Understanding colors

Main image for blog

Understanding colors can be really useful in various situations. Whenever you are taking pictures, painting, editing in Photoshop or want to become an interior designer. It can all begin with choosing the right colors. I’ve been working with colors for a few year now, first within my drawings and later with being a production designer. Now I still use this knowledge for photography, filming and editing work. In this blog I’ll share with you the most important things to know about the meaning of colors and how you can use them.

Color wheel

First of all, to start understanding colors we can use the color wheel as an easy guide. On the color wheel you can see different colors, either primary or secondary. Both types are seen as pure colors. Lastly there are the tertiary colors which are all the colors in between the primary and secondary colors. Those are mixed in different ways and therefore impure. Color wheel

The three primary colors are:

  • Red
  • Yellow
  • Blue

It isn’t possible to mix any other colors to get these primary colors. However, mixing the primary colors will give you secondary colors. When mixing these colors again, it will give you the tertiary colors.

Color contrasts

When thinking about contrasts you can see it as two opposites of each other. Two colors that are clearly very different are seen as contrasts. For example, black and white is a huge color contrast. Here are all the possible seven color contrasts I will be explaining:

The seven different color contrasts:

  • Color to color contrast
  • Light to dark contrast
  • Warm to cold contrast
  • Compliment contrast
  • Simultaneous contrast
  • Quality contrast
  • Quantity contrast
Color to color contrast

This contrast works best when using the primary colors red, yellow and blue. Placing  those next to each other gives a very strong color contrast. However, the contrast is at its strongest when the colors are as pure as possible. You can add white and black around the colors to enhance the contrast even more. When using secondary or tertiary colors, the contrast will be a lot less noticeable. Also, mixing colors will give as a result a less strong contrast.

Light to dark contrast

This type of contrast is about the brightness of different colors. The best example is having black against white. While most colors are a good option to create a light to dark contrast, gray is a different story. The color gray is neutral and above all very easy to influence with other tones and color contrasts. You can bring gray to life by adding other colors around it. Strong colors will be softening down and it brings a color contrast together.

Warm to cold contrast

While some colors give a warm feeling, others can feel cold and calming. Imagine a yellow room next to a blue one, the feeling you get from each room is totally different. The colder colors are: green, blue and purple. The warmer colors are: yellow, orange and red. While the blue/green colors are the coldest, orange/red tones feel the warmest. Adding a warm color next to a cold color makes the colors enhance each other. A good example is placing red next to blue. The red color seems like it’s a lot warmer than without the blue next to it.

Complimentary contrast

Let’s go back to the color wheel. The colors that are opposite of each other are the complimentary colors. A good example of this is red against green. When you place those colors next to each other, they strengthen each other. Here is a list of the colors that compliment each other:

  • Yellow – Purple
  • Orange/yellow – purple/blue
  • Orange/red – blue/green
  • Red – green
  • Red/purple – yellow/green
Simultaneous contrast

First of all let me explain the meaning of this type of contrast. A simultaneous contrast happens when a color gets infected by another color. Your eyes always try to find a complimentary color next to the color you’re seeing at that moment. Therefore, colors can seem darker or lighter than they actually are. The simultaneous contrast can easily be made stronger or weaker. For example with a clear red of neutral gray. As a result of how the complementary contrast works, you will see that the gray will look greener. When adding a bit more green, this increases the simultaneous contrast even further. If you want the contrast to be weaker, you can add a bit red to the gray to soften it colors.

Quantity contrast

Imagine a small yellow sign in the middle of a green landscape. This yellow sign will be a lot more visible than a purple sign. This has to due with the radiance and size of the color. The radiance power is something we can divide in numbers. A color can have a higher number in radiance power than another. When looking at pure colors we can use this overview made by Goethe:

Yellow               Orange                Red                      Violet                  Blue                    Green

9                             8                         6                            3                          4                             6

Quality contrast

Colors can be either bright or dull. This depends on how much white or black has been added to this color. A bright against a dull color makes it a quality contrast.

Saturated colors are the purest and strongest. However, it is possible to affect those colors by adding either white, black, gray or a different color. When adding other pigments, you can make the color lighter or darker. Here is an overview of the outcome these colors get when being mixed with a different color:

  • + white = attenuate (the color will become less powerful and intense)
  • + black = blunt (the color will be darker and lose his strength)
  • + gray = mute (the color will be softer and vaguer)
  • + different color = infect (the color will be mixed into the added color)
About the book

I came across this book a few years ago called “The art of color” written by Johannes Itten. Johannes lived from 1888 to 1967 and was an artist. He published his book “Kunst der Farbe” (The art of color) in 1960. His book is seen as the most useful book about colors and is still being used all over the world. There are a lot of books written about this subject, but for me this book is the most helpful and straightforward. The subjects I’ve shared with you in this blog are however only covers a very small part of the whole book.

These are the basics about understanding the power of colors and how you can use them in your own work. Also, don’t forget to check out my photos by clicking here.

Itten, J. (2011). Kleurenleer. Cantecleer