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Understanding the Seven Color Contrasts

Updated on June 21, 2011

Seven Color Contrasts

An understanding of color and color theory helps artists to select colors that are powerful and purposeful. This page was written to provide a review of the seven color contrasts according to the Bauhaus School.

The seven contrasts are as follows:

1. Light/Dark - The strongest contrast available is white/black, which are considered to be opposites. The purest black is likely black velvet, and the whitest white is baryta, with an infinite number of grays in-between. Understanding not only intervals between color, but appreciable changes may be important ways of process. Any composition where you are using white, black and grays will be far simpler than chromatic choices, which become tougher to distinguish when you select colors from a number of chromatic hues. Color differences within individual hues are much more easily distinguished than when working with more than one color. A primary idea behing light/dark contrast is that the equality of light or dark relates colors to one another, and that by using similarly contrasting colors, light/dark contrast will be extinguished. On other words, using more highly contrasting hues or values, increased light/dark contrast will result. The lightest hue is yellow. The darkest is violet.

2. Hue

The greatest possible contrast of hues comes with the selection of a palette consisting of red, yellow and blue. As the colors selected become further removed from these three primary colors, the contrast of hue decreases. Therefore, the us of secondary colors renders less contrast, and tertiary colors provide even less.

Also, when white is employed alongside of a chromatic palette, the brightness and luminence of neighboring hues is decreased. Likewise, when using black, adjacent colors appear lighter.

3. Cool/Warm

The warmest hue is red-orange and the coolest color is manganese oxide (blue-green). Also, the group of colors between yellow and red-violet are called warm colors, and the hues from yellow-geen to violet are considered cold.

Impressive work often combines the expressive strength of warm-cold contrasts. It is this contrast that helps the artist to suggest nearness and farness of objects, by making receding object cooler in color. Warm colors will be warmer if painted beside cool colors, and cool hues become cooler when situated by warm ones. Naturally the opposite applies: cool hues become warmer when alongside warm hues, and warm colors are less powerful when situated by other warm colors.

4. Complementary

When a painter mixes the pigments of two complementary colors are mixed together they produce a neutral grey. However, when a lighting technician mixes the pigments of two complementary color lights are combined, the resulting light will be white.

Every color has it's complement - or opposite. By looking at the color wheel, you can become more familiar with opposites in color, where you will see complements like red and green, blue and orange, yellow and violet. If one color is eliminated from the color wheel, the combination of all of the remaining colors will yield the eliminated color's complement. In fact, the eye requires that opposite color, and it spontaneously generates the opposite color if it is not present.

Complementary colors can produce very beautiful grays. The masters often employed the use of complements by painiting opposite colors on top of one another, and by glazing their pictures with varishes of complementary colors. Pointillists used this type of contrast to produce "colorful" grays, simply by careful placement of opposite colors of small dots placed next to one another. This way, the eye produces a perception of combininig the colors, which appear to the eye as chromatic grays.

5. Simultaneous

Simultaneous contrast is based on the idea that the eye simultaneously produces complementary color. The eye generates the opposite hue, even though that color is not physically present. Simultaneous effects increase with increases in luminence.

Simulaneous contrast can happen between a gray and a strong chromatic color, as well as when two colors employed are not exact complements. In this case, the eye will shift each color closer towards it's own complement, and both colors will lose some of their usual character and produce exciting combinations which often makes them move into a kind of unreal, new dimension.

"Simultaneous contrast is responsible for the aesthetic utility of color." - Goethe

6. Saturation

Saturation contrasts are contrasts that bring notice to the degree of purity of a color. Saturation helps us to define the differences between pure chromatic colors and those that are dull and'or washed out.

There are four ways to dilute a color:

1. Mix with white. Yellow is cooled by white, while violet is warmed by white.

2. Mix with black. Color reduces as the light contained within the hue is reduced.

3. Mix with gray (combined black and white). This produces colors that are variable in tone (ie. equal, greater or less intense) but that are always less intense than the original color.

4. Mix with the complementary color. You will find various intermediate colors that fall on the color wheel between the complementary colors. Opposites neutalizes strong colors and provides for a soft or quieter effect.

7. Contrast of Extension

This one is all about the differences found between a lot and a little. To this end, Goethe provided us with numerical light values (or powers) of colors: yellow=9, orange=8, red=6, violet=3, blue=4, green=6. This allows us to mathematically compare the strengths of colors to determine the amount of area that will provide it's complement with optimal conditions to shine. The relative harmonies for primary complements is as follows: yellow 1/4 to violet 3/4, orange 1/3 to blue 2/3, and red 1/2 to green 1/2. Harmony will provide quieting effects. The contrast of extension reduces when harmonious proportions are utilitzed.

Color Wheel

Itten's Color Wheel
Itten's Color Wheel

Written by Dominic Fetherston

Dominic Fetherston is a painter and mixed media artist from Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada.  He is a color-theorist and art teacher, whose interest in color has been transmitted to his students and to the viewers of his art work.

His accomplishments include the Fetherston Color Prism, the Pick A Card - Any Card installation, the Hot Potato Cafe, I See - You See - No One Sees, the "I Believe In Dog" series, and involvement in a multicultural sculptural venture for the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria, BC.

You may view his work at or


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      Marnie Warner 

      3 years ago

      This is brilliant! Lots and lots of information to digest. Thank you!

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      Fascinating! Thanks Dominic. This helps me understand color in a whole new way. Really good.

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      yhanks for the info would love to see more colorful images to demonstrate your ideas I am a purely visual learner thanks again ! ae

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      This has so much to think about. REALLY helpful! Thank you.

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      This is good but it isn't really what I want. Its just a little but a lot of of information for others.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Inspired and right on! Thank you so much.


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