The symbolism of the colour yellow

With yellow, it’s make or break! On the whole, it is not particularly liked among colors, people are wary of it, in short, it does not have a good reputation. But why is that?  Let’s find out a little more about what’s behind the colour yellow…

Yellow in history

In ancient times, it was rather appreciated. It is quite well represented in Greek and Roman paintings. You have to go back to the Middle Ages to understand why yellow was no longer popular: it was because of gold! Gold competed unfairly with yellow: rather than yellow, gold began to be used to illustrate the sun, light, power, luxury… Yellow appears to be dull and sad… Gold took away everything positive from it. In short, gold is yellow but with the added shine of glitter!
At that time, yellow was also associated, in medicine, with bile and urine… When you have a “yellow complexion” it is rarely a good sign!

Later on, it became the symbol of lies and betrayal: Judas is often represented with a yellow garment! Texts from medieval times state that yellow is the colour of traitors! This idea of infamy has remained to this day: in the 19th century, cheating husbands were caricatured in yellow suits, the famous “yellow cuckold”. And don’t workers call those who refuse to go on strike “scabs”? Finally, today, gentlemen, it is still a bit delicate to offer yellow flowers to your sweetheart…

Yellow is also the colour of sulphur and so, to top it all off, the Devil enters the scene! It is no coincidence that in 1269, Saint Louis imposed a distinctive badge on the Jews, the rouelle, a yellow felt wheel sewn onto their clothes. A dismal idea later taken up by the Nazis…

Around 1880, yellow gradually came back into favour. This corresponds to changes in society, to ideological and technological mutations. Electricity (yellow lighting) gradually arrived in homes. Painters left their studios to paint outside, fields of wheat or sunflowers (thanks to Van Gogh and Gauguin). After art, it was sport that gave a boost to yellow by attributing this colour to the winner of the Tour de France…

champs de fleurs jaunes
Photo by TOMOKO UJI on Unsplash

Yellow in the world

For all these reasons, for the majority of the Western world, yellow is almost always last in the list of favourite colours, while children, not yet influenced by these centuries of disgrace, often choose yellow in their drawings…

In the United States, yellow is the colour of movement (think New York taxis). It is also very present on road signs. It’s true that yellow is very noticeable from afar, like the famous Mac Do M (which some parents would like to see less), or the yellow waistcoat that ensures our safety in case of a breakdown.

In China, yellow is triumphant. For a long time it was the emperor’s prerogative and no one was allowed to wear yellow clothing (at the risk of having their head cut off!). Today, it remains a symbol of wisdom and wealth. In Japan, yellow is the colour of courage, bravery… but also of betrayal.

In India, it is associated with trade, knowledge and education. It is also the colour of the element of light. Saffron yellow protects against diseases.

In Egypt, it is the colour of mourning and sadness because of its strong link with gold, which is a symbol of eternal life.

The psychology of yellow

And yet, according to colour psychology, yellow brings positive thoughts: it represents energy, dynamism and enthusiasm. Physiologically, it affects the nervous system and emotions. It increases the level of serotonin, the famous happiness hormone!

Yellow has a fairly long wavelength, between 575 and 579 nm, and is emotionally stimulating, making us more confident and optimistic. Thanks to yellow, we have more confidence in ourselves. It is the colour of the sun after all! Stimulating for the eye, it promotes alertness, but also concentration and the assimilation of new ideas. Boosting the intellect, it has its place in the office.

In small doses, yellow is already very active, so beware, in too large quantities, it can trigger irritation, anxiety, nervousness… and even nausea! In fact, some yellows that are too “acidic” work directly on our digestive system!

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Yellow in decoration

There are many shades of yellow. There are warm yellows: daffodil, buttermilk, magnolia, sunflower, saffron, ochre, mustard… and cooler yellows such as lemon or fluorescent yellow. The yellows can be mineral (ochre, orpiment, realgar…), vegetable (saffron, curcuma…) or synthetic.

Its use in decoration stems from its natural ability to illuminate. It can therefore be used in rooms that are too dark or in narrow corridors. In the attic, part of the ceiling slope can be painted bright yellow.

As it catches the eye, yellow can also be used to highlight an area of the room (alcove), an architectural detail (cornice) or furniture and accessories. It is therefore used as a kind of spotlight, so don’t hesitate to emphasise the contrast.

Paint and wallpaper are not the only ways to bring yellow into our living spaces, think of curtains and textiles in general (plaid, cushions, tablecloths…).

Yellow likes grey, to create a strong and sunny atmosphere. As grey is a neutral colour in decoration, you can combine it with a fairly bright yellow.

Yellow likes blue, for a very pleasant sea/sun effect. One warms, the other refreshes, the balance is perfect. You should choose shades of the same intensity: two light tones or two strong tones.

Yellow loves pink: a pale powder pink can be combined with a spring yellow for a delicate, feminine atmosphere, without the baby effect.

Yellow loves purple, its complementary colour: this striking duo gives a nice warm/cool contrast. To be balanced according to the shades and the rooms concerned.

Yellow in feng shui

Yellow is associated with the earth element. This may sound strange to a European, but it is much less so in China (or Africa for that matter). The Loess Plateau, located in Northern China, is crossed by the Yellow River, whose name is derived from the dry land it carries and dyes.

Yellow is associated with 3 areas of the Lo Shu square: the North-East, the centre and the South-West.

If you need to nourish these areas, you can bring in yellow (or orange, the other colour of the earth in feng shui) in the form of a flat surface or accessories.
If it is difficult for you to bring yellow into your home, don’t hesitate to start with very soft shades, pastel yellows, which will bring light without too much sparkle.
Of course, to nourish these three areas, you can bring in earthy materials such as sand or ceramic objects.

Sources :
Le petit livre des couleurs – M. Pastoureau et D. Simonnet
DécoBook – Sophie Mouton-Brisse
Le Pouvoir des couleurs – Karen Haller  

symbolique couleur jaune

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