Psychology of Emotion in Art & Colour Psychology

William James, brother to author Henry and godson to George Bernard Shaw, taught the first psychology classes at Harvard. He is interesting to us here for his James-Lange theory of emotion.

There are apparently eight main emotions;  acceptance, anger, anticipation, disgust, fear, joy, sadness and surprise. The others such as wonder are combinations of these primary few. (Plutchik)

James believed that our body first reacts to a stimulus, and our mind afterwards rationalises this physiological response as a feeling.

For example, we jump when something startles us and therefore feel surprised.

Did you know that colour affects both our mind and body? Light is electromagnetic energy; the visual appearance of colour is just our interpretation of the different wavelengths.

Different wavelengths affect us in different ways. These changes are physical as well as emotional. Even the blind have been shown to react predictably to coloured light incident on their skin.

This isn’t so peculiar; you will have felt the infra-red sunlight warming you on a summer’s day. Light energy affects our body; shorter wavelength UV light activates important vitamin D in our skin.

Red light has a longer wavelength and has the greatest effect upon us. It increases the heart and respiration rate (Friedman). Time allegedly seems to pass slower in a red room compared to a blue room. Red also stimulates the appetite.

Blue light has a shorter wavelength and has the opposite effect on the body. This physically relaxes us, so blue is seen as a calm, soothing colour.  Responses to colour are similar internationally.

Is it that we are physically affected by colours and hence attribute certain feelings to them (red as passionate), or do we associate emotion to colours due to certain things in our environment (such as red-hot coals or cold blue ice)?

For Holistic Photography, we understand that we are not just capturing the world in a little box. Photographs can create torrid reactions in the viewer simply due to the colours they introduce; and apart from their subject matter.

This is a rather freeing realisation. Art impacts. Even if your pictures aren’t ‘of’ anything, they can still elicit a physiological response; and the viewer will rationalise their reaction with a feeling. Rothko’s vast multiforms do this well.

Holistic Photography: Yellow Blue Colour Psychology Therapy

This is not a house; it is a predominantly yellow light source on your screen.

Emotional response is threefold; physiological, behavioural and felt. So seeing a powerful photograph, our heartrate may increase, we may interpret this in relation to our cultural awareness of art history, and we may have a feeling (possibly) related to these first two aspects.

James differentiated between Classical and Romantic art;

1Romantic art seeks to stir our emotions by depicting symbolic subjects and picturesque gloom and sublimity.

2Classical art relies on the immediate sensory impressions provided by the artwork.

In truth both blend primary and secondary emotional reactions.

To create art that creates emotion in the viewer, it is useful that an artist feel emotion. We’ve looked at the idea that emotions are largely physiological.

So it becomes apparent that by paying close attention to the physical sensations we feel when we experience certain feelings such as joy or surprise, we can become more attuned to them.

This developed sensitivity gives us the ability to notice our emotional reactions to the world around us. And by so doing, we are able to create a highly personal art that moves us; and may more authentically move others too.

Thus instead of searching to photograph preconceptions of things paired with specific emotions; rainbows to express joy for example, we can photograph subjects, scenes and abstracts that give rise to these emotions within us.

The Two Factor theory of emotion has taken prominence over the James-Lange theory now. It states that people won’t search their environment for cues to rationalise their physically manifested emotions if they can already explain them.

In essence, this means that if your viewer expects your photographs to provide them with a certain emotional response, then they will be more straightforwardly affected by them, or not.

But if they don’t expect to feel an emotional reaction from a photograph (perhaps an abstract), then their mind’s rationalisation of a physiological impression can be more complex.

Suppose that the colours in your photograph create a physiological response in your viewer. If the actual subject matter would give an obvious reason for this emotion, any response will be attributed to it. A photograph of a matador’s red cape and a charging bull may quicken the heart rate and seem exciting.

But if the colours stir the emotions but the subject matter isn’t traditionally tied to these emotions, the viewer may have an ambivalent response and be more likely to attribute their reaction to other factors.

Holistic Photography-emotions-colour-psychology-red

Is this just a photograph of a tree’s bark?

Rothko used a great deal of symbolism after reading Nietzsche’s ‘Birth of Tragedy’ and titled his paintings with the names of various mythical characters. In contrast, his later multiforms are untitled or titled far more objectively. This ensures that the title doesn’t give the viewer a cue with which to rationalise away their physiological reaction to his art.

The takeaway from all of this is that the colours in photographs can affect us physiologically, and that the mind will seek to rationalise this response by saying that a photo is ‘happy’ or ‘sad’ or other feeling; this is easy if the subject matter matches the emotions.

But we can equally evoke an emotional response with colour alone and depict an apparently neutral or mismatched subject. This forces a Misattribution of Arousal; the viewer is physically moved and searches for a reason; and we can then wed this feeling to our photograph’s subject or some other cue.

This allows us as Holistic Photographers to use colour psychology not simply to reinforce the secondary emotions called up by pre-charged subject matter, but also to conjure emotions using certain colours and then tie them to incongruous scenes and subjects.