Awakening the Artist Within
and Learning to Paint with a Full Palette of Colors

By Suzanne E. Harrill

One way to explain the human experience is through the metaphor of color. Imagine each of us is an artist at birth and given a palette of rainbow colors with which to paint our individual lives. Each one of us starts out using the color preferences of the family and society born into, therefore, repeating the conditioning. Some learn early to move beyond the limited palette and use unfamiliar colors to explore the rainbow of color possibilities. Those who prefer to paint with the same colors over and over and to limit the palette eventually find life has a corrective measure. The void resulting from not using certain colors draws people, situations, and lessons to build color awareness of our blind spots. This balances us over time on the journey to becoming a master artist of our lives. Let us awaken the artist within and use the metaphor of color to help us understand ourselves and our lives better. We will look at some basic color theory, describe qualities associated with each color, and illustrate how to apply using color as a helpful tool for building awareness.

 There are three primary colors ¾ red, yellow, and blue ¾ from which all other colors are mixed. You might recall playing with a set of watercolors or tempera paint as I do as a child. Remember blending red and yellow to make orange, yellow and blue to make green, and blue and red to make purple or violet. Imagine yourself as an artist today placing your colors of paint in a circle on your palette in the same order that we find in the colors of the rainbow ¾ red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet. Notice half the circle is warm (red, orange, yellow) and the other cool (blue, green, violet). Now let us see how we paint with color.

Ask yourself some questions. What is your favorite color? How does it make you feel? Do you have color preferences? Are warm or cool colors found more in your wardrobe or your home decorating? Maybe you prefer neutrals?  Which color(s) do you feel describes your personality? You can use the colors mentioned so far or others like rose, pink, turquoise, or apricot. Ponder a moment and ask yourself why you choose certain colors. To describe yourself, maybe you chose blue because you have a calm, patient, soothing personality, or red because you are enthusiastic and emotional, or yellow because you are joyful and light. Then again, notice if several colors are part of your makeup. Allow this inner exploration to guide you as you apply the information presented in this article.

You probably have memories that you associate with some colors. Many times color sparks our emotional memory. When I free-associate with the color yellow, I first think of sunshine and remember enjoying playing alone for hours as a child in our sunroom, spending lots of time in my imagination. Yellow makes me feel light and happy even today. Allow feelings and memories to surface in the next couple of days to see some of your associations with color, both positive and negative.

                                                Complimentary colors

To go a little further with color theory, which translates well to real life, is to look at complimentary colors. These are colors opposite each other on the color wheel (the name for our circle of rainbow colors on our palette). Opposites are dramatic and can be antagonistic, expressing conflict and irritation, or they can be complimentary, giving interest and enthusiasm. Let us look at one pair of opposite colors, red and green. If an artist wishes to tone down an intense color such as bright red, s/he can add the opposite color by adding a little green. You, as the artist of your life, might do the same; sit in nature or near green foliage to ease anger or upsetting feelings. To slow down your fast pace when you need to relax, consider deep breathing while visualize the color green or blue.

How do you figure out complimentary or opposite colors? Draw or visualize a circle on a piece of paper. Then, paint with markers the three primary colors red, yellow, and blue equidistant from each other (they make a triangle). Between the red and yellow place some orange, between yellow and blue mark green, and between the blue and red color in violet or purple.  This is just like earlier when the artist within put the six rainbow colors on the palette. If each of these six colors is in a circle, you will easily see the opposite or complimentary colors.  For example:

  • Red and green are complimentary colors
  • Blue and orange are complimentary colors
  • Yellow and purple-violet are complimentary colors

Complimentary colors are intense color combinations. Again, by adding the compliment or opposite to any color it tones down the intensity. In using life experiences as a metaphor, adding opposite colors to your intense experiences helps balance the extremes. The next time you are feeling depressed or lethargic, you might define this as being a blue experience. The antidote for too much blue is to experience the opposite, orange. Go outside to view the sunrise or sunset, buy orange flowers to view often. You might wear something orange or eat an orange or carrot. Breathe in while visualizing the color orange to energize you. When we are depressed we are passive and do not feel like moving or taking action. Orange is a warm color and suggests movement and laughter, just what we need. The color orange is the combination of red and yellow. Some qualities of red are action, power, and emotion, while some qualities of yellow are joy, illumination, mental activity. Journal writing would be a perfect orange activity to move out of being too blue. It allows frustrations and inner conflicts to surface so you can process them for deeper healing and awareness. When you probe with your mind, you can get to some of the causes for your depression, allowing you to understand, grieve, and integrate past traumas or disappointments, to sort out and feel your feelings, and o listen to your inner guidance.

Color Qualities

I was first exposed to the idea of using color qualities many years ago from one of my teachers, William David. He gave me permission to use the qualities found in his book The Harmonies of Sound, Color and Vibration and I have added some of my own.David explains that the qualities of each color can be in balance while in an acceptance range or can be out of balance when pushed to extremes. Some colors feel harmonious to us, while with others we feel resistance. For example, anger is one of the qualities of red. Using red within the balanced range, one allows it to surface when there is an injustice and the need to take action. Pushed to an extreme, anger that is ignored can turn into rage where it can do harm to oneself (accident-proneness, illness) or to another (attacking with hurtful words or using physical force). Some of us may avoid painting with red because of early encounters with red personalities that scared or hurt us. Others enjoy the intensity and energy of red and love to experience it.

