Color Symbolism in Art Therapy

Color wheel by Goethe in 1809.

Understanding the symbolism of colors can be an important component of art therapy.  Colors can communicate meaning just as importantly as images and words.  As an artist, one can select different colors in order to convey a particular message or trigger a certain feeling in the viewer.  As an art therapist, it is important for one to be aware of the possible meanings and symbolism of different colors that clients may use in their art.  At times, clients will consciously choose a color to use and have a specific meaning.  Other times, color may be chosen unconsciously but still play an important role.  If the client does not know why they chose a color, the therapist can ask if the color makes them think of anything or how the color makes them feel.  Although the therapist should consider the common meanings--blue for sadness, red for anger, black for depression or grief--there may be many other factors at play for an individual.  Everyone brings their own culture and personal experiences to each piece of art that they make, so it is important to have a conversation with the client to understand their own reasons for choosing different colors.  Some things to keep in mind in looking at the symbolism of colors are archetypal or common meanings, cultural meanings, and personal experiences.

Archetypal meanings: Some colors have more universal meanings as they are reflective of things that all people see.  For example, blue is generally a calming color as it brings to mind the openness of sky and water.  Green symbolizes fertility and growth to people of most cultures as it reflects nature and growing plants.  Purple is considered the color of royalty and spirituality in part because it is so rare in nature.

Cultural meanings: Colors also take on different meanings based on the culture.  In America, green often symbolizes prosperity and money, but in other cultures blue, purple, or gold may be more commonly considered the colors of wealth.  People often have associations to colors based on the holidays that they celebrate, such as red and green for Christmas, orange for Halloween, or red for Chinese New Year.  In some cultures the color of death is black, but in others white is the color for mourning.  To explore more about the symbolism of colors in different cultures, take a look at this infographic: Colours in Cultures.

Personal meanings: Each person has personal experiences and memories that are tied to colors.  Colors may represent things that we care about--our high school or university's color or our favorite sports team.  Colors may remind us of past events or places--the colors of a childhood bedroom or the colors used at a wedding.  Or we may chose colors based on personal preferences.  For example, when someone's favorite color is blue, choosing blue paper for a collage background would not mean that they are sad.

When considering a client's color choices in art therapy, it is important to take all of these factors in to consideration.  The therapist may hypothesize about what a color means, but it is always important to have a dialogue with the client about the colors to most fully understand their meaning.

If you would like to learn more about the particular symbolism of different colors, here are some helpful resources.  The Art Therapy Blog provides great color charts that show different meanings associated with colors.  I love these charts because they highlight the great variety of meanings that can be linked to each color.  Take a look here: Color Meanings and Symbolism Chart.  The website for Color Matters also offers explorations of the meanings of different colors.  For a historical perspective, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was one of the first to propose a psychology of color, exploring how colors impact our moods and emotions, in his book Theory of Colours in 1810.

Carolyn Mehlomakulu, LMFT, ATR is a psychotherapist in Austin, Texas who works with children, adolescents, and families.  For more information about individual therapy, child counseling, family therapy, and art therapy services, please visit 

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