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The Science & Emotion of Colors

Farbreis Kitten, primary colors
Sun Tzu
Sun Tzu

Sun Tzu, author of the Art of War, observed that

“There are not more than five primary colors, yet in combination they produce more hues than can ever be seen.”

Seems straightforward, but there are several ways to look at what color is. Sun Tzu’s reference to primary colors privileged the colors of Blue, Yellow, Red, White, and Black.

Are Black & White Actually Colors?

Additive Color Theory defines color as light. Blue, yellow and red pass the color test. But black and white are tricky. Black, for example, is the absence of color caused by the absence of light. Contrastingly, the sum of all colors is white.

Subtractive Color Theory defines colors as pigment. Thus, red, yellow, and blue are the primary pigments in art, but in the printing industry, blue morphs into cyan, and red morphs into magenta. Yellow remains the same.

And the answer is: Black passes the color test, because if you combine red, yellow, and blue, the result will be black. However, white is not a color most of the time. Pure white has no color, because you can’t mix colors to create white. But, there are many nuances in white paint which make the result a color.

Isaac Newton
Isaac Newtown

The Physics of Color

In Physics, Primary Colors are Red, Green and Blue

Colors passing through prism

Who Discovered That? The honor goes to Sir Isaac Newton and his work with prisms. Using the prisms and a mirror, Newton combined the red, green, and blue colors of a reflected rainbow to create white light. Therefore, he deduced, these must be primary colors.

RBG Color Model

Additive colors produce more light when they are mixed together. So, if three flashlights project individual light circles onto the wall, their shared intersection of two flashlight circles is brighter than either separate circle. If the mixing continues, each circle will add light.

If a blue circle mixes with green, the blue-green strip is cyan. Mix red and blue to get magenta, and red and green to make yellow.

Emotional Attributes of Color

But Colors Aren’t Just Pigments. They also match up with emotions – both positive and negative. For example, primary colors project emotive aspects.

Blue Skies Over Visby


Blue often receives the title of an individual’s “favorite” color. It evokes the emotions of sophistication and trustworthiness. It calms and relaxes. It is associated with truth, as in the phrase “true blue.”

Blue also has negative attributes. It can mean a state of depression, such as when a person “feels blue.” It also can be an emotionally cold color.

Introverts often prefer tints from the blue spectrum.

Red Strawberries


Red is the complete opposite of blue. If blue is calm, red is passionate and willing to take risks. If blue is quiet, red is vigorous and assertive; compulsive and ambitious.

In very ancient times, red was the color of the fire and blood associated with forces of energy and the primal life force. Ancient Greeks associated the color red with heroism.

Extroverts relate well to red and its associated tints.

Yellow Hibiscus


Yellow Roadsign

Yellow associates with happiness and optimism. Who doesn’t like a sunny day? Yellow nourishes creativity and intellectual pursuits. With these attributes, it would seem the color yellow brings nothing but joy. Not so.

Yellow is the color of fear and cowardice; betrayal and impatience. Many highways signs are yellow, because the color signifies caution. As in “Caution, School Crossing Ahead.

Every color we enjoy is distilled through the prism of light by mixtures based on primary colors. And, almost every emotion, both positive and negative, is related to a color. Which means, that at some level, every color and emotion is born in a rainbow.

Painting of a Rainbow


Fabreis Kitten. Public Domain. 1961.

Sun Tzu, Qing Dynasty.

Issac Newton by Godfrey Kneller. 1689.

Experiment of Triangular Prisms by Castellsferran.

Three Primary Colors of RBG Color Model by Ferlixwangg.

Blue skies at Visby. Photo by Author.

Red Strawberries.

Yellow Hibiscus. Photo by Author.

Rainbow by Archi Kuindzhi. 1898.

Scott Dutfield & Natalie Wolchover. “The Meaning of Colors: How 8 Colors Became Symbolic.” Live Science. Jan 28, 2022.

Michelle Konstantinovsky. “Primary Colors are Red, Yellow & Blue, Right? Well, Not Exactly.” How Stuff Works. Apr 9, 2021.

Author Sandra Wagner Wright

Sandra Wagner-Wright holds the doctoral degree in history and taught women’s and global history at the University of Hawai`i. Sandra travels for her research, most recently to Salem, Massachusetts, the setting of her new Salem Stories series. She also enjoys traveling for new experiences. Recent trips include Antarctica and a river cruise on the Rhine from Amsterdam to Basel.

 Sandra particularly likes writing about strong women who make a difference. She lives in Hilo, Hawai`i with her family and writes a blog relating to history, travel, and the idiosyncrasies of life.


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