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How is color used for symbolism?

How is color used for symbolism?

Color is a powerful communication tool and can be used to represent ideas, emotions, and associations. Writers, advertisers, filmmakers, and other creative professionals use color symbolism to help convey messages and evoke particular moods. Understanding how color symbolism works can help us more thoughtfully interpret the media and art we encounter.

What gives color meaning?

Color symbolism arises from a variety of factors. Some color meanings are deeply rooted in cultural histories, stories, and legends. For example, red is often associated with love, danger, and excitement. This may stem from the use of red in ancient rituals, the vivid color of blood, and the red of a blushing face. Other color meanings are more arbitrary and can vary widely between cultures. Marketers have also played a big role in establishing color meanings, carefully selecting hues to evoke desired consumer reactions.

While there are general associations for what different colors represent, context also modifies meaning. A bright yellow lab coat signals a scientific setting, while a yellow caution sign indicates warning. And personal experiences can shape how we each relate to different hues. So color symbolism is not absolute, though there are many common associations.

Common color meanings

Here are some generally accepted associations for common colors:


  • Love, passion, danger
  • Excitement, intensity, speed
  • Heat, fire, blood
  • Anger, aggression, lust


  • Energy, balance
  • Fun, youthful spirit
  • Warmth, vibrancy
  • Autumn, harvest


  • Joy, happiness, positivity
  • Intellect, freshness, clarity
  • Caution, warning
  • Decay, sickness, cowardice


  • Nature, growth, health
  • Harmony, renewal, balance
  • Wealth, stability, endurance
  • Inexperience, envy


  • Peace, calm, serenity, tranquility
  • Loyalty, trust, wisdom
  • Sadness, depression
  • Cleanliness, technology, coldness


  • Royalty, luxury, ambition
  • Mystery, spirituality, imagination
  • Creativity, independence
  • Magic, fantasy


  • Femininity, sweetness, romance
  • Self-love, nurturing
  • Immaturity, childishness


  • Earthiness, stability, simplicity
  • Rustic, vintage
  • Poverty, lack of excitement


  • Power, sophistication, mystery
  • Emptiness, unknown, evil
  • Sadness, death, mourning
  • Rebellion, edginess


  • Purity, innocence, cleanliness
  • Simplicity, minimalism
  • Peace, surrender
  • Sterility, coldness

Using color symbolism

Writers and other creators can use color symbolism to deepen meaning in their work. Some techniques include:

  • Associating a specific color with an idea, emotion, or character
  • Using colors that contrast to accentuate differences between characters or ideas
  • Selecting colors that align with a particular cultural meaning or story
  • Evoking emotions or themes through strategic color choices
  • Juxtaposing colors in unexpected ways to challenge assumptions

Color choices don’t have to align with common associations. Creators may intentionally subvert expectations to provoke new reactions. But most color symbolism works by tapping into widely shared perceptions of what different hues represent.

Examples of color symbolism

Here are some examples of how writers, filmmakers, and other artists strategically use color for symbolic purpose:

The Green Mile

The film The Green Mile is set in a 1930s Louisiana prison. The title references the dark green linoleum flooring of the prison’s death row corridor. Green is often connected to notions of growth, harmony, and nature. But in this grim setting, the sickly green hue evokes decay, inhumanity, and hopelessness. The color underscores the cold brutality of the execution procedures.

The Wizard of Oz

In The Wizard of Oz film, different colors accentuate contrasts between settings. Kansas is filmed in black and white, portraying Dorothy’s mundane life there as drab and colorless. When she reaches the magical land of Oz, she enters a brightly colored world to represent wonder and adventure. Specific hues also symbolize characters, like the ruby slippers, Emerald City, and Yellow Brick Road.

The Scarlet Letter

In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne is forced to wear a scarlet “A” after committing adultery. Red is associated with sin, lust, and public shaming. But it also relates to passion and Hester’s fiery independent spirit. The scarlet letter brands her as an outcast but also reveals her strength of character.

Breaking Bad

In the TV show Breaking Bad, characters wear different colors of clothing to represent their story arcs. White symbolizes Walter’s “Mr. Clean” image at the start of the series. But as he descends into moral decay, he begins wearing darker shades. The color green is linked to greed and drug money. Pinks appears in Jesse’s wardrobe as he becomes more nurturing and caring.

Using color with purpose

Color is a versatile tool for adding symbolism, underscoring themes, and evoking particular emotions. By thoughtfully planning color palettes, creators can use this visual element to communicate ideas and shape experiences. And audiences can gain greater appreciation for an artist’s work by noticing their strategic color choices.

So next time you encounter vibrant hues in a book, movie, or other art, consider what meaning may lie behind the colors. With practice, we can all become more adept at interpreting the subtle language of color.