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How Color Manipulates the Emotions of Readers and Viewers

Nick Wright worked as a teacher, editor, publisher trainer, SEO specialist, and account manager for numerous websites. His MFA is from CU.

What does the color green make you feel?

What does the color green make you feel?

The Synesthetic Mind and the Senses

How many times have you heard someone say, "Oh, I'm just not creative," or "I'm just too left-brained for that"? Here's the thing: the act of saying, "Oh, I'm not creative." is a creative act. In this case, the person is reinforcing a characterization of him/herself and; thus, creating him/herself in the image of his/her self-deprecation. When we talk about the mind, we often undercut how baffling a human mind is, depreciating the immense complexities of living as a human.

Everyone is a storyteller. When Einstein talked about coming up with E=MC2 he didn't hand the media a chart, he had to tell the story of discovering it. We can't help but describe the world in stories. The stories we tell are always a combination of right and left-brain thinking. We are all creative and we are always using more of our brains than we consciously realize. In fact, our brains are always crossing and tying together interpretations of sensory input. This crossing of sensory input is called synesthesia.

Synesthesia: the production of a sense impression relating to one sense or part of the body by stimulation of another sense or part of the body.

We all interpret more than we realize from our sensory input. Think about how closely related your sense of smell is to your sense of taste. Some people experience synesthesia more than others, but the experience of sense crossing is universal.

Synesthesia, Color, and Sound

When it comes to sound and color, I am abundantly synesthetic. The instant I hear a person's voice, I begin seeing colors or scenes in my mind's eye. It's distracting, but I wouldn't give it up. For example, my girlfriend's voice is the image of redwood bark. I don't know why this is the case, but I see the image in my head every time she talks. Just wondering why I associate her with that image and color is a fun exercise and I've come to see my distracting mind as a blessing. Having an overly synesthetic mind is definitely useful when you're a writer.

I make these associations between color and sound without any conscious control, but that doesn't mean that others don't do the same thing to varying degrees. In fact, good writing depends on making use of peoples' innate synesthetic potential.

For example, notice the way you interpret the severity of each color's meaning in each of these four phrases:

  • The purple knife
  • The red knife
  • The purple sound
  • The red sound

Wait, sounds don't have colors! True, yet we still differentiate between the "purple sound" and the "red sound." Our associations with these colors are, of course, subjective, and yet there are common metaphors assigned to colors that seem to cross-cultural barriers and speak to something kept deep within the unconscious mind. This article will examine a few of them.

The Green Emotion vs. The Red Emotion

To further examine synesthesia, I'm going to break down the symbolic and emotional associations many cultures have with the colors green and red. A great way to better understand why writers choose the colors they choose is to examine a few popular movies.

Green is normally associated with health and well-being. Just think of cliches like "the grass is always greener on the other side." Green reminds us of springtime, of rejuvenation and rebirth.

Consider the difference in these two statements:

  • Watch out for that guy with the green-covered knife!
  • Watch out for that guy with the red-covered knife!

If you're like most people, then you probably stopped and wondered, Hmm, what could have made that knife green? That's silly. I bet the guy's not a murderer... unless he murders spinach smoothies or something. On the other hand, if you're like most people, the red knife instinctively makes you think of blood and you assume that the guy killed someone.

Writers and filmmakers are aware of these assumptions and use them to manipulate the readers' and viewers' emotions. For example, do you remember The Forbidden Forest in the Harry Potter series? There's a reason the forest isn't described as glowing with vibrant hues of green. The forest is awash in grey and darker hues. The trees are gnarled and splintered. There is a perpetual mist that obscures the sun and the horizon seems unreachable. There are specks of red on the roots. A hint of violence is always surrounding those who enter.

Another example of this phenomenon can be seen in the character design of Cruella de Vil in 101 Dalmatians. Her spikey shoulder pads and bright red lips suggest her villainous intentions long before we know for sure what she is up to. Cruella lives and works in monstrous modern buildings with sharp edges and hints of red in objects hiding, scattered around her black and white decor. In contrast, the love scenes and, in general, the happier scenes of the movie are shot in Central Park. The green grass and flowing water suggest peace and relief from the cruelty of the city and the cutthroat nature of Cruella's business practices.

What does this red make you feel?

What does this red make you feel?

These are Ancient Associations

Green and red are, of course, not the only colors that humans have strong associations with, but the above-mentioned interpretations of these colors are older than writing itself. The images mentioned above are not the only metaphoric images associated with these colors; nevertheless, there seems to be something ancient about the power of these colors in storytelling. Maybe we're drawn to color because color proceeded us, and is inseparable from nature. Truthfully, I have no idea, but further consideration of the connections between the physical properties of nature and ancient metaphoric relationships can only make us better writers.


Nicholas Wright (author) from Vancouver, WA on February 20, 2018:

I love his movies so much. I bought a projector at a garage sale the other day. The first thing I did was have a Wes Anderson marathon. Thanks for the comment!

QueyJacqueal from United States on February 15, 2018:

Wes Anderson's use of color in his movies amaze me. It is hard to say what is my favorite, but 'The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou' is in my top 5.