It is obvious to all of us that the world is a colorful place (unless you are some of the people living here) and consciously or subconsciously, we are all aware when something looks just *right* or when something feels off when it comes to color. Why is that? What is it about some color pallettes that work so well, and how do you replicate yourself? If you are a full-time designer, this post will probably be more like a reminder (I know I need it sometimes). To those who aren't designing spaces every day, color theory can feel abstract, but with a little learning, you too can know the basics.
In this post we will help explain why some spaces give you that sense of calm, and most importantly how you can replicate successful results when it comes to color and designing your own spaces.
The Color Wheel
Ah, the color wheel. Even if you don't know your tertiary colors from a tetrad (we'll get there in another post), you have no doubt seen this thing. First developed in the early 1700's by Isaac Newton, the color wheel to a designer is like a hammer to a carpenter. It is the basis for understanding color, and an excellent tool for creating a color pallette that sings.
The color wheel is typically cut into a 12 piece pie. Below you can see how this is created. You are probably already familiar with the primary and secondary colors. Tertiary colors are made up by mixing the primary colors with the secondary color next to it. Red + Orange = Red-Orange, Orange+Yellow=Yellow-Orange, etc... The tertiary colors are named with colors that they are made up of. The 12 colors of the color wheel provide a nuanced enough starting point to base coordinating color choices from without being so detailed that it is hard to distinguish between the colors.
What Makes A Color
There are three terms used to describe a color. And this also explains why black and white are not on the color wheel. Hint: It's because they aren't technically colors.
It's what makes a color a color. Is it red or yellow? Green or blue? For example, in between a red hue and a yellow hue is orange. It is the word we use to describe what we typically think of when we say "color".
Value is how light or dark a color is. Light colors are sometimes called tints and dark colors are sometimes called shades.
Saturation (sometimes called Chroma) refers to how pure a color is. A color low in saturation will look gray and dull. A color high in saturation will be bright and rich.
Black and white have no hue or saturation, and therefore don't fall on the color wheel. Using the three properties above, all colors can be created. In programs like Photoshop or Microsoft Paint (if it's even around anymore?), the color wheel, hue, value and saturation are all controlled with a window like this:
The vertical bar on the right controls your hue, like the color wheel, and in the square you are determining the value by moving up and down, and the saturation by moving left-right.
Warm & Cool Colors
If you split the color wheel down the middle like the above image, the left side contains what are called "cool" colors. The right side contains "warm" colors. Knowing this and the feelings evoked by each can have a large affect on how people feel in a room.
Warm colors are stimulating, vibrant and exciting. Typically these colors are associated with heat and warmth. They tend to work well in social areas where you want lots of interaction between people. Warm colors tend to "pop" or seem to advance toward you, which is why they can also make a space feel more cozy and intimate.
Cool colors are calming, and can help people focus. Cool colors like blue remind us of water and sky. Because cool colors feel like they recede, they are useful when trying to make a small space appear larger.
A successful combination of colors typically uses both warm and cool colors. For example you could use predominately cool colors with a splash of a warm color to stand out. The interesting part is what happens to some warm and cool colors when placed next to eachother. Color cannot be determined simply by looking at in isolation. The other colors in the space and the lighting (see our post here on color temperature) can have large effects on how everything looks.
The same green is in both squares above, but shifts from feeling warm or cool depending on the color it is near. Because blue is a cool color, it shifts the green to the cool side. Because orange is a warm color, it makes the green appear warmer.
The important thing to note with warm and cool colors, is that it is typically a good idea to use some of each for a balanced design. Too much of one or the other can make a strong statement. Sometimes this is the goal, but it's always good to be intentional.
Now that we have a foundation to work off on the basics of the color wheel and some color relationships, we can take the next step and learn about how to create pleasing color pallettes using the color wheel. There are seven main color relationships that we have in this blog post here.
If you found this post helpful, confusing, or something else, let us know in the comments below and share it with your co-workers or friends!