Background: This study was designed to explore whether or not children systematically use particular colours when completing drawings of affectively characterised topics.
Method: Three hundred and thirty 4-11-year-old children were subdivided into three conditions, colouring in a drawing of a man, a dog, or a tree, respectively. The children completed two test sessions in counterbalanced order. In one session, children rated and ranked ten colours in order of preference. In the other session, children completed three colouring tasks in which they had to colour in three identical figures but which had been given different affective characterisations: a neutrally characterised figure, a figure characterised as nasty, and a figure characterised as nice.
Results: It was found that, in all age groups and for all topics, the children used their more preferred colours for the nice figures, their least preferred colours for the nasty figures, and colours rated intermediately for the neutral figures. It was also found that, in all age groups and for all topics, black tended to be the most frequently chosen colour for colouring in the drawings of the negatively characterised figures. By contrast, primary colours were predominantly selected for the neutral figure, while a wide range of mainly primary and secondary colours were chosen for colouring in the nice figure.
Conclusions: These results suggest that children are able to alter systematically their use of colour during picture completion tasks in response to differential affective topic characterisations, and that even very young children are able to use colours symbolically.