or does the way we respond to different colours simply come from conditioning or learned associations?

It was time to nerd-up and get swotting.

Not surprisingly, there is a lot of information out there in cyber-land that deals with colour association. Stuff like this:

This is the kind of information that interior decorators and graphic designers and marketing gurus use when looking to influence user-experience and consumer decision-making.

But where have these ideas about colour come from? And what level of research has been done to confirm any of them?

Frankly, not as much as I’d have hoped. Though, special mention should go to Angela Wright from colouraffects.co.uk (3) who has dedicated a lifetime to studying and categorising colour and researching the psychology behind it. Her website outlines how she came to systemise and match colour groupings with personality types – which was very interesting, but still left me wondering if there was more to colour choice than intuition and people’s subjective answers within surveys.

Finally, I stumbled upon an article about brain function and light across the colour spectrum.

From here on in, things began to get pointier. It also confirmed that my choice to go into the arts, rather than the sciences was a sensible one (Poof! - There goes another handful of burnt-out brain-cells.)

From my humble gleanings, it turns out that certain colours do actually provoke a physical response in the body. Red, for instance quickens the pulse. Blue, meanwhile, lowers the heart rate (5).

Confirming this, a study (6) conducted on 24 students placed in different coloured environments found they scored significantly higher in learning performance when placed in vividly coloured red and yellow conditions, but the colour blue had the most significant calming and relaxing effect on the students who took part.

Colour intensity also played a role: The paler a colour, the more calming it was perceived to feel – though ultimately, the general effects on performance and heart rate remained the same for different colours, regardless of how pale they were.

So it would seem there really is an explanation behind my limited experiences of using coloured under painting.

I’ve only scratched the surface of this topic, but it has certainly coloured my view on some things. (Ha!)

While I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’ll be avoiding blue – lest I faint from low blood pressure at my easel – I do think I’ll favour warmer colours with future under-painting. So keep an eye out for some heady reds, yellows and oranges people!

Enough about me: What about you? What experiences have you encountered with colour and does any of this Nobel-prize worthy research confirm it?!


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