Psychology, color wheels, and random decisions all contribute to the color’s popularity in cartoons
You might not have noticed that a disproportionate number of cartoon characters exhibit a yellowish hue, but if you look at cartoons of the past two or three decades, it certainly seems to be the case. There’s no one guiding reason why so many cartoons get the jaundice treatment, but in the aggregate, reasons such as contrast, psychological response, and even random choice all combine to give us loads of yellow characters. The following video from Channel Frederator lists the myriad reasons, many nonintuitive, why yellow is such a popular choice in animation.
Let’s start with the most glaring example, The Simpsons. The iconic family was given a yellow skin tone rather than a paler or peachier one so that the figures would “pop” while people were flipping through stations. Nowadays, people don’t flip quite so much, but the use of yellow as a differentiator in other contexts pops up from time to time.
The next most prominent example may be the character who lives in a pineapple under the sea, SpongeBob SquarePants. There’s a little more science behind the decision to make some characters yellow, and it has to do with the background and the way color is shown on a TV. The color wheel that TV broadcasts use allows blue and yellow to play off one another in a more harmonious way than other color wheels do. Since blue is prevalent as the color of the sky or the color of the sea, yellow serves as a safe bet for coloring characters, knowing that they’ll often be placed against decidedly blue backdrops.
Finally, there’s the matter of color psychology, which the video breaks down in detail.
This doesn’t play as big a role as you might think, since much of the feelings evoked from colors are contextual, rather than absolute. That said, yellow is often attributed to playfulness or happiness, which makes it a sound choice for a cartoon character. But it may also be the preferred color by default, as hues such as red and blue are evocative of anger and sadness, respectively.
Finally, yellow skin, even when animated, still looks vaguely human. That can make a family like The Simpsons even more relatable or allow an absurd character like SpongeBob or Jake from Adventure Time to seem a little more grounded.
You may not have even realized that yellow was a popular choice for animated characters, but now that you do, chances are you won’t be able to see another one without picking apart the contexts for the decision.