Illustration By Jamie Skarupa, Coloring by Jessica Burkhart
“Color is a way [people] can impact their mood through their environment.”
When the momentum of the holiday season is past, winter can stretch out like an endless, colorless void. “That’s the time to think about what you can do to improve your mood,” says Supervising Art Therapist and Counselor, Heidi Larew.
In her practice, Larew uses color, drawing, and other art forms to help people with serious mental health conditions express themselves without words. “I use art and mindfulness practice, so they can be in the present moment and intentional about what they’re doing,” she says.
Everyone experiences color differently, but there are common threads. “There is a biological and cultural piece to it for each person,” says Larew. Knowing what different colors mean to us personally—as well as the cultural and biological responses common to them—can help us choose clothes, wall color and décor that will lift our mood, calm our nerves, or stimulate creativity.
Fire, Blood, Passion, Anger, Fear, Persuasive, Attention-Getting, Assertive
Red roses speak of passion and romance, but ‘seeing red’ can mean extreme anger. Contradictions like these indicate the personal nature of experiencing color. “Faces might become more red when people are attracted to each other,” Larew says, invoking the color’s association with blood. Painting a room red is a daring move, as “red can stimulate increased heart rate.” From a hero’s cape to a pejorative letter, red always makes a strong statement.
Crimson, Scarlet, Vermillion, Ruby, Cherry, Cerise, Cardinal, Carmine, Wine, Ruddy, Cochineal, Cinnamon, Rusty, Sanguine, Claret
Natural dyes are made from Madder root, aka rubia tinctorum. The first synthetic red dye was developed in Germany in 1871. The earliest evidence of madder-dyed fabric comes from India in the 3rd millennium B.C.2
Courage, Warmth, Energy, Creativity
From those dreaded barrels on the street to a glowing sunset, orange has its share of conflicting connotations. It is the only color in the spectrum whose name comes from an object, and it always makes a statement. The darker, earthier shades, like terra cotta or pumpkin, can add a feeling of warmth to interior décor. “Orange can be used in a living room area where you want a warm, connected conversation,” says Larew.
Tangerine, Peach, Apricot, Ochre, Mango, Coral, Gooseberry, Kumquat, Amber, Marigold, Mandarin, Pumpkin
The citrus fruit orange came to Europe from Spain in the 15th century, as did the name of the fruit and its color. The Spanish word was “naranja.”3
Buddhist monks don orange-colored robes as a symbol of renouncing the outside world, and for Sikhs, orange symbolizes deep joy and a sense of community.4
“Being present with what’s going on around you without so much judgement, just awareness,” is how Larew defines mindfulness. “If you’re anxious, you’re worrying about the future. If you’re depressed, you’re thinking about the past. Being mindful helps you be right here. [And] you’re only going to have right now once.”
Sunshine, Life, Happiness, Renewal, Easter, Cowardice, Treachery
Yellow has had many cultural meanings: ribbons of support for returning troops, the warmth of the sun, a flashing light of caution, a certain dog and his best friend. Like many colors, its meaning can run the full spectrum, from happiness to cowardice. While often seen as the very symbol of life, “jaundice can be an unhealthy, contradictory connotation,” says Larew.
Flaxen, Gold, Blonde, Lemon, Cadmium, Daffodil, Mustard, Tawny, Citrine, Fulvous, Citron, Canary
From about the 15th century until the1880s, Indian yellow dye—known as ‘purée’—was made from the urine of cattle fed only mango leaves and water.3
The expensive saffron plant (Crocus sativus) was long used for dye, and was in demand when the Black Death ravaged Europe, as it was believed to be medicinal. In the 13th century, saffron trade was so lucrative that pirates would often overlook loads of gold to take saffron stores bound for Europe.5
Art Projects to Manage Mood
While coloring books are not art therapy, per se, Larew says that for people managing everyday stress “they can be a soothing activity.”
Other fun ways Larew suggests for shedding the winter blahs include:
Altered Art Books: Take an old book from a library sale or thrift shop and personalize it. “Put fringe on pages, beads hanging off pages; cut windows through several pages, so it’s like a secret; black out all the words except for a few that have meaning to you; cut pages different lengths, like stair steps, and paint them different colors; glue pages together, or tear some out.” The result will be a colorful project that’s uniquely yours.
Find Delight in Altruism: “Crochet a warm blanket for yourself or someone else. The repetition can be soothing, [and] the idea of doing for someone else from a place of altruism and delight can improve mood.”
