“In nature, light creates the colour. In the picture, colour creates the light.” – Hans Hofmann

Ever find yourself staring at a design trying to work out why it’s not quite right?

This guide to the science and psychology between colours and gradients in email might just shed some light on the issue.

Read on to discover:

  • The basics of colour theory
  • The psychological effects of commonly used colours
  • How and why to use gradients as well as a block colour

Let’s dive into the world of colours and gradients in email and you’ll understand why it’s one of the hottest trends in email marketing.

A Quick Introduction to Colour Theory

Getting your brand colours right means selecting combinations that convey your message and identity, and at the same time, work perfectly together to grab your audience’s attention and draw the eye to your key ideas and CTAs.

… no pressure, then.

Loosely speaking, all colours can be divided into “warm” and “cold”. Warmer colours such as yellow and red project energy and enthusiasm, while cooler colours like blue convey a calmer, more reserved message. 

That said, you can also brighten up cool colours, making them less reserved. You can do that by raising the colour vibrancy or by pairing it with one from the opposite side of the colour wheel, which makes both colours appear more intense. Pairing across the colour wheel are: blue & orange, purple & yellow, red & green. You can play around with complementary colours using this free tool.

It’s important to note that the psychology behind colour interpretation is complicated, personal, and highly dependent on the wider cultural context. For that reason, we’ll focus on colour theory and meanings as they apply broadly to US-centric marketing and advertising. 

Popular Colours and What They Mean

Let’s take a look at some commonly used colours and the science behind why they’re used.


Heavily associated with the sky and the sea, blue is often used to convey serenity, trustworthiness, stability. This makes it popular with organisations that rely on being perceived as dependable, like financial institutions. 


Much like a raging bull, seeing the colour red activates your pituitary gland. This increases your heart rate and makes you breathe faster. As a result, it grabs attention and triggers a strong response. That response might be aggressive, passionate or even provoke a sense of danger, so be careful how you use it.


For obvious reasons, people all over the world connect the colour yellow with the sun. That means it’s used to lift moods and suggest warmth, light, and optimism. This association has a motivating impact, too, inspiring creativity. Plus, the eye notices yellow before any other colour.


To the human eye, white is a brilliant colour that the eye is drawn to it and takes it in. In the West, at least, it’s used to convey purity, cleanliness, and simplicity.


The opposite of white, black is essentially the absence of colour, making it appear bold, solid and powerful, as well as throwing other colours – especially brilliant ones – into relief. The drama of it can express exclusivity and sophistication, although you need to make sure you’re using it in a way that’s sleek rather than heavy.

All About Gradients

Using gradients adds even more depth and interest to your colours and means you can create something more unique than a straightforward colour palette or Pantone swatches. That is if you choose the right spread of tones to blend in your gradient. Otherwise, it can clash horribly.

Gradients According to Science

For elegant, natural-looking gradients, it’s best to think of this as a shift through colour rather than a progression through a series of different colours. 

In other words, you don’t want to do a 180 around the colour wheel. Rather, you want to be more subtle – more like a ⅙ of a turn around the wheel, although you’ll need to experiment to get it perfect, as this is still a creative endeavour and not an *exact* science.

If you do want to end up with a different colour at the end of the gradient, it’s still best to apply this logic. As in, choose a neighbouring colour for the start of the gradient, such a magenta that turns into blue-violet, or bright green that shifts into a yellowish-green by the end. You get a very different mood, but to get the gradient smooth, it’s still about the distance you turn around the wheel.

Also, think carefully about whether you want your gradient to rise in luminosity or fall in luminosity as it changes from one colour to another. This has a big difference in whether you want a gradient to feel soothing or inspiring, for example. 

Final Thoughts

These tips on colours and gradients in email should give you a starting point for discovering powerful new colour combinations to bring your brand to life. At the same time, it’s important to trust your eye. If something doesn’t look right or doesn’t convey what you want it to, no amount of theory will make it pop. Keep experimenting until you get it right.

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