Color Symbolism in Writing

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Advertisers pay a great deal of attention to the colors that go into their marketing materials. There’s even a branch of psychology that studies the way color can affect human behavior.

Marketers use color to sell products—red to stimulate the appetite, pink to appeal to women, green for gardening and farming supplies, and so on.

In the literary realm, color can be used to establish character and embellish a scene.

In Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, our first view of Scarlett O’Hara (her very name conjures up the image of a dangerous woman) emphasizes her green eyes. Because colors can have more than one type of connotation, green in the description of Scarlett has nothing to do with plants. Negative associations with green include envy and deviousness.

The green eyes in the carefully sweet face were turbulent, willful, lusty with life, distinctly at variance with her decorous demeanor.

We’re told that Scarlett’s manners have been instilled in her “by her mother and mammy,” but “her eyes were her own.”

Mitchell makes effective use of color in her description of the northern Georgia landscape, foreshadowing the tumult of war about to erupt into a peaceful rural scene.

It was a savagely red land, blood-colored after rains, brick dust in droughts, the best cotton land in the world. It was a peasant land of white houses, peaceful plowed fields and sluggish yellow rivers …

Here are some of the most frequently used colors and their differing connotations.

Positive: excitement, passion, life
Negative: danger, guilt
Idioms: red light (warning to stop); red flag (a sign of danger); red-handed (in the act); red in the face (embarrassed)

Two shades of red, scarlet and crimson, are associated with sexual promiscuity and sin, because of two biblical references:

Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.”—Isaiah 1:18

The other is from the Book of Revelation, in which a woman “arrayed in purple and scarlet” is identified as “Babylon the Great, the mother of harlots and abominations of the earth.”

Hester Prynne wears a scarlet letter, emblem of sex outside of marriage.

Positive: stability, loyalty, harmony and trust. The sea and sky. Things heavenly.
Negative: depression, coldness
Idioms: true-blue (loyal); the blues (feelings of depression)

Positive: Innocence, purity, goodness, humility
Negative: cowardice, sterility, lack of empathy
Idioms: white flag (symbol of surrender); white feather (symbol of cowardice); lily-livered (cowardly), white knight (brave man who defends the weak); whited sepulchre (innocent on the outside, rotten on the inside)

Positive: power, mystery, elegance
Negative: death, evil
Idioms: black-hearted (having evil intentions); black-tie (elegant attire); black and white (unambiguous); black and blue (bruised)

In early western movies, the good characters wore white hats and the bad ones wore black hats, but in more recent films, loner heroes often wear black. The character Paladin, in Have Gun, Will Travel, wears black. Johnny Cash adopted black attire to symbolize his concern for the disenfranchised. In medieval romance, a black knight is often a villain, but is sometimes a good knight in disguise. In Scott’s novel Ivanhoe, King Richard I disguises himself in black armor.

Positive: Sunny, happy, optimistic
Negative: deceitful, cowardly
Idioms: yellow, yellow-bellied, have a yellow streak down one’s back (cowardly). Yellow journalism (journalism more interested in sensationalism than facts).

Baum’s story of the Wizard of Oz has given us the image of the yellow brick road as a pathway to adventure.

Color affects the mind in subtle ways. Whether describing a character or setting a scene, put color to work to paint surroundings and reveal personality.

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5 thoughts on “Color Symbolism in Writing”

  1. As a commercial and fine artist and photographer as well as writer, I am always visualizing, usually in full color. One of the most interesting things I discovered about color is that individual meanings are also cultural, and one example of that is how they are expressed in mourning around the world. For instance, Western nations influenced by the Roman Empire still tend to wear black to mourn from the dark mourning togas of the Romans, but Eastern nations, especially with a traditional Buddhist or Hindu influence, wear white for mourning to symbolize the purity and rebirth of the spirit. And then there’s yellow used in mourning by the ancient Egyptians and a few cultures in the southern hemisphere today as well as Mexico, possibly from Mayan influence, because it symbolizes the afterlife lit by eternal sunlight. I remember first encountering these differences reading books and thought how strange it was and it must be a mistake, when actually it was a learning opportunity.

  2. Bernadette,
    Thanks for your most interesting and informative comment.
    I have read about the black/white mourning differences, but had never heard of the use of yellow. That is a lovely symbolism.

  3. So interesting! I know that in Russian the color red is often associated with beauty, even the word “krasiviy” (beautiful) itself comes from the word “krasniy” (red). It also sometimes symbolizes honor. So, quite different from the meaning associated with the color red in the west, like passion or danger.

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