Birren Color Theory

by admin on March 11, 2012


Color affects us in profound ways. The sight of a clear, blue sky makes us feel calm and tranquil. We can almost smell the sweet scent of a rose when we see a bush full of pink blooms. A person wearing all-black clothes can invoke thoughts of sadness, death, and depression.

Some of the feelings and reactions that we have in regards to the colors we see can be attributed to culture and society, but some of it comes from our psychology make-up. Some color researchers have done work on this relationship between colors and the human perception. This type of research is part of a field called color theory, which focuses on color mixing and its visual impact.

Faber Birren, one of the most prominent scholars in the field of the theory of color, spent most of his academic career studying the influence of color on art, the workplace, and human psychology. His work, which was donated to Yale University’s Art and Architecture Library, is now referred to as Birren color theory.

Color and Emotions

One of Faber Birren’s beliefs about color was that we use color every day to express ourselves, to communicate our thoughts and feelings, and to help us with self-identification. Rather than saying that colors have a direct influence on emotions, Birren wrote that it is the human perception of colors that affect our emotions.

In his book, “Color Psychology and Color Therapy,” Birren stated that introverts generally are affected less by color as compared to those who are more emotionally responsive.This further supports his stance that it is just our perception of color, and not the colors themselves, that have a direct relationship with our feelings, thoughts, and emotions.

He also wrote another book on the subject of color and human emotions, titled “Color and Human Response.” In it, Birren discusses the influence of color on human life as seen in history and scientific data. In ancient times, color had many symbolic uses for religious and societal means. Today, color is still used for psychological effects — in homes, offices, schools, and even hospitals. Birren makes recommendations for certain colors to be used in these spaces in order to achieve a calming effect rather than increasing anxiety.

Color and Art

The mark of a great art piece is its ability to invoke emotions in the viewer. So it makes sense to see that Birren focused on art as a big part of his research, since he was so interested in the relationship between color, perception, and emotions. He had a lot of opinions on the role of color in art and how colors should be used to achieve color harmony.

Color Harmony

Birren was especially resistant to bright colors used in art. During the 20th century, a group of French artists started the Fauvism movement, where they used bold, vivid colors in their paintings. Birren felt that this style wasn’t as pleasing to the eye as an artwork that used tints, tones, and shades of colors. A tint is the result of a color mixed with white, while a tone is the result of a color mixed with gray. The combination of a color and black is a shade.

According to Birren, an artwork that includes tints, tones, and shades instead of only pure color is more harmonious. An artist that employs this technique is Leonardo da Vinci; Birren considered his work as a great example of color harmony.

Colors are generally divided into two groups: warm colors and cool colors. Birren color theory postulates that warm tones are more preferable by both artists and viewers. Thus, many of his diagrams and examples include more warm colors than cool colors.


A common thread throughout Birren’s work is that the power of color depends on a person’s perception of it. Different environmental conditions can cause a certain color to look different to the human eye, or more accurate, the human brain. Birren calls this field of study Perceptionism.

In “Creative Color,” Birren details how painters can achieve the perception of luster, iridescence, and luminosity with careful combinations of color. He also includes discussions of chromatic light, chromatic mist, and luminosity in mist. His research and examples show that skilled artists can present a work that leads the viewer to perceive transparency, solidity, and/or texture. Highlights and shadows are also covered in his study of color use in art.

An important aspect of Perceptionism is the goal of making colors look life-like. This can be achieved with a limited color palette that reflects the “field size.” The majority of an artwork is called the field and this should be in colors that are lower in saturation, while the focus of the work should be more vibrant in color.

Color and Other Senses

Do you smell certain scents when you see certain colors? What about taste – does a color make you feel like you can “taste” it? Some people experience one of the other four senses when they see specific colors. For example, colors like cool green and aqua blue are considered as “good smelling” by some people.

This association between a sense, such as sight, with a different sense, such as taste, is called synaesthesia. Faber Birren discussed the phenomenon in his book, “Creative Color: An Approach for Artists and Designers.”

Birren’s work on colors and their place in art is regarded as one of the most important resources for artists, especially painters. Students of art are strongly encouraged to read his books and his articles. A great thing about Birren’s books is that they include exercises for artists to try so they gain a better understanding of the power of intentional and thoughtful color mixing.

Today, Birren’s theories are studied and put into practice by architects, artists, painters, teachers, interior designers, and industrial designers. For anyone who works with color, Birren’s work is invaluable and enlightening. Decades after their publication, his books and articles are still relevant and will probably continue to be applicable for many more decades to come.

Previous post:

Next post: