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Color Theory: Why study color theory?

If you are involved in the creation or design of visual documents, an understanding of color will help when incorporating it into your own designs. Choices regarding color often seem rather mystical, as many seem to base decisions on nothing other than "it looks right." Although often told I had an eye for color, the reason why some colors worked together while others did not always intrigued me and I found the study of color theory fascinating. While attending the University of Minnesota I enrolled in almost every course I could from different departments: graphic design, interior design, and fine arts. During my studies, I learned that there were 2 main reasons why scholars investigated colorthe first involved the communication of colors; the other involved the application of color. Communicating Color What is red? Candy apple red, blood red, catsup red, rose red... to try and communicate a specific hue is difficult without some sort of coding system. Early in the 1900's, Albert Munsell, a professor at an art school in Boston developed a color system which offered a means to name colors. With a published system, people could be specific about which red they were referring. Munsell's system has been reworked for today's use with the Pantone color system, TRUEMATCH, CIE systems and others.

Color Application With respect to the arts, color was part of the realistic, visual representation of form, but one group of painters abandoned the traditional practices regarding color in painting. This group of artists were influenced by Cezanne, Van Gogh, and Gauguin. Led by Henri Matisse, they were known as the Fauves, or "the wild beasts." Their exuberant use of brilliant hues seem to disregard imitative color 1. Whereas other artists had used color as the description of an object, the Fauves let color become the subject of their painting. A painting in the "Fauvist Manner" was one that related color shapes; rather than unifying a design with line, compositions sought an expressiveness within the relationships of the whole. This turn from tradition brought an integrity to color in that color was regarded on its own merit. The next several pages of this site offer a tutorial regarding color theory. After reviewing the information, I hope you will see that the successful use of color is not at all mystical, and that by understanding a few things about color, it is possible to incorporate into your designs with a confidence based on tested concepts and methods.

Color Basics Color is the perceptual characteristic of light described by a color name. Specifically, color is light, and light is composed of many colors those we see are the colors of the visual spectrum: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet. Objects absorb certain wavelengths and reflect others back to the viewer. We perceive these wavelengths as color. A color is described in three ways: by its name, how pure or desaturated it is, and its value or lightness. Although pink, crimson, and brick are all variations of the color red, each hue is distinct and differentiated by its chroma, saturation, intensity, and value. Chroma, intensity, saturation and luminance/value are inter-related terms and have to do with the description of a color.

Chroma: How pure a hue is in relation to gray Saturation: The degree of purity of a hue. Intensity: The brightness or dullness of a hue. One may lower the intensity by adding white or black. Luminance / Value: A measure of the amount of light reflected from a hue. Those hues with a high content of white have a higher luminance or value. Shade and tint are terms that refer to a variation of a hue.

Shade: A hue produced by the Tint: A hue produced by the addition of white.




Color Systems Available color systems are dependent on the medium with which a designer is working. When painting, an artist has a variety of paints to choose from, and mixed colors are achieved through the subtractive color method. When a designer is utilizing the computer to generate digital media, colors are achieved with the additive color method. Subtractive Color. When we mix colors using paint, or through the printing process, we are using the subtractive color method. Subtractive color mixing means that one begins with white and ends with black; as one adds color, the result gets darker and tends to black.

The CMYK color system is the color system used for printing.

Those colors used in paintingan example of the subtractive color method. Additive Color. If we are working on a computer, the colors we see on the screen are created with light using the additive color method. Additive color mixing begins with black and ends with white; as more color is added, the result is lighter and tends to white.

The RGB colors are light primaries and colors are created with

light. Percentages of red, green, & blue light are used to generate color on a computer screen.

Working With Systems

The Visible spectrum consists of billions of colors, a monitor can display millions, a high quality printer is only capable of producing thousands, and older computer systems may be limited to 216 cross-platform colors. Reproducing color can be problematic with regard to printed, digital media, because what we see is not what is possible to get. Although a monitor may be able to display 'true color' (16,000,000 colors), millions of these colors are outside of the spectrum available to printers. Since digital designs are generated using the RGB color system, colors used in those designs must be part of the CMYK spectrum or they will not be reproduced with proper color rendering. Working within the CMYK color system, or choosing colors from Pantone palettes insures proper color rendering.

