AN ARTICLE BY LiZ EVANS with Colour psychologist Angela Wright
Back in the 1990s, iconic Icelandic singer Björk told me that she loved to wear orange. She felt it was a healing colour, and good for her soul.
At the time I thought it was a very Björk thing to say–typically lovely, and refreshingly original, yet thoughtful, too. More recently, during her painful divorce from artist Matthew Barney, Björk wore neon yellow because, like the medieval alchemists, no less, she associates it with transformation.
But can you really use colour to set, rather than suit, your mood? And, if so, what might that mean for our children?
“Colour is really light energy that surrounds us, affecting all our primary functions including our mental and emotional states,” says colour therapist and interior designer Suzy Chiazzari. “It controls our bio-rhythms and body clock through the endocrine system, and affects the production and release of hormones that influence our emotions and our ability to deal with stress.”
Chiazzari has written oodles of books on colour and design, and runs the Iris School of Colour Therapy in the UK, where she also works with individuals and businesses to create healing environments.
“One of my clients had a son who suffered from ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and he used to tear around the house, often in a distressed state,” she says. “I discovered that their carpeting had a high-contrast pattern, and so I suggested changing it to a plain one. Within a short space of time, he was much calmer and was able to play unattended for longer periods.
“Another case involved a baby girl who had trouble sleeping, and frequently woke up crying. Her nursery was a small room with a yellow ceiling, one red wall and blue curtains. I changed the colour scheme to a more neutral one, and altered the lighting, and after that the child was able to fall asleep more quickly, and now seldom wakes during the night.”
So, how does this work exactly? Why can’t a baby settle in a blue, red and yellow room? Colour psychologist Angela Wright has spent years researching our psychophysical response to colour, and learning how colours combine for better or for worse. And it’s not a question of taste.
“We’re all born with an accurate instinct for colour,” says Wright. “Without it, we’d never have survived evolution as well as we have because it’s nature’s signalling system, and we need to understand it. But there’s no such thing as a good colour. For example, red is physically stimulating, makes your pulse race, and leads to over-estimations of time passing and temperature levels, but that could be perceived as exhilarating and exciting, or stressful. So what protects the positive elements of the colour? Well, we respond to colour schemes rather than single colours, so the key to this whole business of colour psychology lies in the relationships between the colours. It’s like music–the notes don’t evoke a response until you put them together.”
Once we understand the basics of colour, we can use it creatively as well as consciously. And, says Wright, who is also a trained psychoanalyst, we can be flexible.
“Whatever colour your child wants, support them and let them have it, because they probably know more about it than you do. My three-year-old granddaughter wants a navy blue bedroom, which is bothering me slightly because it’s such a dark colour, but I’m exploring her need for this by asking why she feels she wants to go into a darker environment to sleep. For now I’ve suggested her mum give her a feature wall.
“If I ever do radio phone-ins, I invariably get a call from a mother who is concerned about her teenage child’s demand for a black bedroom and I always say, well, that’s what they need for the moment, so give them what they want in their own space. It won’t be terrible in the long term. Teenagers have to make all sorts of huge decisions while their hormones are raging, so of course they want to hide. Who wants the world looking at them while they’re going through all that?”
“The only colour I really don’t recommend for babies is yellow, and it’s the number one choice of colour for parents who don’t know the gender of their unborn children. Citrus yellow is the most visible, emotionally stimulating colour we have, and, especially when combined with black, acts like a warning. Think tigers and bees!”
Or, if you’re Matthew Barney, think Björk. Her neon-yellow response to heartbreak just took on a whole new dimension …
Red / energy
Red spells high energy. It grabs our attention by literally pulling the eye forward, and it stimulates our minds and puts us on alert, raising our blood pressure and increasing our heart rate. Watch how you use it though, as too much can encourage aggression and interfere with concentration. Red is probably not the best colour for an active or restless child, and probably best avoided in the bedroom–it’s too bright for very young children but it works well for teenagers. Try it in the kitchen, as it’s said to increase appetite. Yum!
Yellow / happy
Yellow is the most visible colour of the spectrum, and captures our attention more than any other. It spreads happiness, sparks creativity and keeps children cheerful. Bright yellows can motivate and support memory development, and softer yellows are good for concentration. Gentle tones are ideal for babies and preschoolers. A wee warning: all yellows tend to be much brighter than you first notice. Too much yellow, or the wrong shade, can instil agitation, anxiety and fear.
Green / harmony
Green is calming, harmonious and balancing. Sitting in the middle of the spectrum, green lowers our blood pressure, dilates our capillaries and can have a deeply restorative effect. Bright greens are energising, while darker shades have been shown to aid reading speed and comprehension. Feng shui practitioners claim green can help rudeness. Minty tones are particularly soothing for younger children. Green is not so great for kids prone to under-stimulation, as it can induce boredom.
Blue / calm
Blue has the opposite effect to red: it lowers anxiety and aggression as well as blood pressure and heart rates. When we feel calm, we think more clearly and find it easier to focus, so blue is perfect for a teenage study space, and helpful for children with emotional and behavioural difficulties. Violet blue stimulates both creative and logical thinking, inspiring imaginative play in primary school children. Dark blues are too intense for very young children, and watch the coldness factor of lighter shades. It’s best to keep blue out of the kitchen because it’s an appetite suppressant. Think blue food … bleurgh!
Purple / inspiration
Purple is the hardest colour for our eyes to discern. Uniting the calm clarity of blue with the energetic stimulus of red, purple inspires self-assuredness, emotional intelligence and compassion in children, and it can help support teenagers as they start to become more socially aware. Soft lavenders are best for babies and toddlers. If your child is particularly sensitive, you may want to keep this colour limited to accents, because too much of it can lead to introversion.
Black / protection
Black absorbs all the other colours in the spectrum, offering a sense of protection and a place to hide. Teenagers love the cool, concealing element of black as they navigate the rocky road through identity issues. Feelings of seriousness, isolation and withdrawal can all be underscored by black, so it’s better in combination with small splashes of bright colour–though that might take a miracle if you’re living with an emo or a goth … Black is really not great for little kids.
Pink / tranquil
Pink radiates a calm, nurturing feeling that reassures babies and young children. Forget the gender tyranny: both boys and girls respond well to the comforting, peaceful tones of rosy pinks and warm shades of peach and apricot. Children tend to grow out of this colour pretty fast.
Brown / support
Brown is warm and supportive, reminiscent of earth and nature. The darkest form of orange, brown makes us feel safe and snuggly. Pale beige and almond tones inspire a lovely sense of security for little ones in particular. Brown can get heavy, though, so watch the shade and don’t be too liberal.
Orange / confidence
Orange is warm and friendly, cosy and comforting. Particularly great for seven years and up, it boosts kids’ confidence and independence, inspires communication and cooperation, and is also thought to bring on a sense of wellbeing. Avoid orange if your child is prone to frustration. And, like red, it’s too bright for very young children.
White / cool
White is the colour of daylight, and it calms us–and our children. Cool, clear and open, white supports a receptive mind, and works best in combination with brighter colours for primary school children, while softer creams add comfort for younger kids. By itself, white can feel chilly, sterile and unfriendly, and a little bit like a 1950s hospital.