Color quite literally colors the way we view our world. Here’s an in-depth look at what various colors symbolize in cultures around the world.
If you’ve ever had the blues or been so angry you saw red, then you’re familiar with the powerful ways in which color can describe intangible ideas and emotions. In art and anthropology, color symbolism refers to color’s ability to signify meaning to a viewer. While there are some universal associations people have with different colors, their meanings differ from culture to culture.
There are a range of cultural influences that affect one’s view of a specific color, like political and historical associations (flag colors, political parties), mythological and religious associations (references to color in spiritual texts), and linguistic associations (idioms and expressions).
Let’s look at some of the most common symbolism in popular colors, then explore them in full.
Common Color Symbolism
Color symbolism is prevalent because color is important. It’s a crucial form of communication for human beings. We use it to represent ideas, feelings, and emotions. We also process a lot of information through what we see. Our eyes absorb what’s before us and send signals to our brain to interpret.
The amount (and variety of) symbolism in colors is truly endless. However, here are a few shared interpretations.
The Color of Life
Red. No matter one’s race, religion, or personal beliefs, we are all united by the same life force, the blood that flows through the red rivers of our veins.
Red is a universal color of life. Beyond blood, it represents physical energy and humans’ will to exist. It’s evident in all facets of what makes life . . . life.
The Color of Love
Red or pink. A visually hot color, red represents passionate, sexual love. Or, the exact opposite—jealousy, anger, and revenge.
The Color of Happiness
Yellow. The return of a yellow sun and the subsequent bloom of spring flowers is enough to make most people smile after a long winter. This is one of the reasons for yellow’s connection to happiness. It’s a bright, youthful color, radiating warmth and joy.
The Color of Hope
Yellow or green. In Canada, families display yellow ribbons on the walls of their home to keep hope alive for loved ones at war.
The United States and Europe associate green with hope due to its relationship with springtime and a sense of flourishing. Think growth, nature, rebirth—these are all connected to the color green.
The Color of Peace
Blue. It’s cool and calming, and often associated with the sea and sky. Blue instills a sense of inner stability.
The Color of Jealousy
Green. Back in 1603, William Shakespeare referred to jealousy as a “green-eyed monster” in his tragic play Othello. These days, the idiomatic phrase “green with envy” is common in the West.
The Color of Death
Black. Always an interesting color because of its inherent antagonism. Black symbolizes death and mourning. Interestingly enough, it’s also a sleek and elegant choice in design, especially minimalistic ones.
- Crimson: Strong, bright, and deep, generally combined with blue or violet.
- Maroon: Dark brownish-red, its name comes from the French word marron (chestnut).
- Vermilion: A brilliant red or scarlet pigment, originally made from the powdered mineral cinnabar.
Most dictionaries refer to fire or blood in order to define “red.” It’s a versatile color that holds both positive and negative connotations.
Red is visually arresting. So, countries around the world use it to signify stop in traffic lights and stop signs.
In Western cultures, red symbolizes excitement, passion, love, and danger. Red is powerful and sexy. The Lady in Red (an old television and film trope centered around a woman who is irresistible but not to be trusted) wears red.
In China, red represents happiness, good fortune, luck, and prosperity. Since it’s such an auspicious color, people traditionally wear it for big celebrations, such as the New Year. At weddings, the bride wears red. During holidays and other special occasions, monetary gifts are given in red envelopes.
In East Asian stock markets, red signifies a rise in stock prices, whereas it signifies a fall in North American markets.
The Japanese flag is a white rectangle with a central crimson-red disc.
Red carries a handful of negative associations in the West—“caught red-handed” (caught in the middle of a wrongdoing) and “red flag” (referring to a warning sign).
Meanwhile, South Africa associates red with mourning. The red section of the country’s flag represents the bloodshed—both in terms of violence and sacrifice—that occurred during the country’s struggle for independence.
- Coral: Vivid reddish-orange, like the sea coral.
- Peach: Orange lightened to a pale yellow, similar in hue to the fruit of its name.
- Salmon: Pinkish-orange, named after the color of salmon flesh.
Orange is the easiest color to see in dim light. It’s no surprise that life rafts, life jackets, and buoys come in the “safety orange” shade. In the United States, “Detour” signs and the vests of highway workers are orange in order to ensure visibility.
The West has much more color symbolism for orange. It brings autumn and harvest to mind. When paired with black, orange represents Halloween, a time when the veil between worlds is supposedly thin. Some suggest orange and black were chosen for their opposing associations—orange being the warmth of life and black the darkness of death.
Western culture also associates orange with frivolity and amusement. Clowns wear orange wigs. Mythological paintings depict Bacchus—the god of wine-making, fertility, ritual madness, and religious ecstasy—in orange robes.
In Southeast Asia (namely Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Myanmar), Buddhist monks of the Theravada tradition wear saffron-colored robes. Monks chose this hue centuries ago mainly due to the dye available at the time, but the tradition has continued into the present. These countries associate what is sacred and holy with the color orange.
