In Living Color: Television and Color Theory

We are surrounded by color.  Everywhere we turn, it has been splashed onto something.  It even changes by season: red, orange and yellow leaves falling from black trees in the fall; white snow and grey skies in the winter; green grass and a rainbow of colored flowers in the spring; and shimmering, dark blue waves that meet a bright blue sky in the summertime.  How do each of those seasons make you feel?  We’re only just now beginning to understand the effect colors have on us.

What does this mean for visual art, such as comic books, film and television?  I think TV has managed to appropriate color theory in an interesting way, a way that makes sense on the screen that doesn’t always make sense in real life.  What I mean is, television has taken color and used it as symbolism, as a way to communicate a thousand silent messages, those of genre, tone, character, and emotion.  It is often more subtle than film, since shows have more run time than film, and it has a wider range than comics, which can be limited in color choice as well as length.

I noticed a few years ago that the shows I most enjoyed had a high percentage of the color orange: Arrested DevelopmentPsych and Chuck.  These three shows used orange to create a warm, cheerful tone.  I began to watch more closely for color use and came to the following conclusions:

Being-Human-001Color can sometimes be used to communicate genre.  For example:  serious shows that pose moral and philosophical questions like FringeBattlestar GalacticaDollhouse, and Being Human (UK) are all filmed with a dark palette: greys, purples, blacks, and deep greens.  There’s a purposefulness to the dimly lit scenes, a signal to be still and watch the drama unfold.  Saturation can also be used to good effect here, like in Being Human, which uses low saturation so that the scenery matches the stark outlook of the show.

If you think of brightly colored shows, like Ugly BettyGlee and Pushing Daisies, they can all be categorized as drama-comedies, or dramedies.  Comedies are usually presented with bold colors, like those seen in Modern FamilyParks and Rec, and Community.

There are, of course, exceptions.  What about Firefly, which straddles the line between warm, orange tones in the outer worlds, and the sinister purple, navy and black of the Alliance?  I think this happened because Firefly combines two genres, and so had both sets of colors at its disposal.

Color theory is talked about in relation to characters’ dress and set design, too.  I happened upon an article once about set dressing for House, in which the designers described their process.  They decided to use a muted background to focus on the forceful personality of Dr. House.  While his office might hold eclectic furniture and art, the hospital is barely visible behind his dramatic exits and entrances.  If they had decorated the hospital any brighter, his brusque manner might have been hindered by the pink or yellow decorations adorning the walls.

new girlSome characters are full of life, and it helps to show off their vivaciousness with bright colors.  Ugly Betty is a perfect example of this.  Betty always dresses in mismatched patterns, bold colors, chunky jewelry, and weird accessories.  Would we buy her character or even care about her if she wore muted, tailored clothing?  I think we’d be able to tell something was off.  Chuck from Pushing Daisies is another good example.  She has embraced her second chance at life and shows it by wearing bright yellows, oranges, and reds.  Jess from New Girl is the same: her quirky lifestyle is displayed in the unique clothing and color combos she wears, such as mismatched stripes and polka dots in magenta, teal, and coral.

Another way television uses color is in symbolism, especially the color red.  DexterSupernaturalBuffy, and others incorporate red as a signal for murder, evil, violence, war, and sometimes love, lust or romance.  For example, Battlestar Galactica’s only character to predominantly wear red is the cylon, Six, who encompasses several of these symbols.

dexter_season_6_wallpaperColor theory also infuses our emotions as we watch television.  Seeing red will cause a rise in heart rate and stimulates brain waves, which is good for political thrillers and mysteries.  Seeing orange energizes us, green soothes and relaxes us (a color not often utilized in television, but put to clever use by Weeds, for more than color theory reasons), and blue can lower blood pressure.  There aren’t many shows with a blue pallet that I’ve seen.  The only three I can think of are Leverage, Star Trek: Enterprise and White Collar, all of which are fun but not as heavy or intense  as a show that uses primarily red or dark pallets.

This isn’t to say that a show can’t defy color theory, or that it works this way for every show or viewer, but to be able to use color in such a way to create mood and tone, emotion, and symbolism in a story adds depth, which can ground the show and help keep it on track.

K.M. Cone

K.M. Cone

K.M. Cone is a story nerd, particularly for the episodic stories told via the medium of television. When not parked in front of the TV, K.M. Cone can be found writing kooky urban fantasy on her personal site, attempting to learn German, or making a huge pot of soup for her friends, who are probably coming over to join her in her latest TV or animated film obsession.
K.M. Cone

Latest Articles by K.M. Cone (see all)

You Might Also Like

  • I was just thinking about this! I think a show that defied color was The Unusuals. It carried all the colors of cop shows, but it was definitely one of those shows that could have gotten away with a more colorful set. I’m guessing they used the colorful characters to set that tone. Great post!

  • dustin_sanson

    You definitely see this in Supernatural. And what I love about that show is they know it, and even point it out in an episode.

  • xinamarie

    These are some great observations that I haven’t really paid a lot of conscious attention to. It might change the way I watch my next TV show. 🙂

  • Gina Bakkun

    Excellent insights! Thank you for writing.