Color Psychology & Liturgical Space
January 03, 2008
I grew up in a church with a white cinder-block interior, orange carpeting, orange crushed velvet chairs, and a black painted wall behind the sanctuary area. Although adjacent stained glass windows and Stations of the Cross statuary offered some alternative colors and mode of aesthetic, the overall visual experience was orange, black, and white. This palette did nothing to complement the colors of the liturgical year and most often served as a foundation for an endless combination of clashing vestments, banners, and floral bouquets. While it would seem that there is little to counteract these colliding aesthetics, attentiveness to color and its field, value, intensity, and textures, can limit the “cringe” factor.
Psychological Responses to Color
Does décor diminish the experience of the liturgy for the assembly? Most would say not directly; however, while each person has a different conscious sensitivity to color, aesthetics, and beauty, physical responses still occur. Biochemical reactions to color take place in everyone whose retina is attached to their eye. This includes those who are color-blind, those who testify that they don’t notice color, and even those who are completely blind. If a retina is intact, a physical response takes place. The now well-known study of how bubble-gum pink painted rooms calm violent personalities exemplifies this response. Clinical psychologist, Alexander Schauss, who founded this discovery, writes:
Colors are electromagnetic wave bands of energy. Each color has its own wavelength. The wave bands stimulate chemicals in your eye, sending impulses of messages to the pituitary and pineal glands near the brain. These are the master endocrine glands that regulate hormones and other physiological systems in the body. Stimulated by response to colors, glandular activities can alter moods, speed up heart rates and increase brain activity.
Although decisions surrounding color can seem somewhat subjective, color theory offers a guide for how colors relate to one another.
The Color Wheel
Primary Colors: The three main colors from which all other colors are created are called primary colors. These colors are red, blue, and yellow. A color wheel is formed by placing these colors next to each other in triangular segments, somewhat like a pie chart.
Secondary Colors: Primary colors are mixed with one another to form a second set of colors called secondary colors. Red and blue become violet; red and yellow become orange; yellow and blue become green.
Tertiary Colors: The secondary colors are then mixed to form tertiary colors, a third tier of color mixtures. These include colors that result from mixing primary and secondary colors, such as yellow and orange to form yellow-orange. The other secondary colors form red-orange, red-violet, blue-violet, blue-green, and yellow-green.
These three sets of colors: Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary form a 12-color wheel that is the foundation for color theory.
Primary Secondary Tertiary
Red Orange Red-Orange
Blue Violet Red-Violet
Yellow Green Blue-Green
Colors also influence our temperature and have become divided into categories that describe them, such as warm and cool. All colors on the color wheel are associated with warm and cool temperatures. Warm colors include red, yellow, and analogous colors on the color wheel structure, such as orange and red-orange. These colors are active, exciting, and enliven a space. Cool colors include blue, violet, green, and their adjacent colors, such as blue-green and blue-violet. Cool colors have passive and calming qualities that can create a quiet mood.
While these descriptions refer to a visual aesthetic, research also indicates that an actual physical response to the colors themselves takes place. More than twenty years ago, Canada’s University of Alberta in Edmonton, Alberta demonstrated this concept by painting elementary classrooms blue for one month, and then repainted them with their original tones. Children’s heart rates and hyperactive behavior increased when the initial warm colors of brown and yellow returned. Similar results occurred in test classrooms for blind children.
Hue, Value, and Intensity
In addition to color temperature and the energy that colors can emit, there are three additional dimensions present in any color: hue, value, and intensity. Hue is the actual color itself, or the quality that allows us to distinguish one color from another. Value is the lightness or darkness of a color that results from the amount of white or black added to the original hue or color. Intensity is the strength of a color in its purest form, before it is mixed with any other color. These components are important when evaluating the use of color and can help considerably when faced with permanent colors in a church that does not complement the liturgical season.
The amount of color also influences the overall experience of the color and surrounding space. A field of color is the portion of one color in relation to other colors. Limiting the amount of color that brings about discord and emphasizing those colors that promote harmony can help balance the overall visual encounter.
Color Theory and Liturgical Space
While it is most important to be aware of all the dynamics of color when building or renovating churches, it is also important to be vigilant in existing spaces where planners might not have been aware of how the existing colors relate to the liturgical colors throughout the year.
Unintended permanent seasonal connections can also come about with the use of particular color schemes, such as fall colors or the Halloween motif in my childhood church. Cultural and symbolic associations can also trigger distracting reactions, rather than invite prayer. Likewise, current trends that might be beautiful in banquet rooms or offices are not always able to support the varying colors of the liturgical seasons and the accompanying goal of noble simplicity.
Forming the Assembly
How can we form the assembly with aesthetic harmony, in spite of permanent colors that hinder, rather than help this endeavor?
1) Assess the Worship Space with Relation to the Colors of the Liturgical Year.
The main colors of the Liturgical Year are violet, red, green, and white. Think through how existing and temporary colors, their temperatures and surrounding décor, harmonize or conflict with one another. This assessment will inform decisions regarding future painting projects, banner choices, long- term goals, and simple changes that might be necessary.
