The Color Series: The Psychology of Black

Black Throughout the Ages

Black is the darkest color, the result of the absence or complete absorption of visible light. It is an achromatic color, a color without hue, like white and gray. It is often used symbolically or figuratively to represent darkness. Black and white have often been used to describe opposites such as good and evil, the Dark Ages versus Age of Enlightenment, and night versus day. Since the Middle Ages, black has been the symbolic color of solemnity and authority, and for this reason is still commonly worn by judges and magistrates.1

For the ancient Egyptians, black had positive associations; being the color of fertility and the rich black soil flooded by the Nile. It was the color of Anubis, the god of the underworld, who took the form of a black jackal, and offered protection against evil to the dead.1

In Latin, the word for black, ater and to darken, atere, were associated with cruelty, brutality and evil.  Black was also the Roman color of death and mourning. In the 2nd century BC Roman magistrates began to wear a dark toga, called a toga pulla, to funeral ceremonies. Later, under the Empire, the family of the deceased also wore dark colors for a long period; then, after a banquet to mark the end of mourning, exchanged the black for a white toga. In Roman poetry, death was called the hora nigra, the black hour.1

Black in Culture

In China, the color black is associated with water, one of the five fundamental elements believed to compose all things; and with winter, cold, and the direction north, usually symbolized by a black tortoise. It is also associated with disorder, including the positive disorder which leads to change and new life. 

In Indonesia black is associated with depth, the subterranean world, demons, disaster, and the left hand. When black is combined with white, however, it symbolizes harmony and equilibrium.

In Japan black can also symbolize experience, as opposed to white, which symbolizes naiveté. The black belt in martial arts symbolizes experience, while a white belt is worn by novices. Japanese men traditionally wear a black kimono with some white decoration on their wedding day.1

The Definition of Black

In the visible spectrum, black is the absorption of all colors. Black can be defined as the visual impression experienced when no visible light reaches the eye. Pigments or dyes that absorb light rather than reflect it back to the eye “look black”. A black pigment can, however, result from a combination of several pigments that collectively absorb all colors. If appropriate proportions of three primary pigments are mixed, the result reflects so little light as to be called “black”. This provides two superficially opposite but actually complementary descriptions of black. Black is the absorption of all colors of light, or an exhaustive combination of multiple colors of pigment.1

Now that we understand some of the history of black, how does it affect us? 

Black feels sophisticated, classic and serious.3

Black evokes power, luxury, elegance, but can also mean professionalism, neutrality and simplicity. It’s bold, powerful and is often used to evoke mystery. In certain contexts and cultures the color black can also refer to mourning or sadness.3

According to color psychology, color-related emotion is highly dependent on your personal preference and past experiences with that particular color. The color black is no different.2

For some, black evokes positive associations with this color, including attractiveness and elegance.1 The color oozes sophistication. That’s why so many people choose to don black clothing when attending a fancy event. It’s also why high-end brands like Tiffany & Co. and Chanel utilize black in their logos.2

When it comes to high society, the color black has long been associated with power. From priests to judges, tuxedos to credit cards.2 Black is elegant, mysterious, and makes us feel empowered. It is also color that can go with virtually any other color to dominate or accent. 

However, many use the color black to symbolize all things negative. Throughout history, this somber color has been tied to death and all things evil and bad. It evokes strong feelings of anger, aggression, fear, and sadness.2

The connection between black and negativity is probably most clearly seen in our language. Just consider these commonly used expressions: Black Monday. Black Plague. Black magic. Blackball. Blackhole. Black-hearted. Black mood. Black sheep. Blackmail. Black market. Blackout. The list could go on.2

Colorfully Yours,
Holly Johnson


Next Color Series post: The Psychology of White

Sources:
1 Black – Wikipedia
2. The Color Psychology of Black (verywellmind.com)
3. How Color Impacts Emotions and Behaviors (99designs.com)

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