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Color Theory-100: Understanding Color

Updated on April 22, 2011
Figure 1
Figure 1

This is a very basic overview of color - what it can do in advertising or in room decor, and how you can mix your own, if needed or desired.

First, let me put down a few basics about usage of color in design: If you want to evoke a feeling of warmth, the colors to use are red, orange, yellow, and some variations of them, such as a pink or reddish purple. Pea green marks the waning of warmth, and the introduction to cooler moods. The cooler colors are blue, green, and some violets or purples.

Colors can be used to make a statement, though not in outright messages. The mind picks up subliminal messages from your design, the images used, and the colors. Subliminal messages can make or break an ad. The target person or market for an ad can like the ad without knowing why. To know the basics of using those tools in composition and design, you would have to consult another source. This article is focused on color.

I'll give a few meanings of color below, but in case you don't have a pen and paper handy, let me give you a general rule of thumb in determining what colors to use: Just think of popular sayings or frequent pigeon holes colors are put in. For example, "Green with envy," "jaunticed" (a pale ashen yellow comes to mind), "bloody mess," "valentine" (red colors come to mind with those terms), "money hungry" (you see green currency, usually; therefore green can denote greed), "healthy orange," "true blue," and so on.

Another general rule in designing, is to take a deep breath, step back, close your eyes for a moment, then look at your composition. Take note of how you feel when you look at it. Try different colors or different designs, then do the same thing. Do this as often as needed. Use the design that makes you feel the best, or at peace with. This is called "intuitive designing."

Typically, red represents passion, and variations of it can represent love, danger and energy. Yellow can - like sunshine, represent happiness. But it can also represent cowardice if used in the right place, or "lemon" if used on a car. Green can represent safety, growth, nature, and money or riches, especially if you use the colors found on the currency used in your country. Blue can represent truth, depth (like the sky) and stability. Also loyalty. You already know that purple respresents royalty. Black is power, elegance, but also death or darkness. No need to mention white's qualities.

Certain colors go well together, like blue and white, or soft blue and tan. Off-whites and tans go well with browns and ochres. There was a trend for a while to use subdued colors - not rich and vibrant, and I think it still goes on in ads. I've seen pale violet in bedrooms or studies with light complementary colors. But interior designers are trending toward darker primary and secondary colors, but not intense and not occupying much of the room. They're usually dubdued slightly and come with bright white or very pale accents. Subdued colors are good for sitting back and relaxing or enjoying classical music. Delicate lines of black curving into wider but simple decorations with white or light trim tan have done well, lately.

Getting Your Own Colors:

There are only three basic colors that will help you get any other color: Red, Blue and Yellow. I’m limiting this treatment only to normal pigments; I will not include metalics or shocking colors, which are arrived at through special means not normally available to the average painter. Also, I am not including the colors that printers use, whose colors are Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black. In a future hub, I will talk about that genre.

Figure 2 - P=Primary Color; S=Secondary Color
Figure 2 - P=Primary Color; S=Secondary Color

When I said there were only three basic colors, that could have been a misleading statement. Technically, I should also include Black and White. But since they aren’t colors, I didn’t include them. However, their usage is important in achieving a variety of colors. Technically, you could say that black is the absence of color, and white is the sum total of all colors. But this involves light, which I will also discuss in another hub.

Let’s start with the basic colors: The Primary colors of pigments are Red, Blue and Yellow. When you mix any two of these colors, you will have Secondary colors. Color theorists like to place the primary colors at the three points of an equilateral triangle. Between each primary color will be placed the corresponding secondary color. In other words, if you mix blue and yellow (two primary colors), you will get green, which is a secondary color that will rest between blue and yellow. After you mix the other combinations of the primary colors, you will have a basic color wheel, as shown in Figure 2.

Tertiary colors are the next generation of colors when a secondary is mixed with its adjacent primary color. The color’s name normally begins with the primary color used for it, then the name of the secondary. Therefore, the color that results from Blue and Green is Blue-Green. But often this color is called turquoise or aqua. The color that results from Yellow and Green is Yellow-Green, and so on. I didn’t include a wheel with tertiary colors, so to save space. When all colors in the color wheel are mixed together, you should get a basic black, as shown at the center of the color wheel in Fig. 2. If opposite colors from the color wheel (called complementary colors) are mixed, you should get a brown for each pair mixed, as shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3
Figure 3

You may want to experiment with making the crosses shown here. If you can make it look like two sheets of colored cellophane are overlapping each other, then you will increase your prowess in mixing colors. Most art supply stores will probably have packets of colored paper of all shades and hues. If you buy one of these, you can make a better cross. As you make these, step back once in a while and squint. This will help you to get good results.

I invite you to do another exercise, one which should push you into the world of expertise. If you choose not to do this exercise, your experience will be limited, but you will still gain a bit of know-how by just reading this:

Get out your favorite paint set that isn’t water color. (If you prefer water color, then when white is asked for, you just thin the paint with water, and use a white art paper.) Paint the basic primary and secondary colors in a line, as shown in the fourth row down in Figure 1 (The last three colors are the browns found by mixing the primary and secondary complementary colors). If you want more varieties, paint also the tertiary colors. As you paint each color, make two mounds of that color on your palette (or prepare two containers of it if it’s runny). Have blobs or containers of both white and black paint handy. From one of the color blobs, paint your first swatch. Then, add a bit of white to it, and paint another swatch above it. Continue to add white to the blob while painting a new swatch on your paper above the last one. Do this until you can hardly see the paint against the white paper.

Now, use the second container or blob of that same color and begin adding black to it. Make a column of those swatches below the original color. Do this with the rest of the colors you have on your paper. When you are done, your paper will look something like the entire illustration of Figure 1. I recommend, though, you use more gradations. I used just a few, to save time and space. If you use the tertiary colors, you will have a lot more colors, of course. To know how to describe what you are doing, note that the colors to which you add white are tints, and those with black are called shades.

Now, you will have learned almost all you need to know for recognizing colors in the world around you. To hone your skills and have a more solid background in color mixing, you could go back to each vertical column, then add shades of black and white to each of those. This is an exponentially greater herculean task, but you will get shades and hues for a wider variety of uses, and gain much more experience.

Really, there are endless varieties of this exercise. You could suddenly decide to add pure yellow to a tint or shade of orange, and see what results. Or, you could mix a shade of green to a tint of purple. Check to see if the new color is found elsewhere on your paper, and see how close it is, or if you’ve created even another color.When I did this exercise in college, I was amazed at how much I learned with just this one assignment. I recommend it to all who wish to sharpen their skills, or who wish to have more confidence in their knowledge and workings in color.


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      TajSingh 6 years ago from United Kingdom

      Hi SamboRambo. Excellent insights into colors. Great hub!

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      SilverGenes 6 years ago

      Thank you for an excellent article on colour. It has been a few years since I've had a paint set out and this exercise is just what I need to get things into gear again. I've been wanting to try layering glazes so this is exactly what I need to do. Many, many thanks!

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