There’s a phenomenon in the Netherlands called Oranjegekte (orange craze) that occurs during major sporting events, the F1 Grand Prix, and an annual holiday that celebrates the king’s birthday. When the orange craze takes over the Dutch, they wear orange clothing and decorate their cars, houses, shops, and streets in orange. This started as a way to celebrate the Dutch royal family—the House of Orange-Nassau.
- Canary: Bright yellow, resembles the plumage of a canary bird.
- Gold: Vivid yellow, sometimes metallic in color, associated with wealth.
- Lemon Chiffon: Very light yellow, like that of a lemon-chiffon pie.
Need to grab a viewer’s attention? Yellow is the most visible color on the spectrum and the first color the human eye notices. The yellow ochre pigment dates back thousands of years and was one of the first colors in human artwork.
For example, the Lascaux Cave in France has a 17,000-year-old painting of a yellow horse.
In the United States, Canada, and Europe, surveys find that people associate yellow with gentleness and spontaneity, but also with greed and duplicity.
People in the United States also associate it with cowardice. Some believe the phrase “yellow-bellied”—a term for those who are cowardly—may have originated from chickens (“Don’t be a chicken”) and the rich yellow of their egg yolk.
In China, yellow has strong historical and cultural associations. The first emperor was called the Yellow Emperor. When the Song Dynasty ended in 1279, the emperor was the only person allowed to wear bright yellow. Yellow carpet also welcomed and honored distinguished visitors to China.
In current Chinese pop culture, however, a “yellow movie” refers to films that are adult in nature.
Yellow is a sacred color in Polynesia, considered to be the color of divine essence. In local languages, yellow shares its name with the curcuma longa plant, which is thought to be the food of the gods.
Yellow and gold are interchangeable in Christian lore. The color(s) symbolize faith and the divine glory, and golden halos adorn saints in religious paintings.
- Forest Green: Vivid yellowish-green, resembles trees and plants in a forest.
- Lime: Vivid yellow-green, named after the citrus fruit.
- Olive: A dark, earthy, subdued shade.
Surveys show that green is commonly associated with nature, spring, and good health in North and South America, Europe, and Islamic countries.
Conversely, the United States and European Union sometimes associate it with poor health. The saying “green around the gills” refers to someone who appears sick. Although the origin of the phrase is lost, it’s likely due to the discoloration of one’s skin when they are nauseated.
Green means go. Traffic lights turn green when cars should pass. Hollywood “greenlights” projects for production. We also see this in the United States immigration process. A “green card” is what immigrants receive when they have permission to permanently stay in the country.
Ireland is synonymous with green. It’s called the Emerald Isle because of its abundantly green countryside (a product of heavy rainfall). American country singer Johnny Cash even has a song about the lush landscapes of Ireland entitled “Forty Shades of Green.”
Green symbolized magical beings in Irish and English folklore. For example, the Irish leprechaun wears a green suit. Legend has it that leprechauns pinch those who aren’t wearing green on St. Patrick’s Day, an Irish holiday that celebrates their foremost patron saint.
Green is the traditional color of Islam, and is associated with paradise in the Qur’an. This holy text states that the people of paradise wear green and sit upon green cushions. Green is also said to be the favorite color of the Prophet Muhammad and the color in which he was buried.
- Cerulean: A range of colors that includes teal, sky-blue, azure, and deep cyan. The name comes from the Latin word caeruleum, which means “sky” or “heavens.”
- Indigo: Deep rich blue, close to the blue shade on the color wheel, named after the ancient dye.
- Periwinkle: Light purplish-blue, named after the flower.
While most colors conjure tangibles (a red rose, orange fruit, yellow lemon, or green grass), blue brings to mind the sea and sky, and the dreamy space where the two meet.
Blue transcends cultural boundaries. Its most prominent color symbolism is calmness. It soothes us the way sitting in the sand to watch gentle waves wash ashore soothes us. This is also the reason most airplane interiors are blue, to comfort anxious flyers.
Perhaps it’s also the reason why the United Nations (an intergovernmental organization that aims to maintain international peace) chose light blue as the color of its flag.
Blue has significant religious meanings around the world. Ancient Egypt associated blue with divinity and the sky. Amun, the chief deity of the Egyptian Empire (also known as King of Gods), would turn his skin blue in order to fly (invisibly) across the sky.
Meanwhile, in Hinduism, gods such as Vishnu, Krishna, and Shiva, are all depicted as having blue skin. When it comes to 12th century Catholicism, the Roman Catholic Church insisted that painters color the Virgin Mary with the new, most expensive pigment imported from Asia—ultramarine. The color thus became associated with holiness and virtue.
The Nazar, or Evil Eye, is a blue glass bead. It traces back to ancient Egypt and the god Osiris. His followers believed Osiris’s eye had protective powers. Now, people wear the Nazar as a protective talisman. Turkey, Greece, Pakistan, Iran, and other countries believe it wards off evil and brings good luck.
- Lavender: Pale, light bluish-purple, often associated with softness and femininity.
- Mauve: Pale purple containing gray and blue, named after the mallow flower.
- Plum: Dark brownish or reddish-purple, named after the fruit.
