3 Ways to See Color

Phoenix Ramsdell

Phoenix Ramsdell, a Mount Mary University senior double majoring in art therapy and fine art, sports a satirical baseball cap that declares “Art is Dumb.”

“I say it all the time because I get so frustrated by the art world,” Ramsdell said. “One of my favorite artists makes these hats, Penelope Gazin. She’s just a super wild artist. She’s pretty eccentric.”

For Ramsdell, art is subjective. 

“(Art) is so complex … some people want to make a statement, some people want to talk about something, some people just want an emotional connection, some people just do it scientifically or mathematically where they just want to recreate something, like functional art,” she said.

Ramsdell’s art is intuitive, often done as an emotional release. For her, color is prevalent in art and has a strong connection to one’s emotions.

“I’ve gone through some depressive states throughout my lifetime and so when I find that I am using a lot of blue, that is a little indicative of those feelings,” Ramsdell said. “At this point, I can kind of tell through my art when I am using certain colors what is going on in my head space and to start paying attention to that.”

How We Process Color

“My husband is a firefighter, and he loves the color red because of the fire truck,” said Genevieve Szenlinski, chair of the interior design department at Mount Mary. “When he thinks of red, he thinks of his ‘Big Red.’”

Most people have a reason they are drawn to a color, she said. There could be an association with childhood, nature or even an event or object that gives a color a positive or negative connotation.

In color theory, she said, there are three different tiers that explain color and our basic understanding of it. 

The first tier is the science of color: how we physically see color based on the visual light spectrum and the study of the color wheel. 

The second tier is the meaning behind color, which is the way we interpret colors linked to the emotions we may feel.

The third tier is the spatial qualities of color. This is how we apply the principles of color within a space.

“People will say that babies cry more in yellow rooms … Yellow is an anxious color,” Szenlinski said. “It makes people have anxiety. I’ve actually experienced that, but it also (depends) how bright of a yellow it is.” 

Yellow may be linked to anxiety for one person, but that may not be true for another, she said. The way we interpret color is dependent on various factors. It also depends on the tone or intensity and where that color is used. 

Yellow is not necessarily the wrong color to paint a room, Szenlinski said. She wants us to ask ourselves: “Am I putting (yellow) on an accent piece or am I putting it on all of the walls?”  This may make a difference in how we feel about the color.

In feng shui, there is more of a focus on the meaning behind the spatial qualities of color, Szenlinski said.

Feng shui focuses around five major elements: water, earth, wood, fire and metal. Each element is assigned to a different point of the chart. In turn, the elements and directions are each associated with different feelings and colors. 

According to Szenlinski, in feng shui there are right colors to use and wrong colors to use, based on their connection to the elements and directions. Following this type of model takes the subjectivity out of designing a room.

“When I was doing the feng shui (for a client), we did the different elements, the southern element is fire, so we did red and orange – different colors of a flame,” she said. “We decided that we would follow the model quite strongly and quite literally in terms of the spatial qualities of color. If someone would have said, ‘Why don’t we do a green here?’ We can’t do a green here; that does not fit the model. The model is fire. It can only be one of these three or four colors that denote the fire element.”

Color in Art Therapy

Color has a natural link to emotions, which plays a very important role in art therapy, but how we respond to it differs, according to Melody Todd, assistant professor of art therapy at Mount Mary University. 

We may find different meanings of color associated culturally, she said, but we shouldn’t just generalize, “This color means this.”

“If I’m painting with red, it doesn’t mean I’m angry,” Todd said. “It might, but it would have to be something that you’d have to ask the maker, ‘What does anger mean to you?’” 

If the meaning behind color is generalized, it just ends up being our own projection, she said. Often this theory gets simplified into a way of analyzing people through the use of their art. That is not what art therapy is about. 

“(Art therapy) is my teacher and guide and my connection to the creative spirit,” Todd said. “It connects me to something bigger than myself.”

According to Todd, by paying attention in the process of creating art, she can learn from it, look back and reflect. This has taught her how to express feelings that were harder to convey with words. 

“Personally, I’m using art to know about myself,” Todd said. “It’s similar to meditation, taking the opportunity to look within oneself.”

Art therapy is about the relationship we have with ourselves and our art and sharing this with an art therapist, Todd said. An art therapist wouldn’t look at the color someone uses and make an interpretation without engaging the person who made it. He or she would set the stage for someone to be receptive to that process. 

“As an artist yourself, you know how there are mistakes that happen,” Todd said. “You can accept your mistakes. You can learn to flow with what happens. All of those things are parallel to life.”

Color as a Point of Connection 

According to Todd, therapy implies a developed relationship. Color has healing properties but it is not the only variable to consider when developing this therapeutic relationship. 

“When you’re in a gallery and surrounded by all kinds of beautiful paintings, you can feel how that beauty touches your soul,” Todd said. “Color certainly can be healing in that way.”

Art can be an avenue of connection and this can also be healing, she said. There are several ways to connect with one’s art: this may be a connection to our inner self, a connection to others, a spirit that guides your life, a connection to the unknown and even the connections to art materials.

“I like the materials to create the beginning of what happens, like dropping the paint on there,” Todd said. “I’ll start with an intention and something in mind … so I might choose the colors that feel connected to what I’m exploring, drop them on and see what happens. I like the idea of being guided by the art.”

A much larger connection is being connected to mystery and to the unknown, Todd said. That is an important part of what art teaches and what art therapists help people do. 

“Be comfortable with the unknown and have faith that if you just keep paying attention, that something will come from that,” Todd said.

Color and Chakras

Sheri Bauer, creator of Angel Light LLC Center for the Healing Arts in Elm Grove, incorporates color healing in the chakra classes she teaches.

According to Bauer, chakra means vortex, or in Hindu tradition, “spinning wheel of light.”  A wheel of light is a concentrated spiral of energy that feeds in good energy and eliminates energy waste. This works to maintain energetic balance, she said.  

Our chakra system connects us to the energetic grid of the universe and beyond, Bauer said. There are seven main chakras that line up from the base of your spine to the top of your head.  

Each area of the body has a related chakra and each chakra emanates a specific frequency and color, she said. Those frequencies work with our human body, with our organs and glands.

“The frequency for the color yellow emulates the frequency of the sun and works with the digestive system,” Bauer said. 

Different colors resonate with different areas of the human body and internal organs and work to heal specific issues that one may manifest, according to Bauer. 

“That’s the thing about energy, it is changeable and mutable,” Bauer said. “We are different every day of our lives and the colors of our chakras are a reflection of where we are at a current moment in time taking into consideration the health of our body, mind and spirit.”

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