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The Ultimate Guide to Color, Part II

WARNING: If you haven’t read Volume I, some of this might not make sense to you. But don’t let that stop you. It’s important to have a good understanding of what color is (types of visible light) and how we can produce it (RGB, CMYK, et al), as it gives us the ability to construct environments in which color can be used properly. But that understanding only takes us so far. Next, we must dive into the nitty-gritty, by which I mean how we classify color and how colors interact with each other. Let’s start with the ways in which we classify color. As we all may recall from our second-grade art classes, colors can be grouped by “temperature;” that is, into warm and cool colors. I’m simplifying here, but warm colors are generally described as reds, oranges, and yellows, while cool colors are generally greens, blues, and purples. Obviously colors have no true temperatures, and this method of classification is defined by the temperatures of the things associated with these colors. Because reds, oranges, and yellows are associated with things such as fire and the sun, they are described as warm because fire and the sun are warm. By contrast, greens, blues, and purples are associated with water, earth, and night, which are all cooler in temperature. Another way in which we classify color (and which harkens back to our discussion in Volume I about additive color), is the primary-secondary-tertiary method. This method of combining colors is primarily used in painting and fine art media; you may also know it as the color wheel and probably saw it on art room classrooms all through your grade school careers. There, the primary colors are described as red, blue, and yellow. However, this is WRONG. The true primary colors are cyan, magenta, and yellow (as is evidenced by the fact that those are three of the four subtractive colors described in Volume I). Cyan and magenta combine to make blue, and yellow and magenta combine to make red. If the three primary colors are indeed red, yellow, and blue, then a whole range of colors are omitted from the spectrum, since two of those three can be made with other colors. So your teachers were wrong, but don’t blame them: their teachers were wrong, too. weduBlog_04_ColorDiscourseV2-1Now, let’s look a little more closely at primary colors and what they mean. As described above, combining the primary colors forms new colors and those new colors are called secondary colors (red, blue, and green; weird, aren’t those the additive colors we discussed in the last article?). NOTE: Adding unequal amounts of these colors to each other results in different hues, so for the purposes of this discussion, we’ll assume all colors are mixed together equally. So we have our three primary colors, and now three secondary colors created by mixing those primary colors together. If you repeat the process again, this time mixing together the secondary colors with their adjacent primary colors, you now have a set of tertiary colors (see graphic). You could continue repeating this process infinitely until you have a seamless, continuous color wheel. But who has the time. Based on this color wheel model, we have complementary colors. What this means, at its most basic, is colors that are opposites. A color directly across from any other color on the color wheel is its complement. In print, when complementary colors are combined they will produce black. On screen, they will produce white. This works directly with our explanation of how additive and subtractive colors work: any two complementary colors are exact opposites of each other, and will therefore contain all colors in some measure, and combining them will then produce black (or white when dealing with additive color). Complementary colors are used together to produce contrast, since they are opposites. Along the same thinking, triadic colors are the colors that form three points of an equilateral triangle within the color wheel; tetradic colors are those that form four points of a square. The last classification I want to mention that is based on the color wheel model is the idea of analogous colors. Basically, this generally means the three to five colors that are adjacent on the color wheel (e.g., cyan, cyan-green, green, green-yellow, and yellow). Because they are adjacent on the color wheel, they are closely related in tone and work harmoniously together. However, because of this, analogous colors usually don’t provide much (if any) contrast to one another. Two other groupings of color worth noting are monochromatic and achromatic. Monochromatic means one color, but can mean several tints of that color. Achromatic means no color, which is more accurately described as the use of black and grays. These are most often used in situations where the number of colors is restricted. weduBlog_04_ColorDiscourseV2-2 So we group colors together for a variety of reasons, and those groups have strengths and weaknesses for being used together. Knowing how to balance colors and use them together is a key component of design. But just knowing what color space to work in and what type of color group to use is not the entire picture, but that knowledge is absolutely essential color fundamentals. These two concepts give us a good start in the “how” of color, but the “why” is a whole other ball of wax. Stay tuned for Volume III! Derek Bedrosian is Senior Visual Designer at wedü. When he’s not coming up with awesome blog material, he’s creating awesome visual material. Or playing video games. Or making paper toys.
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