Kaleidoscope Eyes: Intro to Color Theory

Kaleidoscope Eyes: Intro to Color Theory

Posted April 16th, 2020 by Amina Harper

The first in a series of articles diving deep into color, thinking critically about their meanings, their emotions, and, in some cases, their cruelties

I love color. I can’t say that I love it more than the average person, but I can tell you that my “superpower” is to see the difference between two seemingly similar hues that have a single degree of temperature between them. I can mix you any pigment you want with a basic description, I can see a color and replicate it without second thought, I can arrange a color story and place colors in descending order from lightest to darkest, warmest to coolest, hottest red to iciest indigo. This is not a hidden talent or a humble brag, I’m just telling you how it is: I have kaleidoscope eyes. 

When asked about my artwork, the first question that comes up is how I select my color palette. And the truth is, I don’t select a color palette but a range of emotions I want the image to evoke; I select the colors based off of that. Because there are as many colors as the world is old, this is quite the task to take on. But in order to make a decision regarding what colors to choose, one has to see a wide variety of colors applied diversely, so that the options are made known. 

Basically, the more color you take in, the more you can produce (or reproduce) when making art. 

I’m always looking at color, not just in my everyday life, but I make it a point to seek out opportunities to absorb everything from jeweled and highly saturated tones, to milky and muted hues. There are monochrome color palettes (where a specific color and its variants are chosen), complimentary color palettes (where two opposing colors and their variants are the core of the palette), and even palettes where you throw all the colors at the canvas to create a beautifully balanced technicolor acid trip that makes you want to taste the fucking rainbow. 

But before you can play around in any of that. You have to know what feelings you want this image to get across; because colors are about feelings.

It’s important to note that colors don’t just make things prettier; they affect our mind and bodies. They make us hungry, turn us on, jog our memories and can even be linked to trauma. If you can control the color palette of an image, you have an incredible amount of power over your audience's reaction to that image. Having a basic understanding of color as a symbol is a great way to start this exploration.

Here are some examples.

Emotional/Psychological: Passion, Romance, Power, Caution, Anger
Social/Cultural: Promiscuity (Lust), Violence, Love, Alarm
Symbols: Fire, Blood, Red Apple, Red Roses, Stop Signs & Stop Lights

Emotional/Psychological: Warmth, Freshness, Youthfulness
Social/Cultural: Fun and Amusement, Vibrancy
Symbols: Sunsets, Fruit, Fire, Fall (Autumn)

Emotional/Psychological: Joy and Happiness, Warmth, Cowardice  
Social/Cultural: Optimism 
Symbols: Sun and Sunshine, Stars, Light, Summertime 

Emotional/Psychological: Envy, Health (Both good and bad health), Safety and Permission
Social/Cultural: Youthful Inexperience 
Symbols: Nature, Springtime, Hope, Life, Money 

Emotional/Psychological: Sadness (Emotions in General), Tranquility, Calm, Healing
Social/Cultural: Intelligence, Wisdom, Sadness, Loyalty, Peace 
Symbols: Water, Sky, Winter, Uniforms 

Emotional/Psychological: Mystery, Spirituality, Cosmic Energy, Magic 
Social/Cultural: Royalty, Wealth, Luxury, Vanity 
Symbols: Outer Space, Flowers 

Emotional/Psychological: Love, Romance, Sexuality, Softness, Sweetness, Cuteness, Playfulness, Tenderness, Compassion, Femininity, Delicacy 
Social/Cultural: Girls, Young Women, Queerness, Gender Identities that are not considered Masculine 
Symbols: Girls, Hearts, Flowers, Sweet Foods

These are framing devices that give context to how color is often used in the world around us. This kind of symbolism makes its way into just about every form of cultural content, from the gold and yellow of wealth and death in The Great Gatsby, to the character color coding in 2018's Black Panther (more on that soon).

Now, you may notice I didn’t mention the colors black and white in this list. And that’s because black and white are associated with binary thought, which is a violent hierarchy in which one of two terms or ideas dominates and oppresses the other in an attempt to destroy the natural fluidity of human identity. This is where the stakes heighten drastically. In western language especially, we tend to define one object via its proximity to and cultural privilege over another. This is a problem because black and white specifically are terms often associated with people, and as we all know that when you privilege one kind of person over another, the consequences are catastrophic.

I will get into the binary and exclusionary language surrounding color and its usage in later installments of this series as it is important to examine these toxic views in order to shed them. Subjects like race, gender, and sexuality will feature prominently and I want you to keep these ideas in mind for later. Once you know what the rules are, you can break them entirely in favor of a new narrative that allows for more nuance and interrogation of larger, more impactful social structures. Hopefully, the tools I present in this series can heal some of the colonial conditioning we’re accustomed to; art is meant to disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed, after all.

For now, this is an introduction to something that will grow larger as we continue. It is the opening of the color rabbit hole that we’re all going down together. But as a reflection of this I want you, dear Reader, to symbol hunt for colors in the creative content you take in. What are the colors around you telling you about the world you live in? What do the colors you gravitate toward say about you?

Until then.


Amina Harper is an artist, writer, and educator based in the Twin Cities. For more info and to see her work, visit her website or follow her on Instagram.

Banner image: Adrien Olichon / Pexels

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