Environmental Color

An analysis of its effect on the human experience

Below you find a selection of my research on environmental color. To restrict my research domain I chose to look at environmental colors in nature. Environmental colors have always played a role in our evolutionary process, of which a large part has taken place in our natural environment. Colors in nature are in close association with natural light, which makes the combined effects richer and subtler than colors of common human artefacts.

By analyzing pictures, I tried to get a grip on the influence and effects of the different main aspects of environmental colors, based on the book ‘Color – Communication in Architectural Space’ by Meerwein (2007). For my analysis I chose pictures of natural
landscapes that visualize these aspects. The proportions of colors in nature strongly depend on the perspective the environment is seen from. That’s why the pictures show landscapes at eye level, just like we experience them in reality.

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Under- and overstimulation

Extreme monotony and sensory deficiency can lead to understimulation, while an extreme surplus of stimuli can produce overstimulation. Both extremes can trigger physical or psychological changes. The analysis of the picture of the desert shows that it has very few different color ranges, with low contrasts. The surfaces of colors are very wide. Compared to that, the field of sunflowers has bright colors in high contrast with the clear blue sky. The yellow surfaces are small and alternated frequently with the green surfaces. The edited pictures show that the desert would be more stimulating with the alternation of smaller colored surfaces and higher contrasts. The field of sunflowers would look more calm with less contrasts and bigger surfaces. Combined, the desert and sunflowers come to a refined color palette that is more balanced.

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The phenomenon synesthesia can be experienced when the stimulation of one of our senses simultaneously stimulates another sense. The pictures of the snow landscape and the water landscape by sunset are examples of what we call ‘warm’ and ‘cold’ colors. The snow and clear sky have cold blue, white and pink colors, where the sunset gives warm reddish, mauve and orange colors to the water and sky. That the snow is soft and the water shiny, also influences our perception. The snow looks light, the water heavy. When the blue of the clear sky is changed to ultramarine, it looks warmer. Replacing the red by a lighter pink, makes the landscape look cold.

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The images on these two pages show how the color palette found in the hilly landscape is used in different kind of designs. It shows that color inspiration from nature cannot only be used for landscape designs, but for all kinds of spatial and even superficial compositions. In the spatial designs the warm color palette is used for open spaces, where at the same time it gives a feeling of safety. The warmth of the color palette also makes it very suitable for the design of a scarf.

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Color Fundamentals

In the first image (bottom left) the hues of the sky and the grass surface are exchanged. This physically means an exchange of the different wavelengths. In the second image (top right) the luminosity is exchanged. The luminosity of a color indicates how much light is reflected from its surface. This indicates that the texture plays an important role too. The third image (bottom right) exchanges the saturation of sky and grass. Saturation is also referred to as strength, intensity or chroma. It distinguishes high chromatic colors from low chromatic ones. In the larger image above the colors are exchanged. Colors are defined by the three criteria described before, and the nuance, intensity of hue.

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Color Contrasts

These images show the influence of changing the color of a small element in the environment. The yellow and orange flowers look natural, but monotonous, because of the lower contrast with its surroundings. The blue also comes from the palette, yet looks strange. It doesn’t have its natural location related to the environment. The green flowers don’t look natural due to their high contrast with the existing palette. The purple though, looks less strange. It is the complementary color of the yellow in the background. The lighter flowers look more fresh, the darker leads the eye to the yellow field. Less saturation makes the flowers almost disappear in its surrounding colors.

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Light and Color

Natural light changes during the day and the surfaces that reflect the light change colors. In these two pictures this can be seen very clearly, because the water highly reflects the sunlight and sky. The clear colors during the day look fresh and make you feel active. The sunset looks mysterious and calming. When the two pictures overlay one another, you can see that material also plays a role in the experience of a landscape when light is changing. Trees normally reflect less light than water. That’s why it looks strange when the trees look warm and bright by night and when the water looks dark and heavy during the day.

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Color and Material

The pictures of the trees in autumn and the hills by evening light have more or less similar color palettes, but different materials. The trees show a lot of small surfaces with different colors, but within a certain range. The hills have larger surfaces of colors with the same contrasts. The green becomes one big surface, because of the distance. When the pictures are put on top of one another, the flat surfaces of the hills get divided into more subtle, smaller ones. The colors are still divided over larger parts of the image. Combining the images differently, the small surfaces of the trees look larger, but with the different colors mixed and spread over the image.


I believe we can learn a lot from environmental colors in nature and its effect on how we feel. A deeper understanding of this will help us design environments which are healthy and comfortable, stimulating or calming, depending on the experience we want to achieve.