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Is colour worth a thousand words?

When children draw in clinical contexts, clinicians sometimes rely on children’s colour use to draw conclusions about their emotional reaction to the subject of the drawing.

In our study, we examined whether children do actually use colour to portray emotion in their drawings. In one experiment, children indicated their colour preferences and then coloured in outlines of figures characterised as nasty or nice. Children also drew complex, multi-coloured pictures about their own happy or sad experiences. In another experiment, hospitalized children drew about being worried or scared in hospital and about their positive experiences. In both experiments, we compared children’s colour use and their colour preferences.

Children used more preferred colours to colour in the nice outline, but a mix of preferred and non-preferred colours to colour in the nasty outline. When normal and hospitalised children produced drawings about emotional experiences, irrespective of emotional content, children primarily used preferred colours.

These data suggest that clinicians should exercise extreme caution when interpreting the meaning of colour in children’s drawings.

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