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What is Color Symbolism? How to Use Color in Photography to Inspire Emotion

What is Color Symbolism? How to Use Color in Photography to Inspire Emotion

A minor shift in your photo’s color palette completely transforms the mood of your photo. If you’re unfamiliar with color symbolism, an entire world of emotion and atmosphere is just around the corner. 

Human history’s relationship with color is a complex and fascinating one. Since ancient times, humans have closely associated specific moods or meanings to the colors around them. Modern psychology has even found color can affect your very memory! These interpretations change depending on culture and time period, but one thing is the same – intentional color usage is an important staple of powerful photography.

Color symbolism is the act of conveying meaning, mood, and intent using color. I’ll break down how this incredible skill helps you create enchanting and memorable photos.

Source Image: Pixabay

Table of Contents: 

  1. Introduction
  2. What Is Color Symbolism? 
  3. Color Symbolism Terminology You Need to Know
  4. A History of Color Symbolism Throughout the World
  5. Warm Colors and Their Most Common Symbolism 
  6. Cool Colors and Their Most Common Symbolism
  7. Poignant Color Harmonies Used in Photography
  8. Conclusion: Knowledge of Color Symbolism Creates Meaningful and Memorable Photography

a tray of used paints next to a blank canvas in an artist's studio

Source Image: Pixabay

What is Color Symbolism?

The definition of color symbolism is simple – it’s the act of using color to convey mood, intent, or meaning. Artists of many different disciplines use color to encourage their audience to experience specific feelings or reach certain conclusions. 

Color symbolism isn’t a hard and fast rule, however. A single human culture can have a hundred different interpretations for the color red, while another culture could go into a different direction entirely. When you add religious beliefs, spiritual beliefs, and time periods to the mix, color symbolism almost defies categorization.

Artists will draw upon their own culture and tastes when utilizing color symbolism in photography. They may use this approach to create visual signatures for their portfolios or to add further meaning to their photography compositions

Learning how to use color symbolism effectively means brushing up on some essential vocabulary.

an example of color harmony showing a small boat floating in the ocean against a lavender and pink sunset

Source Image: Pixabay

Color Symbolism Terminology You Need to Know

Learning the language of color symbolism means, well…learning the language! Color in photography has entire textbooks dedicated to the art, but I’ll get you started off simple.

Vocabulary terms that will help you identify and utilize color symbolism include:

Color Harmony 

An important term that overlaps somewhat with color theory is color harmony. This useful approach refers to pleasing and natural color combinations. These combinations strive for visual balance so a photo doesn’t seem stale or ‘off’. 

For example, a photo that’s too yellow can appear dingy and unappealing. Utilizing a color harmony of blue and yellow will provide some much-needed contrast and, therefore, visual balance.

Color harmony can also combine multiple color symbolisms. The cool, relaxed nature of blue can provide interesting meaning with the bright, happy nature of yellow. Those are just a few of the meanings you can ascribe, of course!

Saturated vs Desaturated

Saturation refers to how intense a color is. If you’ve ever enjoyed the vivid red of a fresh strawberry or the deep blue of an afternoon sky, you’ve witnessed a saturated color.

A desaturated color moves in the opposite direction. It’s more washed out and gray, receding from the eye instead of popping out. These colors are great for giving the eye some breathing room and providing contrast to vivid, saturated hues.

When it comes to symbolism, saturated colors tend to feel more intense and dramatic. Desaturated colors often feel mellow or mysterious.

Warm vs Cool

You’ll be seeing the terms warm colors and cool colors frequently through this piece. This color symbolism is perhaps the most common throughout the world, an interesting detail considering how different cultures and time periods get!

Warm colors refer to red, orange, yellow, and pink. The reasons these colors ‘feel’ warm to human viewers is likely because they originate with physically warm occurrences – think fire, blood, or sunsets. 

Cool colors refer to blue, greens, and purples. Similar to how warm colors are interpreted by many people, cool colors often appear in physically cool areas – think snowy regions, the ocean, or the night sky.

What is a Color Scheme vs a Color Harmony?

Color scheme and color harmony are closely related, but not quite the same thing. While they both refer to how multiple colors interact with each other, these interactions come from different places.

A color scheme is a visual signature using a specific selection of colors repetitively throughout a work. For example, an animated film may use certain colors throughout the entire movie to help it be more memorable to the viewer. 

