Where do red and green colour associations come from?

From the miracle of christmas?

Or maybe from their complementary nature?

It’s a tricky question to answer seriously, because there’s so many associations to unpack. Red alone can imply love, communism, rage, lust, danger, stopping at traffic lights, remembrence poppies, and AIDS.

That’s just in this culture.

The two together invoke traffic lights, a binary of stop and go, and the aforementioned christmas.

It’s interesting that in both of these cases they are almost certainly chosen because they are complementary. The contrast is key.

Green is a little simpler, with instant images of lush verdant fields and the environmental movement. It also implies youth and inexperience. Feeling unwell. Life and irishness.

And this is all ignoring the wealth of meanings across cultures. There’s a wonderfully informative colour chart, showing the meanings of colours across different colours. There’s quite a lot of red and green all around, meaning totally different things around the world.

But returning to the western associations, we see that Red in particular is heaving with contradictions. How did we end up in a world where love and danger mean the same thing? (On second thoughts, that might make a lot of sense). Desire and stop. Arsenal and Communists.

Colours aren’t the most direct method of communicating meaning, despite being powerfully suggestive.

Red is (I’ve heard) the colour that stands out the most. When you scan a room or view, the red bits are the first things you notice. This seems true enough, it also explains why some of those associations have come. It’s a useful thing to use on signage for danger. Desire can stop you in your tracks (and it is often the only thing you can see on entering a room).

I wonder whether it’s an innate property of redness (if there is an innate redness) because of it’s position at the top of the visible spectrum. Or perhaps we just evolved to detect red because so many dangers are red. From poisonous animals to blood drenched maws. It must have been useful to flee red things from quite an early stage.

But blood is life, and you can see how passion gets tagged on. A rush of blood to the head (or elsewhere) is a fine signifier of desire.

And greenery IS nature (along with every other colour). The trees and the fields of Europe are very green things. There’s a clean and direct link there. Which is perhaps why i find it surprising that the nature/life combo doesn’t stretch over to other parts of the world according to the aforementioned infographic.

Colours are strange things. Meaningless but loaded. There is no obvious instant correlation between a colour and a definition. But they can imply so much. Colour is incredibly expressive. It’s the make up of so much art. A delicate balancing act between different shades and hues can lead to the revulsion of clashes or the harmony of a well selected palette.

But it’s hard for it to mean much.

Without meaning everything.

Illustration by Lucy.


About Alabaster Crippens

Joiner of Dots. Player of Games. Unreliable Narrator. Dancing Fool.
This entry was posted in Illustrations by Lucy, Questions by Claire. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Where do red and green colour associations come from?

  1. Pingback: Where do red and green colour associations come from? | Duck and Rabbit

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