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Over the coming months, interiors journalist and author Kate Watson-Smyth will be exploring color in all its shades. What each hue means, why we react to it, how to choose the right one for the right room and when that might start to affect what happens in there. What you are about to discover may surprise you…

Last month we looked at orange, the feel-good shade of the color wheel—all laughter and friendship, appetite and intelligence.

Where then does yellow take us? The second of the three primary colors, when mixed with red (the mercurial toddler of the spectrum) it creates that friendly orange but, on its own, yellow can provoke a range of extreme reactions.

Think first of the buttery yellow kitchen that seems permanently filled with sunshine and loving families who never argue in the morning. But harden that shade to one that is brighter and deeper and it takes on a more aggressive tone. The combination of yellow and black is used on danger signs almost as often as red, and signifies hazard or, in the US, a crime scene. Used this way, yellow can provoke feelings of anxiety and agitation.

And don’t forget that yellow is said to be the color of cowardice—the yellow belly. The expression apparently started in the Fens, an area in the east of England, and may have referred to the officers of the North Lincolnshire Militia who wore yellow waistcoats. Another explanation is attributed to the women traders at street markets who wore leather aprons with two pockets—one for copper and silver, and one for gold. At the end of a good day they would refer to a yellow belly, meaning lots of gold sovereigns.

There was no connection with cowardice in these early versions, though. That association appears to have developed in the US in the 19th century, possibly as a Texan term for Mexican soldiers.

Like the other colors, yellow has different meanings in different countries. In the UK and the US, it’s used to symbolize remembrance and hope (Remember the song? ‘Tie a yellow ribbon round the ole oak tree…’) and is often the color of liberalism. In Japan it represents courage (the exact opposite to the US) and in China it was the color of the emperors who often wore yellow robes, possibly because they were closest to gold. In India, meanwhile, it’s the color of merchants.

But what about its positive connotations? We talk about someone having a sunny disposition, clearly a reference to yellow. It is also said to be the color of knowledge, connecting with the left, or logical, side of the brain to stimulate new ideas and work out mental challenges. Try and bring some yellow into a meeting room to encourage thinking and mental clarity. Because it’s also the color of communication, this should help everyone get their ideas across.

Given the range of emotions yellow can provoke, Karen Haller, a business color and branding expert, says that getting it right depends on the shade you choose.

‘Positive qualities for yellow are happiness, optimism and confidence. But too much yellow, or the wrong tone in relation to the other colors in the room, and the negative side will emerge: irrationality and anxiety.’

Don’t panic, however, about finding the right shade because that’s a purely personal decision. ‘The right shade of yellow is one that resonates with you,’ Haller says, adding that this can go from the palest cream right through to neon and acid yellows.

When it comes to using yellow in your home or hotel, it’s great for hallways and entrance spaces, breakfast rooms and kitchens, where its sunny properties will welcome people into the room. But beware of the yellow bedroom; Haller warns that over time you will wake up feeling annoyed.

If you have too much yellow, you can tone it down with its complementary color, purple. If that seems a bit too much, try a purple-based gray for a classic combination. Or use the colors next to it on the color wheel for a more harmonious palette, in this case orange and red or green. And don’t forget, this doesn’t have to be pillar-box red and grass green; there are endless versions and more subtle shades.

Unluckily for yellow, it seems to be one of the most polarizing colors of the rainbow. Those who like it seem to love it. Those who dislike it really hate it. For this reason it can be tricky to bring into a public space as you run the risk of upsetting some of your audience before you have even opened your mouth.

However, a small burst of yellow is unlikely to create too many problems, especially if it’s a large bunch of flowers on a reception desk. Alternatively, try hanging a few prints that contain some warm yellow tones.

Yellow also works well on its own, and seems to need nothing around it to make sense. So bring in a single yellow chair or stool to create a bright pop of color that, hopefully, won’t upset anyone in small enough doses but might really cheer up some others.

Share images of how you use yellow in your living space

Photo: Alamy

Kate Watson-Smyth
Kate Watson-Smyth (@katewatsonsmyth)

Kate Watson-Smyth has been a journalist for over 25 years, writing for the Financial Times, Daily Mail and The Independent. She runs the UK’s No 1 interiors blog Mad about the House and her first book, Shades of Grey, is out now.

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