Color harmony refers to a combination of colors that create a natural, pleasing balance for the viewer. These harmonies are often chosen to keep a photograph or an illustration from seeming flat or stale. However, color symbolism can still be applied to a color harmony to inject layers and layers of meaning.

an old blue and gray statue holding a green and pink flowers

Source Image: Pixabay

A History of Color Symbolism Throughout the World 

Understanding color symbolism in photography means understanding history. While I’ve already touched on color symbolism in different cultures, the true depth of this topic deserves another look. You’d be amazed by all the fascinating ways a person can read into a color!

Ancient Greek cultures regularly leaned on color symbolism as visual shorthands for intent, mood, and meaning. In fact, Greek statues weren’t originally pristine and white – they were painted in lavish and brilliant colors in accordance with color symbolism at the time. Yellow and red were highly favored colors, usually representing life and new birth. Both black and white were colors used for mourning, while blue was believed to ward away evil spirits. 

Just head to ancient cultures in the East to see how color symbolism can vary. Ancient Chinese cultures often used blue to symbolize harmony and longevity, likely a reference to how water brings forth life. However, they also frequently used both black and white for mourning rituals as well as political gatherings. The more differences you see concerning color symbolism, the more similarities you encounter!

While much of this information may seem contradictory, all of these different interpretations are the nature of color symbolism. The meanings we ascribe to a color can change depending on many factors, but there are still more common interpretations you can start off with.

an example of warm colors with red ivy against a white building and green grass

Source Image: Pixabay

Warm Colors and Their Most Common Symbolism 

The snap and pop of crackling fire. The rich bloom of red roses. Warm colors – whether primary, secondary, or tertiary – frequently make us feel a similar heat in the pit of our chest. 

Being thoughtful in your color selections means taking into account the viewer’s experience. Where do you want them to look first and why? What meaning could your color get across to them?

While you can’t predict every interpretation – art is in the eye of the beholder – you can tap into common symbolic interpretations found in your culture. 

a field of white flowers on a misty day with a large red flower to the right

Source Image: Pixabay


One of the most intense colors around is red and its variations. When you see this primary, you immediately pay attention – is it any mystery why red is the color of stop signs and red lights?

Common interpretations of red include passion, anger, romance, love, and intensity. These interpretations can shift a little toward more positive aspects such as luck and good health, a popular interpretation in modern Japan and China. 

You can use red in photography to invoke these emotions in the viewer. The example photo above is a solid way to draw the viewer’s interest while suggesting deeper meaning. Due to the contrast with the more subdued and washed out surroundings, the red flower could symbolize strength and passion in the face of adversity.

a woman in a pink dress standing beneath an overhang surrounded by trees

Source Image: Pixabay


Soften up the red with a little white and you get pink. This color’s symbolism instantly makes one think of fresh flower buds or rosy baby cheeks, so it’s no wonder why it usually has sweet symbolism.

Common interpretations of pink include love, innocence, honesty, playfulness, and cheerfulness. While many people commonly associate pink as a girl’s color in the United States, it actually used to be considered a boy’s color in the 18th century. Since pink is related to red, parents a few centuries back considered it a robust and assertive color for a growing boy.

The above photo uses pink to draw the viewer’s eye while suggesting a little something more beneath the surface. The rosy pink color provides a striking contrast with the more natural and subdued green and gray surroundings. There are many interesting interpretations you could draw from this scene – the subject could be an innocent newcomer in a strange place or an adventurous traveler seeking romance.

an example of orange photography showing a cluster of autumn leaves in a forest

Source Image: Pixabay


Another variation of red is the rich and robust orange, a color that often gets more varied interpretations due to being a secondary. Since it combines two primaries together, its color symbolism gets layered by default.

Orange tends to blend the power and passion of red with the punch and playfulness of yellow. This is the kind of color you use to get people feeling positive and adventurous. However, since this color is also associated with autumn, it can represent deep nostalgia.

an example of yellow symbolism in photography showing a yellow bird with yellow flowers against a blue sky

Source Image: Pixabay


There’s a reason why I chose a forest path with bright yellow light as the header image. This bold and uncompromising color is the go-to for grabbing the viewer’s attention.

As such, yellow often has intense and straightforward symbolism. It’s the color of urgency and alarm, but also the color of innocence and sweetness. Generally, it’s an uncomplicated hue and creates sensations that can be used to great effect in photography. 

an example of cool color symbolism with a moody image of blue, gray, and white stormclouds

Source Image: Pixabay

Cool Colors and Their Most Common Symbolism 

On the other side of the color symbolism equation are cool colors. While warm colors are fiery and vibrant, cool colors invoke more mellow or subdued sensations.

an overhead shot of churning blue ocean waves with white foam

Source Image: Pixabay


The English language is home to literally colorful metaphors. If you’ve ever been asked if you feel blue, you already have a good idea as to the common symbolism of this color.

Blue frequently appears in Western cultures as a color for sorrow and moodiness. However, some interpretations lean into the calmness of blue to invoke sensations of peace, serenity, and freedom. In fact, gemstones that usually come with blue hues frequently have interpretations such as high wisdom and virtue.

This is one hue you can get very layered with in terms of meaning. Take the above photo as an example – some viewers may feel this scene is cold and haunting, while others may find it elegantly mysterious.

a person in a white dress standing in a field of lavender and holding lavender flowers

Source Image: Pixabay


Think about the last time you came across something purple today. Would you say it’s as common as red or blue? Purple is a hue not frequently found in our everyday lives, so it quickly stands out to the viewer as symbolically significant. 

Purple combines the serenity and mystery of blue with the passion of red, mixing up the symbolism to create some interesting interpretations. Western cultures frequently connotate purple with royalty and fantasy. However, Catholic history would sometimes see purple as a color of mourning. Whichever meaning you choose, purple is often dramatic and unforgettable.

The above photo feels intentional, perhaps whimsical, with the addition of purple flowers. A more fantastical interpretation could see the subject lost in a dream. A grounded interpretation could be the subject seeking out a gift for someone special.

an example of green symbolism in photography with a girl in a floral dress kneeling with a white puppy in a forest

Source Image: Pixabay


Green is a cool color that leans toward the warmer end of the spectrum. This visual tension is brought out in its symbolism – it can be downright contradictory at times.

The most common symbolism for green frequently comes from nature itself. Green is a sign of lush, healthy life and fresh beginnings. On the other hand, it can also signal danger or jealousy. If you’ve ever heard the term ‘green with envy’, you already know what I’m referring to.

The above photo utilizes one of the most straightforward approaches of color symbolism – one dominant color to inform the mood, then a few complementary colors to add contrast. This photo feels youthful and fresh, suggesting an adventure awaiting the two subjects. When it comes to the envy interpretation, this photo could also suggest a desire to explore beyond their usual limits.

You’ve likely got a strong idea by now on how color symbolism in photography works. Now it’s time to inject even more depth by tapping into popular color harmonies.

an example of warm colors showcasing orange, pink, and yellow roses against a green backdrop

Source Image: Pixabay

Poignant Color Harmonies Used in Photography 

Color harmonies combine the meaning of each individual color into a message even more complex. While you can create any color harmony you please, there are a few popular choices.

an example of color harmony showing two people in a boat in the ocean with a vivid orange sunset

Source Image: Pixabay

Combine Warm and Cool Colors to Show Conflict

Warm and cool colors are solid choices to provide visual contrast for the viewer. They can also suggest conflict or contrast in color symbolism. 

The above photo is a stellar example of how to use warm and cool colors to suggest a deeper story. The two people in the boat are sailing in a serene and quiet ocean, yet the vivid yellow sunset suggests a cheery adventure on the horizon.

a gray and white kitten swatting at a green plant emerging from stone

Source Image: Pixabay

Combine Multiple Types of the Same Color Group to Layer Meanings

Not every photo has to use dramatic contrast to get across a mood or a meaning. In fact, strong photos can have majority warm or majority cool colors.

Use the above photo as a visual example. While there’s a little contrast being used here – green is on the warmer end of the cool spectrum – the overall feel is subdued and quiet. 

a doe turning and looking at the viewer in a rich green, brown, and yellow forest

Source Image: Pixabay

Conclusion: Knowledge of Color Symbolism Creates Meaningful and Memorable Photography

Color symbolism injects a deeper layer of meaning into what could have been a stale and forgettable photo. With it you can draw upon human history and modern culture to help the viewer step into your visual world.

Color symbolism is the cultural and historical meaning attributed to color (not to be confused with the more scientific color theory). This artistic approach changes significantly depending on time period and country, though there are some similarities across different cultures. You can further layer color symbolism by utilizing color harmonies, a combination of colors to combine moods or meanings.

While technical skillsets like shutter speed or focal length make your photo visually readable, color symbolism makes people want to read between the lines.

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