Color has the potential to engage the viewer more powerfully than any other design element. Color is a property of light rather than the object itself. Objects have no color of their own, but rather the ability to reflect certain rays of light which are perceived as a certain color. As light changes, color changes.

Color Science

Color is a property of light and is based on scientific theory. We only perceive color when light bounces off an object and enters the eye. The color hue and intensity depends on pigmentation in the object and the brightness of light. It was Sir Isaac Newton who illustrated the property of light (17th Century) when he used a prism to refract white light and revealed it was comprised of a spectrum of colors. This visible spectrum contained the classic set of seven colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo (blue-violet), and violet—which humorously can be abbreviated into the acronym of “Roy G. Biv” as a way of remembering the order and set of colors.

Refracted Light

How we see color: Light is either directly entering the eye or reflected off of surfaces. Light travels organically from the sun, or artificially from a light source—is reflected off of a surface—enters the pupil and hits the retina’s rods and cones—travels down the optic nerve as an electric impulse—and is processed through the visual cortex in the brain.

Reflected Light

Color Models

Color behaves differently depending on which model the designer uses. Direct light (coming directly from the light source) uses the Additive Color model. Reflected light (light bouncing off of objects) uses the Subtractive Color model. Digital devices (TVs, Phones) use the additive light color model, while pigments (paints, dyes) would use the subtractive light color model.

Color Models

Additive Color Model

Additive color is defined in terms of light and are the purest and most intense. Additive color is used in devices such as film, computer screens, and TV monitors.

Combining all the colors of additive light produces white light, where black or darkness is simply the absence of light. Red, Blue, and Green are the additive primaries. These primaries cannot be created by mixing any other colors, and can be mixed to create additive secondary colors. Mixing the primaries creates the secondary colors: Magenta, Yellow, and Cyan.

Subtractive Color Model

Objects absorb wave lengths of visible light while reflecting others. When an object absorbs wavelengths it is “subtracting” out those colors from the spectrum of white light. Wavelengths not subtracted reach the eye. Subtractive color is found in paint and pigments.

Objects appearing as one color When a leaf appears green, for example, it is absorbing every color except for green. This means that for an object appearing white is absorbing no colors, and for an object appearing black is absorbing all colors.

Red, Yellow, and Blue are the subtractive primaries. These primaries cannot be created by mixing any other colors, and can be mixed to create secondary colors. The more colors mixed the more wavelengths are absorbed. Mixing the primaries creates the secondary colors: Orange, Green, and Violet.

Process Color

A standard printing press uses process color. Yellow, Magenta, Cyan, and Black are the pigments used in Four Color Process printing. By arranging tiny dots of colors compacted or spaced out—the appearance of a full range of color can be created.

Color Characteristics

Hue, Value, and Saturation

Hue is the family to which a color belongs along the visible light spectrum.

Value (”luminance” or “brightness”) is the relative light or darkness of a color, and exists independent of a colors’ value.

Saturation (”intensity”) refers to the density of a color’s hue. When a hue is less present it’s value is more visible causing colors to appear tinted (whiter), shaded (blacker), or dull (grayer).

Color tones and values

Colors which share a primary hue within them will have a soft contrast, where as colors without a common hue will have stronger contrast.

Hue commonality and contrast

Color Relationships

The color wheel is a means of representing a full range of hues and the relationships between them.

All colors have relative coolness or warmness, and the polarities of these temperatures easily divide the color wheel. Cool Colors are Greens, Blues, and Purples. Warm Colors are Reds, Oranges, Yellows.

The Color Wheel

Primary colors are hues which cannot be created, whereas secondary and tertiary hues can all be created by mixing together other colors.

Complimentary colors are hues which are positioned directly across from each other on the color wheel. A split complimentary color would be a hue positioned non-directly across. An analogous color is a color directly next to, or at least very near, another color on the same side of the color wheel.

Color Relationships

Browns sit in the middle of opposing colors. Mixing complimentary colors causes them to become neutralized and resemble the color brown. There’s a different temperature depending on the complimentary colors you mix: red-green, blue-orange, and yellow-purple.

Brown Colors

Pure Black, pure white, and pure shades of grey are also considered neutral colors. It can be said that these colors are not actually colors at all as they resemble achromatic tones of value. That said, they are still found within the visible spectrum of light and pigmentation, and should be considered within a designer’s composition.

Color Schemes and Palettes

A color palette is a restricted set of colors used within a composition.

A color scheme is the designated classification of chosen color groupings. Often color schemes are determined by choosing colors from the color wheel geometrically as this results in pleasing color combinations.

A Monochromatic Color Scheme is the use of a single color, and may include its tints, tones, and shades.

Monochromatic Scheme

A Complimentary Color Scheme (Dyadic Color Scheme) is the use of two complimentary or split complementary colors. The result is striking due to high contrast.

The combination of Red and Green, versus other complimentary color combinations, is known to be the most abrasive combination of colors.

Complimentary Scheme

A Triadic Color Scheme is based on a triangular formation. The result is harmonizing.

Triadic Scheme

A Quadratic Color Scheme is based on a square or rectangular formation.

Quadratic Scheme

Color palettes can be unified together by mixing them with a base color.

Unified Color Palette

Color Psychology

Color is a visceral and emotional visual element. There are subconscious and instinctive reactions to color. Many designers use this to their advantage, especially in the world of advertising and branding.

It’s important to note the shift is associative meanings depending on cultural context. Depending on where you are in the world and what culture you’re designing for: it’s important to be aware of how meanings may differ.

Western Associative Color Meanings

This is a generalization of some European and American cultures.

Red: passion, and romance. Aggressive and dominant.

Orange: hunger, and sensuality. Joyful and pleasurable.

Yellow: cheerfulness, and energetic. Depending on the hue and intensity it is regularly used indicate warnings. When combined with black it creates a high-contrast alert such as the design of a bumblebee or caution tape.

Green: growth, renewal, and nature. Freshness and finances.

Blue: tranquil, and emotional. Calming. Often associated with sadness and depression.

Purple: royalty. In antiquity purple was one of the most expensive colors due to the materials it cost to create purple pigments. This made the color purple only accessible by those who could afford it.

Black: death, and mystery. There is a primal reaction to darkness as the nighttime brought dangerous animals.

White: purity, and divinity. Brides wear white to represent their virgin purity in marriage.

Eastern Associative Color Meanings

This is a generalization of some Asian cultures.

Red: luck.

White: death.

Primal Associations with Color in Nature

Beyond the human—there is somewhat of a pattern when it comes to how color appears in nature. The way humans instinctively respond to threats in nature in an evolutionary context.

Often, creatures which are the most colorful, or have the highest contrast in their coloring, are the most dangerous.

Works Cited

Brigham Young University of Idaho. “Design and Color”. Notes from lectures and course materials, 2010.

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