Europe and the United States most often associate purple symbolism with magic and mystery, royalty, and religious faith. Purple fabric used to be extremely expensive to produce. Europe and the United States most often associate purple symbolism with magic and mystery, royalty, and religious faith. Purple fabric used to be extremely expensive to produce. Just one gram of Tyrian purple needed nine thousand small mollusks to produce. Today, purple still symbolizes wealth.
The hue took its name from the Phoenician trading city of Tyre where it was first manufactured, and the only city in the world where it existed. The color was soon linked with the imperial classes of Rome, Egypt, and Persia, as only the rich and powerful could afford it. Because these ancient rulers were often thought of as gods, purple symbolism became synonymous with holiness.
Blending the primary colors of red and blue produces purple. So, the color evokes a sense of ambiguity, or the quality of being open to more than one interpretation. The color is also often linked to bisexuality, due in large part to the bisexual pride flag which combines pink (representative of homosexuality) and blue (suggestive of heterosexuality).
The United States views a state equally balanced between Republicans (associated with red) and Democrats (associated with blue) as a “purple state.”
In many cultures, purple is the color of death or mourning. Thai widows wear purple, as do devout Catholic mourners in Brazil. Italy also strongly associates purple with funerals. Therefore, Italians consider wrapping a gift in purple paper poor taste, and brides avoid the color when planning their big day. It’s even considered bad luck to wear purple to an Italian opera!
- Cream: White mixed with a touch of yellow, named after the dairy product produced by cows.
- Eggshell: Pale yellowish-white with little or no gloss.
- Ivory: White with a very slight tint of yellow, named after the material that comprises animal tusks and teeth.
The lightest color, white represents perfection and purity, the new, and neutrality in the West. Despite having no hue, white plays a colorful role in religions around the world. Christian children wear white when baptized. The Pope (head of the Roman Catholic Church) has worn white since 1566 to symbolize sacrifice. Muslim pilgrims wear Ihram, a simple white attire intended to signify that before God, all are equal.
The Bedouin (Arab-speaking nomads of the Middle Eastern deserts) associate white with milk. Camel milk is a staple food for the people—highly nutritious, good for the bones, and a strengthener of the immune system. This explains why white is considered the color of gratitude, fertility, and joy.
Many are familiar with the Western tradition of brides in white dresses. Some believe this dates back more than 2,000 years to the Roman Republic, when brides wore white tunics to represent their chastity. The modern trend came into fashion thanks to Queen Victoria, who in 1840 chose to wear a white lace gown instead of the coronation robes of royal tradition.
However, not every association with white is pleasant. In many cultures, it’s the color of death, ghosts, and phantoms (consider the English phrase, “pale as a ghost”). White also represented death in ancient Egypt because of the color of the lifeless desert that covered much of the land.
- Ebony: Dark black, related to the dark wood that comes from the persimmon tree.
- Jet Black: A glossy, deeply dark black, refers to the geological material “jet.”
- Sable: Dark brownish-black, related to the fur of the small animal of the same name.
The darkest color, black is the result of the absence or complete absorption of visible light. Europe and North America often associate it with mourning, magic, evil, elegance, and death.
Many religions believe that the world was created from a primordial darkness. Christian theology states that black was the color of the universe before God created light. Another name for the devil is the “Prince of Darkness.”
Kali (the Hindu goddess of time, change, and death) has black or dark blue skin. Her Sanskrit name translates into English as “She Who is Black” or “She Who is Death.”
In India, black is also the color of protection against evil. A black dot is painted under a person’s chin or behind their ears to protect against the evil eye.
The Japanese associate black with mystery, with all that is supernatural, unknown, and invisible, including death. In the 10th and 11th centuries, it was believed that wearing black could bring misfortune, so only renegades or those who had renounced material possessions dared wear the color in court.
It’s also commonly viewed as the color of experience, as is evident in the black belt in martial arts, the highest rank one can achieve.
China links the color black with water, winter, cold, and the direction North. When the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, seized power, he changed the imperial color from red to black, stating that black extinguishes red (the color was later changed back in 206 BC).
While many associate black with death, the ancient Egyptians positively associated black with life due to the rich, black soil that flooded the Nile. It was also the color of the god Anubis (ruler of the Underworld), who took the form of a black jackal and offered the dead protection against evil.
The Best Color in the World
If there was ever a subjective topic, this is it. There are SO many different forms of color symbolism in our world. Your culture, beliefs, and experiences all shape how you derive meaning from colors.
Now, have people tried to pinpoint the best color in the world? To a point.
Pantone releases its “Color of the Year” every year. London-based paper company G.F. Smith conducted a six month-long, 30,000+ person survey in 2017 that concluded the world’s favorite color to be a teal hue called Marrs Green.
Knowing a bit about color meanings and their respective symbolism gives you an advantage when speaking to your audience.
Discover new ways to design with color:
- Creating a One-of-a-Kind Portfolio: Color Branding for Photographers
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- 30 Refreshing Color Palette Ideas for Your Website
- Colorful Packaging Design: 15 Vibrant Examples to Inspire
- The Origins, History, and Design Power of Neon Colors
Cover image via Dmitry Zimin.