Take a Mini-Vacation: Bring the beach into your home for an afternoon escape from the cold. “Put on ocean sounds and have a candle that smells like coconut,” Larew suggests. “Even put on sunscreen for the smell.” Music like the Beach Boys or Jimmy Buffet can also set a summer-y tone and help you forget the snow for a while.
Snap Wintry Photos: “You might think it’s all white and black, but there’s so much depth! Sometimes it’s glistening and sparkly. It’s so different, the colors, every day. It’s amazing. The light is changing every day.” Post photos on social media to connect with others and “share the beautiful things you see in the world!”
Nature, Grass, Abundance, Growth, Calm, Ecology, Immature, Inexperienced, Lush
“[Green] is restful for the eyes [and] good for concentration,” says Larew. It is the most common color in nature, providing its psychological connection to abundance and growth. The dark side of the color is its link to jealousy, that ‘green-eyed monster’ who fuels the dramatic arc of murder mysteries everywhere.
Jade, Emerald, Olive, Viridescent, Virescent, Glaucous, Leaf, Grass, Lawn, Verdant, Avocado, Hunter, Forest, Chartreuse
Green has a Biblical association with the season of the Epiphany.1
In Islam, the color green is venerated as a symbol of lush paradise.3
The Green Man comes from pagan mythology and depicts a horned man in a mask of leaves, often peering out from an oak tree, who would protect the forest and ensure plentiful spring rains.6
Calm, Ocean, Sky, Peace, Rain, Sadness, The Virgin Mary
Having the blues can mean you’re sad, but singing the blues was a way of turning sadness into toe-tapping defiance. Even with its melancholy mode, the color blue is almost universally seen as a source of calm. “Blue is a good color for bedrooms for sleep,” says Larew, “[and is] known to have an impact with helping lower blood pressure.”
Cobalt, Sapphire, Peacock, Robin’s Egg, Aquamarine, Cyan, Oxford, Cambridge, Steel Blue, Baby Blue, Cerulean
A 2015 survey by the group YouGov—an international data research group—found that blue was the most popular color among people in 10 different countries on four continents, from Australia to China to the U.S., winning fairly equally among men and women, young and old, and across racial and political lines.7
The blues as a musical genre was born from African spirituals on 18th century plantations in the American south, grew up in the Mississippi Delta and New Orleans with its cousin, jazz, then came of age through the 1930s and ‘40s as it traveled the country, eventually giving birth to its own children, rhythm-and-blues and rock-and-roll.8
Down vs. Depressed
“A true depression going for a week or two is something someone should go get help for,” says Larew. That’s different from just being a little blue about the gray Ohio days. “In Northeast Ohio, people can need testing for vitamin D, changes in melatonin, serotonin transmission. [These] can impact mood, [and] tend to be seasonal,” Larew says. “Talk to your doctor; it can make a big difference.”
Wealth, Power, Importance, Depth, Wisdom, Intuition, Drama
In 1860, a scientist named James Clerk Maxwell invented the spectrograph, which proved that the human eye can be fooled into thinking different combinations of color were the same. Prisms and computers separate colors based on their wavelengths (spectral color), but the human eye sees colors or shades subjectively (perceived color), based on the number and type of cells present in our eyes. Blues and purples tend to be the most difficult hues for the human eye to separate.10
Royal Blue, Ultramarine, Midnight Blue, Azure, Foxglove
Indigofera tinctoria (native to Asia) and indigofera suffructosa (native to South and Central America) are the two species of plant used for indigo dye. The first synthetic indigo dyes came available in 1897.9
Elizabethan law circa 1570 limited who could wear certain fabrics and colors to indicate status and maintain a strict class structure. Though not expressly based on wealth, the law allowed only the least expensive dyes and fabrics for peasants.1
Royalty, Divinity, Occult, Magic, Spirituality, Luxury, Creativity, Aristocracy
A girl named Violet may be proverbially shrinking or superhuman—as in the Disney film “The Incredibles.” Either way, she will no doubt be as beautiful as the flower for which she is named. The color violet has the shortest wavelength in the light spectrum and is, therefore, the most difficult color for the human eye to discern. Next to it is ultraviolet, which is invisible to humans.10
Amethyst, Purple, Violet, Lavender, Mauve, Lilac, Heliotrope, Magenta, Orchid, Plum, Grape, Eggplant, Aubergine, Hyacinth, Mulberry
Purple dye was first extracted from shellfish in the 14th century B.C. around the Phoenician city of Tyre, giving it the name Tyrian purple. Tyrian dye was worth more than its weight in gold during the Holy Roman Empire, when Diocletian decreed that one pound of dye cost about three pounds of gold.11