Illuminating Engineering 1967 journal article by Fabier Birren and my observations of colour theory.

I stumbled across this journal in my attempt to find academic material away from the commercialism of colour theory.  Some very interesting quotes and thoughts were contained within this article from 45 years ago.  
“Today the lighting industry is aware that if there is a science of light for biology, then there is also a science of light for well-being” (Birren1969:398).
“Light is a sensitive and essential factor in controlling plant growth……….It affects the the glands of the body…….Yet only lately have differential effects for colour in light (i.e. red, yellow, green and blue) been given special attention” (Birren,1969:398).
He quotes Wurtman “one can count on a single hand the amount of papers which have attempted to examine which proportions of the photic spectrum are biologically active”.
Birren speaks about how colour and light are important for animals breeding in zoos and the success of captive animals when enclosures were redesigned. Also of the elderly who by choice, isolate themselves in nursing homes.  They must have colour stimulation to avoid psychological illness (Birren,1969:399).
…Of colour symbolism itself, he suggests, “that one can only speak of tendencies to symbolism as it is based on many things and, in the same way you can not tell a man he is hungry on production of food, you can’t tell a person a colour  means something to them if it doesn’t”  (Birren,1969:399).
So, based on this reading that is heavily cited, I looked at an up to date colour theory website of colour meanings.  It seems that colour can mean many different things to many different people.  All colours can be positive and negative it seems (
I had an interesting conversation with my husband and discovered that just between us there is a vast difference in perception of colour.  My perceptions are emotional and his are based on entirely different set of criteria.
                         Me                                                              Mr B
Yellow:    Happy, bright, lightness, invigorating.                Cowardice
Purple:      Regal, mysterious, sumptuous.                    Rage
White:     Spiritual, calm.                                                    Fear
Red:       Danger, evil, military                                            Danger
Black:     Evil, death                                                           Black
Green:    Stability                                                               Envy
Blue:      Calm, reassurance, stability                                Royalty, uplifting.
Brown:       …………..We agreed on this one!…………
However, we realise that our perceptions change within context.  A red Sari symbolises union and marriage. Yellow changes to danger and alertness when walking past an electric sub station.
So I have come to the conclusion that if we are aiming to use colour symbolism heavily in our photography, we have to be aware that it will still be wide open to interpretation by the viewer depending on context, culture and nurture.
 A comprehensive list is found on this link.

Wright, A. (2008). Colour Psychology. Available: Last accessed 20/01/2014.


Birren, F. (1969). The Psychological Implication of Colour and Illumination. Illuminating Engineering. unknown (Unknown), 398.

avialable at: . Last accessed 19/01/ 2014

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