Mad About . . .

Colour Psychology: Yellow

27th June 2019
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Continuing my series on colour psychology with extracts from the book, I wanted to focus on yellow this week. We began, on Monday, with the apartment by fashion designer Roksanda Ilinčić where yellow was the red thread running through her scheme of earth-toned scheme. On Tuesday, I spoke to Oliver Heath about biophilic design and the importance of colour. I have already looked at blue and green but he mentioned yellow as the colour of ripening crops and the sun so I thought I would look at it in more detail here.

little green paint Yellow Pink-Lamp Black

little green paint Yellow Pink-Lamp Black

If red is the toddler of the colour wheel – all extremes of emotion and mercurial temperament and orange is your new BFF the colour of companionship and laughter, appetite and intelligence then where does that leave yellow? The second of the three primary colours, when mixed with red (that mercurial toddler) it creates that friendly orange but, on its own, yellow can provoke a range of quite extreme reactions.

Think first of the buttery yellow kitchen that seems permanently filled with sunshine and loving families who never argue in the morning. But harden that shade to one that is brighter and deeper and it takes on a more aggressive tone. Yellow and Black is used on danger signs almost as often as red and signifies hazard or, in the US, a crime scene.  Used in this combination, yellow can provoke feelings of anxiety and agitation.

yellow ceiling (marblehead gold HC-11) by Benjamin Moore

And don’t forget that yellow is said to be the colour of cowardice  – the yellow belly. The expression apparently started into the Fens, an area in the east of England, and may have referred to the officers of the North Lincolnshire Militia who wore yellow waistcoats.  Another explanation was the women traders at street markets who wore leather aprons with two pockets – one for copper and silver and one for gold.  At the end of a good day they would refer to a yellow belly, meaning lots of gold sovereigns.

There was no connection with cowardice in these early names though. That association appears to have developed in the US in the 19th century possibly as a Texan term for Mexican soldiers.

Like the other colours, yellow also has different meanings in different countries. In the UK and the US, it is used to symbolise remembrance and hope (remember the song? Tie a yellow ribbon round the old oak tree) and is often the colour of liberalism. In Japan it represents courage (the exact opposite to its US meaning) while in China it was the colour of the emperors who often wore robes in this colour, possibly because it is the closest to gold. In India is it the colour of merchants.

yellow door and half painted wall by imperfect interiors

yellow door and half painted wall by imperfect interiors

Moving on from its negative and cultural connotations, what about the positive? We talk about someone having a sunny disposition, clearly a reference to yellow. It is also said to be the colour of knowledge, connecting with the left, or logical, side of the brain to stimulate new ideas and work out mental challenges.

Try and bring some to work meetings to encourage thinking and mental clarity. As it is also the colour of communication, this should help everyone get their ideas across.

mustard yellow bedroom via the modern house

mustard yellow bedroom via the modern house

Given the range of emotions it can provoke, Karen Haller, a business colour and branding expert, says that getting it right depends on the shade you choose.

“Positive qualities for yellow are happiness, optimism and confidence. But too much yellow, or the wrong tone in relation to the other colours in the room and the negative side will emerge: irrationality and anxiety,” she says.

mustard kitchen by british standard cupboards

But don’t panic about finding the right shade because that part is personal to you.  “The right shade of yellow is one that resonates with you,” she says, adding that this can go from the palest cream right through to the neon and acid yellows.

When it comes to using yellow in your home or hotel, it’s great for hallways and entrance spaces, breakfast rooms and kitchens where its sunny properties will welcome people into the room. But beware of the yellow bedroom; Karen warns that over time you will wake up feeling annoyed.

ochre sofa bed at ligne roset at maison et objet paris 2019

If you do have too much yellow, you can tone it down with its complimentary colour purple and if that seems a bit too much, try a purple-based grey for a classic combination.  Or use the colours next to it on the colour wheel for a more harmonious palette, in this case orange and red or green. And don’t forget, this doesn’t have to be pillar box red and grass green, there are endless versions and more subtle shades.

Unluckily for yellow, it seems to be one of the most polarising colours of the rainbow. Those who like it seem to love it. Those who dislike it really hate it. For this reason it can be tricky to bring into a public space as you run the risk of upsetting some of your audience before you have even opened your mouth.

yellow door at Sophie Robinson house

yellow door at Sophie Robinson house

However a small burst of yellow is unlikely to create too many problems, especially if it’s a large bunch of daffodils on the kitchen table.  Alternatively, try hanging a few prints with some warm yellow in them.

Yellow also works really well on its own and seems to need nothing around it to make sense. So bring in a single yellow chair or stool to create a bright pop of colour that, hopefully, won’t upset anyone in small enough doses but might really cheer some of the others up.

roksanda apartment image by KWS

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  • Twigs 27th June 2019 at 3:06 pm

    Interesting that you mention anxiety and annoyance, as that is often my response when I see bright yellow kitchens. All these examples here however are wonderful. It’s because I realized that the only yellows that work for me in interior are “dirty” yellows. Bright, cheery yellows mostly remind me of kindergarten ( primary colour), and McDonalds.

  • Kathryn 27th June 2019 at 2:21 pm

    I have just painted our front door yellow (similar colour to Sophie Robinson’s door) and I absolutely love it, however, it has polarised opinions in the street. It makes me and my husband smile every time we see it.

  • Anna 27th June 2019 at 1:49 pm

    I have learnt that when using yellow successfully it is dependent up the light that comes into the room.
    A tiny entrance hall painted egg yolk yellow, with a huge antique mirror with an elaborate gold frame, wowed our visitors.
    Butter yellow bedding looked awful here but wonderful in Italy and Crete.
    Consider the light and then choose the shade of yellow.
    (Personally I would never ever choose yellow for the doors of my house).

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