What is the Meaning of Color?

What is the meaning of color? I realize that for many this question will seem non-sensical, since color is likely to be perceived as something that just is, a phenomena that originally occurred in nature and that we replicate through various means in culture. Others, tuning into the fact that we replicate colors in culture, might respond to this question by drawing upon what each color means symbolically according to various traditions. In this manner, red might mean love or anger, yellow might mean friendship or cowardice, and white could mean purity or absence, and so on and so on. Still others might turn to a scientific analysis of nature for their answer and respond to this question by looking at how colors function within various ecosystems. Within this vein, one could say that the multicolored plumes of a male bird means sexual attraction, or that the green of a leaf means energy production. All of these responses, however, don’t quite get at the marrow of my question, for I pose this question metaphysically. In this light, I restate my question thusly, “In the grand scheme of things, what is the meaning of color?”

The answer to my question is found in a willingness to set “sense” aside, and become a child, who with a trusting heart is enabled to enter the theological playground where this question was formed. The reason this is so is that the answer to this question in not something that is derived through the sophisticated disposition common to adulthood, a disposition that seeks to get below the appearance of things. Such an approach causes us to miss both the question and its answer. Instead, the meaning of color is discovered in that disposition of heart and mind that allows humans to experience the sublime. Though I risk being criticized as anthropomorphic, I assert that it is within our very subjective response to the glory of color, particularly as it is found in nature, that we find its meaning. It may be true that we as individuals have a variety of responses, but generally we have all had moments of awe and wonder. For me, it often happens during summer when the late afternoon Sun illumines the leaves of all plants and trees on the valley floor, and after that when during sunset the sky is ablaze with intense hues of red, pink, yellow, purple, and orange. It also happens when I look at the deep dark blue of the midnight sky punctured and punctuated by white shining stars. I could easily go on to name numerous other instances, but the point is that such instances exist in the first place. In these moments, when we are arrested by the glory of color, we are enabled to perceive what creation is always declaring, that God is good, and this is the meaning of color.

So, the next time you find yourself in such a moment, don’t dismiss it as the freak response of human consciousness; rather embrace such a response as that which mostly deeply connects you to who God is and his heart toward you. After all, a child would easily accept this as true.

9 Responses to “What is the Meaning of Color?”

  1. Anthony Velez  

    Since I wanted to keep this post from being to technical, I opted to confess here a contingency that I withheld while composing it, and that is that the presupposition underlying this post is that there is a personal creator God. If someone denies this presupposition then of course color has no metaphysical meaning. However, with this denial all intrisic/metaphyical meaning is lost as well. This only leaves social and personal constructions of meaning. If this is where you come from, I would still say exercise your imagination and give this childlike approach a try as you may find yourself connecting to something that is beyond comprehension but yet becomes very real to you.

  2. ROG  

    I understand – I think. Still, a lot of our perception of color, though, IS infused with our definition. Red for boys and blue for girls was the way it was in the beginning of the 20th C., e.g., but then it switched. But if we’re God’s creation, then is human values/constructs also valid as well?

  3. Anthony Velez  

    Roger, The whole question of meaning is a complex matter that I will be contemplating and working out for the rest of my life, and so I am sure that in light of this, my post is somewhat simplistic. However, to give more background, I will say that this post was written in part as a response to the modern/postmodern notion that there is no true connection between human knowledge (perception, values, meaning) and the nature of things as they are in themselves. Actually, I wrote a post titled “The Gallery of Truth” where I took a crack at the tension that exists between subjectivity and objectivity in the search for Truth. Anyways, when it comes to delineating how the mind structures our experience and thereby constructs our sense of the world, I am aware that in many ways we are locked in subjectivity, and that our values and our sense of meaning is relative. However, working out of the presupposition that God does exist and that he is good, it struck me that perhaps our very subjective responses of delight in color (or any other sensory experience) could be interpreted as an expression of God’s goodness, even if we all are uniquely finding it in our own ways. And so, yes!! I do think that our constructions are a part of God’s creation, that he made us to make meaning and create values. However, I think that there is a boundary in which these creative capacities of ours should operate, which is within the light and knowledge of God’s goodness and grace.