2) Observe the Whole Space and Temporary Décor.
What are the dominant hues, tones, and textures? What are the overall fields of color that support the harmony of the space? What distracts from it? What can be changed? Items, such as wall hangings, floor mats, or non-uniform votive candles can sometimes be removed, covered over, or replaced, so that they don’t compete with the surrounding color schemes.
3) Match Hue, Value, and Intensity in Seasonal Décor.
While some color combinations are unavoidable, their effect can be minimized by coordinating the intensity of colors, their values and hues. A difficult carpet color can be diffused by choosing seasonal fabric or flowers that complement, rather than conflict, with their surroundings. Altar cloths, seasonal décor, and floral bouquets all interact as fields of adjacent colors. It’s important to be aware of how all the colors in a space interact; the placement of bouquets and their backdrops, a cool toned fabric against a warm brick wall, or a floor covering that does not enhance the seasonal décor. Poinsettias, for example, come in many shades. Pink may not be the best choice for an orange carpet.
4) Bear the Weight of the Mystery.
The best color scheme in the world is superfluous if the value of the color, the liturgical objects themselves, and the surrounding sacred space do not bear the weight of mystery celebrated. It is important to be aware of the weight of fabrics, the texture of all materials, and how they hold integrity with the ritual they support. While sheer pastels abound in Easter dresses, they do not necessarily convey the power of the paschal mystery. Potted flowers and plants do not need to be presented in the foil covers provided by florists. They can be placed in clay pots, baskets, or large containers to hold more blooms.
Become an Artist with Color
While all of us react to color on some level, it is best to engage those who are very aware of color when planning liturgical space and seasonal décor. If you or someone in your parish does not have this skill, seek out color theory books that can serve as a guide or talk with someone who has a particular background in art or design. It is of course vital that liturgical principles remain primary in these conversations, but it's also essential to garner artistic insight. The U.S. Bishops' Built of Living Stones speaks well to the contribution of artists in these conversations:
Materials of the Artist. Artists bridge the worlds of the visible and the mysterious invisible. They focus upon items with specific shapes, sizes, weights, densities, colors, forms, and textures. At the same time, they utilize materials that struggle to express ideas and concepts, visions, and imaginative constructions. Even as they nourish the senses with beauty, they also disclose the "transcendent value" and the "aura of mystery" in the Christian message. Par. 161
Color and Spirit
Color theory can serve as a foundation for making color choices; however, we must always remember the power of color itself. Colors also hold a vibrancy and ability to “transcend” and create an “aura of mystery.” Twenty plus years ago, a good friend gave me a lovely collection of color poems entitled Hailstones and Halibut Bones: Adventures in Color by Mary O’Neill. It begins: Like acrobats on a high trapeze, the colors pose and bend their knees. Twist and turn and leap and blend – into shapes and feelings without end… After numerous descriptions of colors that answer questions, such as “What is red? What is blue? What is orange?” O’Neill concludes saying: For colors dance and colors sing, and colors laugh and colors cry – … And you and you and I know well, each has a taste and each has a smell. And each has a wonderful story to tell.
In the liturgy, that story is the red of martyrdom, the violet of reconciliation, the white of resurrection, and all the accompanying colors incorporated into images, liturgical objects, art, and architecture throughout centuries of passing on scriptural renderings and the paschal mystery. We can help focus the story and mystery of our faith by sorting through how color supports, distracts, and enhances the central symbols we enter into and raise up each day in prayer.
Support the Ministry of Color
I can still remember the exact color, sparkle, and sheen of the turquoise plastic on the amplifiers used by the church choir when I was in grade school. I vividly remember the orange crushed velvet presider chair. At the same time, I will never forget the overwhelming beauty of colored light streaming through the stained glass windows of Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. I continue to be fascinated by how color, texture, tone, and intention can transform a worship space from ashen reflection to Easter joy.
Even if you are not consciously aware of color, you can help enhance the worship of all those who are affected by color – the whole assembly. Although planning color is often an afterthought, liturgical colors direct our prayer by signaling the time of year, witnessing the hierarchy of a feast, telling the story of a season, and highlighting the objects that are important. Poorly chosen permanent colors can distract from the most beautiful altar cloth, vestment, or seasonal décor. It is worth promoting the impact that color has in our liturgy and on our worshipping assembly. Color can greet you with harmony each day – or distract you with discord. For colors dance and colors sing… Take a walk into your worship space today and join in the dance.
Denise L. Anderson is a liturgical consultant and writer who lives in St. Paul, MN and worships at St. Peter Claver Catholic Church. She holds an M.A. in Liturgical Studies from The University of Notre Dame.
Photo of the Stations of the Cross at the Church of St. Gabriel, Toronto, Ontario, was taken by Martin Knowles and provided by Roberto Chiotti.
READ OTHER ARTICLES BY DENISE L. ANDERSON:
A Paschal Environment (Part 1 and Part 2)
Liturgical Décor...Most Holy Trinity and the Body & Blood of Christ
Ordinary Time Decor: Part I and Part II