Color Wheel

A color wheel (also referred to as a color circle) is a visual representation of colors arranged according to their chromatic relationship. Begin a color wheel by positioning primary hues equidistant from one another, then create a bridge between primaries using secondary and tertiary colors. These terms refer to color groups or types:

Primary Colors: Colors at their basic essence; those colors that cannot be created by mixing others.

Secondary Colors: Those colors achieved by a mixture of two primaries.

Tertiary Colors: Those colors achieved by a mixture of primary and secondary hues.

Complementary Colors: Those colors located opposite each other on a color wheel.

Analogous Colors: Those colors located close together on a color wheel.

The color wheel can be divided into ranges that are visually active or passive. Active colors will appear to advance when placed against passive hues. Passive colors appear to recede when positioned against active hues.

Advancing hues are most often thought to have less visual weight than the receding hues. Most often warm, saturated, light value hues are "active" and visually advance. Cool, low saturated, dark value hues are "passive" and visually recede. Tints or hues with a low saturation appear lighter than shades or highly saturated colors. Some colors remain visually neutral or indifferent.

Color relationships may be displayed as a color wheel or a color triangle.

The Painter's color triangle consists of colors we would often use in art classthose colors we learn about as children. The primary hues are red, blue and yellow.

The Printers' color triangle is the set of colors used in the printing process. The primaries are magenta, cyan, and yellow.

Nine-part harmonic triangle of Goethe begins with the printer's primaries; the secondaries formed are the painter's primaries; and the resulting tertiaries formed are dark neutrals.

Complementary Colors We look at a color wheel to understand the relationships between colors. Analogous colors are positioned in such a way as to mimic the process that occurs when blending hues. The colors that are positioned opposite one another are complementary colors.

To call those hues in direct opposition to each other "complements of each other" is appropriate. Complementary colors bring out the best in each other. When fully saturated complements are brought together, interesting effects are noticeable. This may be a desirable illusion, or a problem if creating visuals that are to be read. Note that Vibrating Boundaries may occur when opposing colors are brought together. (Notice the illusion of highlighted edges and raised text.) Perceptual Opposites. We learn from the relationships displayed by a color wheel that every color has an opposite. Every color has both a color wheel opposite as well as a perceptual opposite. Without a color wheel, it is still possible to find the opposite of a color and this is due to a phenomenon of our eyes. Due to the physiological differences between individuals, everyone's perceptions do vary the complements shown below are my own perceived opposites: source >> result

After Images Color is light and colored objects absorb and reflect different wavelengths. Light & color are seen by the human eye because of the two types of photoreceptor cells rods and cones - located in the retina of the eye. Rods are sensitive to light and dark; cones are sensitive to red, green & blue light and responsible for color vision. These photoreceptors convey the color of light to our brain. (Learn more about rods and cones, at BiologyMad.com)

When our eyes are exposed to a hue for a prolonged period, the rods & cones become fatigued. You might notice this if you are reading something on colored paper, and then look awayyou often see the inverse, or complement, of the image. This occurrence can be advantageous if you are seeking the opposite, or contrast, of a color. This may be dismaying to a viewer if presented with prolonged exposure to colored screens or reading materials. Every color has an opposite, and although individual's perceptions do vary, the range of after images seen is consistent. Take the After Image Test Stare at this image for at least 20 seconds. When finished, click on the image or the link below to proceed to the next page.

After Images - Results What you see here is a called an after image. This may be VERY faint; if you don't see anything, try again! To view the image most people see, scroll down the page.

These are the after image colors many/most people will see. People see the opposite colors or a negative image because staring at one color for an extended period will fatigue the eyes rods & cones. There is some constancy with after images as people see images within the same general hue families. A more in depth explanation offered by Peter Kaiser, MD while at York University, CA: When you focus on a [strong stimulus], light sensitive photoreceptors (whose job it is to convert light into electrical activity) in your retina respond to the incoming