  4. Kevin Benson  

    Rich Mullins has a song – The Color Green – which captures the experience you describe, especially in the video. The refrain is:

    Be praised for all Your tenderness by these works of Your hands
    Suns that rise and rains that fall to bless and bring to life Your land
    Look down upon this winter wheat and be glad that You have made
    Blue for the sky and the color green that fills these fields with praise

    The idea of nature itself filling the universe with praise of its creator is compelling. I remember growing up and riding with my mom out to our house in the country in the springtime. Every trip we made she would wax poetic about the green grass on the hills, the orchards in multi-hued bloom, and the fields of yellow mustard stretching into the distance. As a teenager, I was not impressed. As an adult, however, I find myself struck by the beauty I missed back then, and it does well up in me an appreciation and greater intimacy with our creator. This statement is still too me-centric, for the creation would still proclaim its praise (‘”the rocks will cry out”) regardless of my opinion or acknowledgement

  5. Anthony Velez  

    Kevin, Thanks for drawing attention to this song. I have long been a Rich Mullins fan and I am familiar with this song. I would hope that the Spirit that inspired me to write my post and the Spirit that inspired Rich’s song are one an the same.

    As I was putting my post together, it struck me that I am essentially talking about nature as a whole. I decided, however, to focus on color as it seemed more provocative and it was that aspect of nature that really caught my attention.

    I am starting to think that all humans have had some kind of sublime experience (an experience of awe and wonder regarding creation) but that many dismantle the significance of this experience by chalking it up to subjective/anthropomorphic projections that have nothing to do with innate structure of “reality”. I also think that perhaps people do this because of some kind of fear and/or pride. It’s like Jesus said, if you would see the Kingdom of Heaven, you must become a child.

  6. Rachel  

    You know how much I admire him so my quote will come as no surprise. G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “There is a line from the eye to the heart that does not pass through the intellect.” The first time I read this I was struck by the truth of it, as if a spoke in a wheel had locked into place, creating a clearer path to the center. “The Heavens declare the glory of God.” I think color really is that simple. It speaks of our maker in a way that is nearly undeniable. It whispers to that central part of us, “accident? You know better.” Anyone who has ever spent time in the study and appreciation of art recognizes the deliberateness of the masterpieces. Every stroke, every color picked out with care and purpose. I have often looked at the colors on an autumn day: the golds and the burnt oranges, the deep reds and the warm yellows. All seem to be too beautiful a combination to have occured by mere chance. There is something personal in the world and its colors, and in order for it to be personal there has to be a person to mean it.

  7. Anthony Velez  

    Rachel – Thanks for the line from Chesterton. I think it very much gets at the heart of what I am saying in this post.

    Again and again, I am struck by the idea that there is another way of looking at the world, a way that goes beyond the reach of reason, particularly discursive reason. I think it’s appropriate to call this way the mystical, but I resist this for two reasons. One, there are connotations with the word mystical that I eschew, such as the mystical being fuzzy, or being merely a term we hang on phenomena we don’t understand. Two, I am frustrated that I cannot rationally support my intuition regarding this mystical sense, as I am one who values intelligence, and in our culture rational capacity has co-opted what it means to be intelligent. This said, I realize that this latter resistance is grounded on my pride. It goes against my desire to be perceived as intelligent.

    In the end, I realize that reason is a powerful gift of God, but as Lewis says, the greater the angel, the worse a demon when it falls. When reason functions as god of the soul, it absolutely wrecks everything, but when it functions as a subordinate angel to this intuition or vision of which I speak, it can gloriously explicate the world. In the end, I will throw my lot in with the Lord, who said that the Kingdom is wide open for those who are willing to become as little children.

  8. The Dark Glass » Blog Archive » Beyond Reason  

    […] Rachel – Thanks for the line from Chesterton. I think it very much gets at the heart of what I am saying in this post. […]

  9. Rachel  


    I know exactly what you mean. You come to a place where you are unable to quantify your feelings and the lack of rational is infuriating. I have wondered however, if this feeling isn’t the last stronghold of our design and the undeniable (except that people do in fact deny it) residue of our longing. The echo of eternity. In this way I think C.S. Lewis’ argument from Desire is an excellent one. Why would nature create a need that has no natural fulfillment?