We See the World In Color

by Donna on November 9, 2009

Introducing COLOR IN DESIGN.net

As an artist and designer, the world of color has been, well, not only inspiration — but, just about the whole world to me. I love color! — As do many of you. And, while much has been written on the subject, as an interior designer I’m going to approach the subject of color from that perspective.

In the field of interior design, color is my specialty. I consult on interior paint and material colors — and exterior paint colors as well. My study of color theory and my experience working with color have given me a greater appreciation and understanding of the various aspects of using color effectively and interestingly.

The world of color has intrigued many philosophers, scientists, theorists, and artists throughout history. This body of writings and experiments comprise what is called “color theory”. To begin to really understand color and to work with color effectively, the basics of color theory must be our starting point. A good foundation in these concepts is basics to working well with color.

So, Let’s Get Started

We’ll start from the beginning….


Well, I didn’t get that quite right, did I?

So, let’s start again. IN THE BEGINNING THERE WAS LIGHT. (Well, a variation on the Biblical “Let there be light.”) As you’ll see, light truly is the beginning for color.

For me, a color obsessed “color junkie”, you might almost say, COLOR does seem like the beginning, and the “end-all”, and nearly the true meaning of life. But, in fact, WITHOUT LIGHT, THERE IS NO COLOR. (Think about it, when the sun goes down are the plants still green?) So, in our colorful world, light is the beginning.

Some of you, of course, may have already known this. For those who’ve never really thought about it, this is the time to be enlightened.

Let’s Talk Light Related to Color

We’re going to be talking about “subtractive” color and how  our perception works. Subtractive color (I’ll be explaining that in a bit) is the color we see in the world around us — as in nature and man-made objects.

Now, I’m going to keep this very, very simple. Yep, I’m not going into how the eyes and the brain work. (You can reference the resource page if you want to pursue this in greater depth.)

We need to start with the fact that the colors we see derive from the visible light spectrum. That’s the electro-magnetic wavelengths that emit from the sun, and from man-made light sources, such as light bulbs. (The light bulb thing has it’s own complications, which we’ll deal with way down the road in a future blog post, but we’re keeping it simple for now.)

The next part you’ll probably remember from grade school — especially now that I’m jogging your memory.

The light waves range through red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. At the red end of this spectrum is infrared; at the violet end is ultra-violet. We don’t see infrared and ultra-violet. (It’s up to insects, other creatures, and special photographic films to see those outer edges of the spectrum.) And, of course, you’ll recall now, these are the colors of the rainbow.

It looks like this (shown in a straight line, and understanding that the order is sometimes reversed):


Bend this around into a circle and you get the circle below:


Now for the Colorful Part

When the light waves hit an object some are subtracted out. Which ones are subtracted out depends on the composition of the object. The light waves that get reflected back are the ones we see. That’s the “subtractive” part. (Or, the simple version of “subtractive”, at least.)

The Artist’s Color Wheel

We’ll start with the colors depicted in the basic, most widely used color wheel. It’s often referred to as the artist’s color wheel, or the Prang or Brewster color wheel, named for the theorists who came up with it. Here it is: (And, notice how it resembles the “rainbow” colors above, rotated a bit.)


The reason the color wheel works so well for working with color is that it most closely matches how our eyes perceive color. (If you notice that indigo is missing, not to worry. This named color “slot” in the spectrum proved less than useful and got dropped along the way in the development of color theory.)

Here we begin to look at some basics of color theory. For instance, the language we use to describe or to talk about color. And, it must be noted at this time that there is not always consensus on some of the terms used to describe color. I’ll try to use terms as they seem to be most generally used.

Primary Colors

Three of the colors on the color wheel are referred to as “primary” colors. They are: red, blue, and yellow. They’re the basic colors that cannot be arrived at by combining two other colors. (As a reminder, we’re talking about “subtractive” color — that is, basically, the color of objects. When looking at “additive” color — light or prism color — things come out differently. In that world the primary colors are red, blue, and green. But, that’s an area of discussion not relative to our discussion of the “material” world of subtractive color.)

Secondary Colors

Combining equal amounts of any two primary colors gives us the three “secondary” colors: orange, green, and violet.

Intermediate or Tertiary Colors

We arrive at the “intermediate” or “tertiary” colors by combining equal amounts of a primary color and its adjacent secondary color, in either direction on the color wheel. So, these colors fall midway between the two colors of which they’re comprised. The names of these six colors are hyphenated: red-orange, red-violet, blue-violet, blue-green, yellow-green, and yellow-orange.

Colors and Their Complements

Those of us familiar with the standard color wheel are aware of the term complementary color. The complementary pair we’re most familiar with is the pairing of red and green. Every color on the color wheel has a complement — it’s the color opposite on the wheel. Colors and their complements, as we’ll see in the future, are very important in working with color.

The term complement relates to the idea of completing something. Perceptually, complementary colors “complete” each other. The word also relates to enhancing something. Complementary colors perceptually enhance one another.

Warm Colors and Cool Colors

Colors have the quality of temperature in terms of our perception. When it comes to using color in interiors, as we’ll see in future discussions, categorizing colors into warm and cool hues can be very useful.

When we look at the color wheel, this division can seem quite intuitive.

color-whl-warm-coolThe warm colors, as you may have guessed (or known) are: red-violet, red, red-orange, orange, yellow-orange, and yellow. You’ll notice that two of the primary colors are in the warm category.

The cool colors are: violet, blue-violet, blue, blue-green, green, and yellow-green. Blue is the only primary color in this category.

Warm colors advance; cool colors recede. Warm colors are viewed as having attributes such as lively, stimulating, cozy, cheerful. The attributes attributed to cool colors include calm, restful, soothing.

A warm color can lean toward cool, as when blue is added to red equaling red-violet. A cool color can lean toward warm, yellow-green being an example. You’ll find me frequently using the term “leaning” when talking about hues.

Wrapping It Up for Now

So, we’ve seen that in order to perceive the inherent color in objects we need light. And, we’ve seen that using the standard, or artist’s, color wheel helps us to begin to understand ways of looking at and talking about color.

Getting a grasp of the fundamental concepts of color theory is so important for learning to work with color effectively in designing interiors.

We’ve actually covered a lot of territory. But, there’s a lot more interesting stuff to come, so stay tuned. See you on my next blog.

Note: All graphics in this blog post were created by the author of this blog using Adobe Creative Suite software. None of the graphics included in this blog post were taken from other web sources.

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