light. Other neurons that receive input from these photoreceptors respond as well. As you continue to stare at the [strong stimulus] your photoreceptors become desensitized (or fatigued). Your photopigment is "bleached" by this constant stimulation. The desensitization is strongest for cells viewing the brightest part of the figure, but weaker for cells viewing the darkest part of the figure. Then, when the screen becomes white, the least depleted cells respond more strongly than their neighbors, producing the brightest part of the afterimage. Most afterimages last only a few seconds to a minute, since in the absence of strong stimulation, most nerve cells quickly readjust. Desensitization of the retina can be important for survival. A constant stimulus is usually ignored in favor of a changing one by the brain, because a changing stimulus is usually more important. But desensitization also leads to afterimages. Afterimages are constantly with us. When we view a bright flash of light, briefly look at the sun, or are blinded by the headlights of an approaching car at night, we see both positive and negative afterimages. To prevent permanent damage to your eyes, NEVER look at any bright light source, in particular the sun. The British psychologist Kenneth Craik burned a tiny hole in his right retina and permanently scarred his eye at that spot, when he stared directly into the sun for two minutes. DON'T TRY THIS AT HOME! For the first few days following his experiment--in which he wanted to find out whether such a lesion in the eye is visible--he saw a dim orange disk with closed eyes (positive afterimage) and a black afterimage with open eyes. Fortunately, after a year or so, Craik's vision at that location in his eye appeared to return to normal. His brain cleverly filled-in information at this damaged piece of retina. found at: www.illusionworks.com - unfortunately, no longer around. :(

Color Combinations Color combinations may pass unnoticed when pleasing, yet offend dramatically when compositions seem to clash. One outcome we seek in the final form or composition, is a successful use of color. We determine whether or not we are successful by critically assessing the visual balance and harmony of the final compositionbalance and harmony are achieved by the visual contrast that exists between color combinations. Planning a successful color combination begins with the investigation, and understanding, of color relationships. Using a color wheel and a template, the relationships between colors are easy to identify.

Monochromatic Relationship Colors that are shade or tint variations of the same hue.

Complementary Relationship Those colors across from each other on a color wheel.

Split-Complementary Relationship One hue plus two others equally spaced from its complement.

Double-Complementary Relationship Two complementary color sets; the distance between selected complementary pairs will effect the overall contrast of the final composition.

Analogous Relationship Those colors located adjacent to each other on a color wheel.

Triad Relationship Three hues equally positioned on a color wheel.

Color & Contrast Every visual presentation involves figure-ground relationships. This relationship between a subject (or figure) and its surrounding field (ground) will evidence a level of contrast; the more an object contrasts with its surrounds, the more visible it becomes. When we create visuals that are intended to be read, offering the viewer enough contrast between the background (paper or screen) and the text is important. Text presentations ideally offer at least an 80% contrast between figure and ground. (Black text on a white background is ideal.) If there is not enough contrast between figure and ground, a viewer will squint to view the text, causing eye fatigue. Yellow text on a white background or blue text on a black background, are difficult to read due to the low level of contrast between figure and ground. An occurrence known as 'simultaneous contrast' (or chromostereopsis,) may happen when opposing colors are placed in close proximity to each other. Text may appear to vibrate, or cast a shadow. Eye strain and fatigue will result if a viewer focuses on a document displaying similar properties for an extended time period. Some color combinations, such as red text on a blue background, cause illusions when positioned together. Sensitivity to Colorblind Deficiencies. The Design of visual documents or signage without thought to the overall contrast level between figure and ground can be problematic for people with sight deficiencies. My first-hand experience with this occurred years ago when visiting a hospital with a friend who was colorblind. The hospital had creatively marked the floor with "road maps" to various areas like the lab, lobby, etc. Unfortunately, they used red and green lines and my friend could not distinguish between the colors. If a visual document uses

color to relate important information, insure that no information is lost, or potentially misunderstood, when the color is not available. When choosing complementary colors, fully saturated colors will offer the highest level of contrast. Choosing from tints or shades within the hue family reduces the overall contrast of the composition.

Itten's Color Contrasts Johannes Itten was one of the first people to define and identify strategies for successful color combinations. Through his research he devised seven methodologies for coordinating colors utilizing the hue's contrasting properties. These contrasts add other variations with respect to the intensity of the respective hues; i.e. contrasts may be obtained due to light, moderate, or dark value. The contrast of saturation

The contrast is formed by the juxtaposition of light and dark values and their relative saturation. The contrast of light and dark

The contrast is formed by the juxtaposition of light and dark values. This could be a monochromatic composition.

The contrast of extension

Also known as the Contrast of Proportion. The contrast is formed by assigning proportional field sizes in relation to the visual weight of a color. The contrast of complements

The contrast is formed by the juxtaposition of color wheel or perceptual opposites. Simultaneous contrast

The contrast is formed when the boundaries between colors perceptually vibrate. Some interesting illusions are accomplished with this contrast. The contrast of hue

The contrast is formed by the juxtaposition of different hues. The greater the distance between hues on a color wheel, the greater the contrast. The contrast of warm and cool

The contrast is formed by the juxtaposition of hues considered 'warm' or 'cool.' Proportion & Intensity When colors are juxtaposed, our eyes perceive a visual mix. This mix will differ depending on the proportions of allocated areas.