Now it is time to view some qualities to associate with each color. Add some of your own.

RED – emotional, physical, active, movement, strength, quickness, fast-paced, empowerment, taking action, spontaneity, catalyst, directness, determination, pioneering, inspirational, will, power, anger, assertive, rage, authoritarianism, violence, lust, frustration, force, vengeance, destruction, rebellion, impulsive, impatience, oppressive, controlling, hostile, aggressive.

ORANGE – all the qualities of red and yellow, courage (taking action after thinking), creativity, victory, harvest, striving, risk-taking, inventiveness, innovative, daring, ignorance, pompous, superiority, brutality, indecisiveness, arrogance.

YELLOW – mental/thinking, joy, lightness, knowledge, illumination, learning, expression, verbal, logical, self-esteem, details, evaluation, discipline, sincerity, clarity, letter of the law, commitment, inspiration, communication, structure, organized, responsible, calculating, exclusive, critical, crystallization, stuck in a rut, lazy, constriction, contempt, selfish, cowardice, judgmental, procrastination, shunning, pride, conceit, resentment, intolerant, prejudice.

GREEN – all the qualities of blue and yellow, enthusiasm, hope, sharing, cornucopia, sustenance, expansion, growth, prosperity, fullness, abundance, pain, envy, regimentation, pessimism, disorder, miserly, stagnation, jealousy, greed.

BLUE – feeling, love, wisdom, nurturing, gentleness, meditative, peaceful, trust, mercy, kindness, patience, non-aggressive, contemplative, soft, inclusive, possessiveness, self-pity, self-rejection, isolation, depression, indifference, separateness, insecurity, cunning, passive, anxiety, coldness, rejecting, fear, worry, overindulgence, revenge, passive control.

PURPLE/VIOLET – all the qualities of red and blue, self-acceptance, service, harmony, devotion, loyalty, understanding of justice, royalty, idealism, group work, obsession, morose, impotence, vindictive, betrayal, martyrdom.

 Let us take a moment to look at a hypothetical example of using red, yellow, then blue to illustrate how one might end a relationship (substitute another issue if you choose, such as changing jobs). Red may get fed up with the partner after expressing once that s/he is not happy. Seeing little or no progress, being impatient with the power-struggles, and not wanting to take the time to learn new communication patterns, red says in the heat of the moment, “I quit, I want a divorce.”

Try yellow now. Yellow sees the problems because the situation has been analyzed for a long time. Confidence is lacking when yellow projects into the future imagining the single life, so creates affirmations for self-improvement, reads self-help books, and tries many times to make changes in the marriage. When all else fails, and yellow has a plan, then and only then, does yellow pull the plug.

Feel the difference now as blue experiences the ending of a relationship. Blue has been unhappy for a long time, does not like the way things are going, complains, but never does anything about it. Blue does not bring up issues or confront the partner unless the partner brings things up first. Blue is passive, not clear on what s/he wants, and prefers the status quo over the uncertainty of making a change. Blue allows the partner to call the shots. Therefore, blue, feels powerless and victimized when the divorce papers arrive.

What does it mean when you do not like a certain color?  It might mean you resist working with the lessons and qualities of that color. If someone does not liking orange it could mean metaphorically that s/he takes action quickly (red) without much thinking or it might mean that s/he thinks too much (yellow) without taking action. Orange is a good blend of both red and yellow ¾ taking action after thinking things through.

                                                Take a look at you.

For fun take a look in your closet and see what colors you prefer to wear. Consider arranging your clothing in order of the colors of the rainbow. Notice the colors you have lots of and those lacking in your wardrobe. When there is a missing color, you might buy a tee shirt or scarf in those colors, so you will have the full range of colors to experiment with and wear. Look at the colors you decorate with in your house and the color of your car.  What might this say about you? Notice your tendencies for choosing colors in your home, office, and clothing and evaluate how they make you feel. Wear clothes, eat foods, or sleep on sheets with the colors you feel you need. Be more aware of how you already use color, what colors you need for nourishment and inner balance and what is not needed. When you need a color boost nature is always there to nourish with the blue sky, white clouds, yellow sun, green trees, red and orange rocks, green water, and lavender and orange sunsets. Working with the colors in this way can be fun. It is not important to get it “right” but to recognize where your nourishment comes from in painting with color and which colors may give you a wider range of free will choice.

Now take a look at your food preferences. What colors dominate? Are there any you tend to leave out? Try experimenting with new choices of colors of food to include all the colors of the rainbow to not only, balance your nutrition but to broaden your choice of ways to bring more balance in your life. Be curious to see if this information is true for you.

  In conclusion, the journey of life is like learning to paint with a full palette of colors. As you choose to squeeze a little of each of the colors of the rainbow onto your artist’s palette, you broaden your free-will choice, as there are more options available for you. Having all the colors available balances the tendency to play it safe, maintain the status quo, or limit yourself. A full palette of colors empowers you to create life in a fuller, more aware way. Allow your inner artist to come out and play with color to grow in awareness. Color code your experiences and consciously choose the colors needed for your full expression and learning. Pay attention to colors you need more experience with and willingly paint with them. The process of painting with a full palette of color allows you to become the creative master of your own life.




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