The color with the largest proportional area is the dominant color (the ground). Smaller areas are subdominant colors. Accent colors are those with a small relative area, but offer a contrast because of a variation in hue, intensity, or saturation (the figure). Placing small areas of light color on a dark background, or a small area of dark on a light background will create an accent. If large areas of a light hue are used, the whole area will appear light; conversely, if large areas of dark values are used, the whole area appears dark. Alternating color by intensity rather than proportion will also change the perceived visual mix of color. color colors

Dominant Sub-dominant Accent

Dominant Sub-dominant Accent

color colors

Dominant Sub-dominant Accent

color colors

Dominant Sub-dominant Accent

color colors

Contrast & Dominance When creating a compositioneither something freeform, or a more text based layout, a determination for the final impact of the whole presentation needs to be identified. Is your intent to craft a vibrant, attention grabbing ad, or a presentation with a low, or more moderate level of contrast? These decisions concern what is known as the dominant elements of the design. The dominant element may be classified as either "contrast dominant" or "value dominant." Designs that evidence contrast dominance or value dominance are then sub-divided into low, moderate, and high contrast, or light, medium, and dark value categories. The choice of colors will enhance or minimize the overall impact. It is easiest to understand the difference between dominant elements in the following compositions from a distance, or by squinting your eyes a bit. If the proximity between the neighboring hues is less apparent when you squint, the overall composition a displays lower contrast level; if the overall composition appears light, it has a light value. Conversely, if distinctions between hues are very apparent, the contrast is high, and if the overall composition appears dark, the value level is dark. Understanding how the relationships between the colors of a chosen palette will affect the final outcome of an overall composition is integral to mastering the use of color. Examples of Contrast Dominance In the examples below, the overall contrast level of a composition changes with the range of luminosity between chosen hues.

Low contrast Low contrast compositions use colors within a narrow range of luminosity or

brightness levels. Moderate contrast moderate contrast compositions use colors within a moderate range of luminosity

or brightness levels. High contrast High contrast compositions colors range from very light (high-luminosity) to very dark (low luminosity). Examples of Value Dominance In the examples below, the overall value of each composition changes with the incorporated hues' relative saturation.



A composition made up of tints, displays an overall light value. Medium value A medium value composition is made up of a balance between tints, saturated

hues, and shades. Dark A dark value composition displays mostly shades.


Color Shade and Tints

Using a color wheel divided into various shades and tints is one method of identifying possible options for color schemes. The split complementary relationship shown in this example presents many possible combinations. By varying the saturation and experimenting with shades and tints within the hue relationship, you can achieve quite a variety of palette options. (Click on the wheel at the left to view a larger image.)

Moderately-high contrast, medium value, composition using fully

saturated hues. High contrast, medium value, composition using shades, tints & various saturation levels.

Moderately-low contrast, medium-light value, using tints &

various saturation levels. Moderate contrast, medium value, using shades, tints & various saturation levels.

Moderately-low contrast, medium-dark value, using shades &

various saturation levels. shades, tints & various saturation levels.

Low contrast, medium value, using

Moderately-high contrast, medium value, using shades, tints &

various saturation levels. tints & various saturation levels.

High contrast, light value, using shades,

Color Studies Colors of a complementary relationship.







proportion. Colors reassigned with proportions allocated to dominant and subdominant areas.

Color intensity and proportion modified. Using tints and shades of the original colors results in a moderate level of contrast and medium value.

Colors applied to composition.

Color intensity and proportion modified - the whole area displays

a moderately-high contrast and medium value. composition. Colors of a triad relationship.

Colors applied to

Colors of a triad relationship assigned equal proportion.

Colors reassigned with proportions allocated to dominant, subdominant, and accent areas.

Color intensity and saturation modified - the whole area displays a

moderately-high contrast level.

Colors applied to composition.

Color intensity and saturation modified - the whole area displays a

moderately low contrast level.

Colors applied to composition.

Color intensity and saturation modified - the whole area displays a

medium/dark value.

Colors applied to composition.

Color intensity and saturation modified - the whole area displays a

light value,

Colors applied to composition.