Discovering the vocabulary of colour, in theory

This article introduces some of the most common terms used in colour theory.

To really learn these, I recommend playing with the online colour wheels [1], or similar graphics software tools, as you read through the examples.

Basic colours

So let’s start with Hue. This is the term used to describe the basic colour of something. The basic 12 pure colours are:

  1. Yellow

    Photo of a composition of acrylic colour wheels, by Bunny Poindexter 2011

  2. Yellow-Orange
  3. Orange
  4. Red-Orange
  5. Red
  6. Red-Violet
  7. Violet
  8. Blue Violet
  9. Blue
  10. Blue-Green
  11. Green
  12. Yellow-Green

In case you’re wondering why colours such as lilac and navy blue don’t belong in this basic listing, it’s all about perception.

Imagine a car manufacturer preparing to launch a new model of car using the hue Red-Orange. The Red-Orange hue would be mixed accordingly to create a swatch of attractive colours, along with suitable names designed for the branding of the new model.

Mazda’s “Velocity Red”, for example, was no doubt cleverly conjured to appeal to the buying public. A fancy name for a fancy colour for customers who aspire to a fancy car! How many mere “Red-Orange” cars would Mazda sell?

Now that we’ve brought people and perception into it, consider this: does your version of Lilac look the same as someone else’s? In fact, Lilac and Navy are nothing more than fashionable names for types of Violet and Blue.

So as we’ll find out in this article, the names “Violet” and “Blue” are more valuable – and more widely understood – than “Lilac” and “Navy”, when it comes to building a harmonious colour scheme.

 Applying a little theory…

Now let’s say we create a tasty new cupcake range. Everyone likes their cupcakes colourful, so we need to mix several to create a colour scheme.

Next we cook up the name “Violet Vanity”. This is what we’ll use to describe the colour scheme of one particularly yummy cupcake. Guessing from the name, it’s a safe bet that the basic hue of this cupcake will be Violet.

Before we let loose on the decorations for our cupcake, we need to think about harmony when choosing our colours. The peerless beauty of our cupcake will depend on it. And customers will want to choose their paper cups, napkins, cake decorations and ribbons based on it.

If we choose to keep the Violet Vanity colour scheme really simple, we could just add white (for a tint), grey (for a tone) or black (for a shade) to the original Violet hue, to create certain hue values. This will change the lightness or darkness of the Violet hue [2].

For the cupcake, this gives us a monochromatic colour scheme that might look something like this:

Cupcake monochromatic colour scheme, produced using Adobe Kuler

Cupcake sketch in monochromatic colour

So we’ve got the Violet, but there’s not much Vanity yet. Let’s add a twist of lemon peel on the top, providing the perfect complement to the Violet hue.

Now look again at the colour wheels shown in the photo above (right back at the top of this article) and you’ll see that Yellow is opposite Violet. In the same way, we see that Green is opposite Red and Blue is opposite Orange: these are called pairs of complements.

Back now to the cupcake and we now know that  the complement of Violet is Yellow. We can comfortably predict that a bit of lemon peel to decorate the cupcake should add a vibrant touch!

Cupcake complementary colour scheme, produced using Adobe Kuler

Cupcake in complementary colours

That works well! It’s a bold touch. Now let’s go bolder still. If we add a second pair of complements to the cupcake colour scheme – by packing the cupcake in a Red and Green box – this new combination will be called a tetrad. It doesn’t get much more vibrant than that!

Cupcake tetrad colour scheme, produced using Colour Scheme Designer 3

Cupcake in tetrad colours

Experimentation is essential here. When using complementary colours, we might sometimes decide that there’s too much vibrancy, often between two hues. Violet and Yellow do look pretty strong together. So to reduce the glare a bit, we use split-complements instead.

A split complement is a pair made up of the next adjacent hue on either side of the original complement, so for our cupcake we would replace Yellow with the split complements  Yellow-Orange and Yellow-Green:

Cupcake split-complementary colour scheme, produced using Colour Scheme Designer 3

Cupcake in split-complementary colours

We decide that our cupcake will be presented in Red-Violet and Blue-Violet striped paper bun cases. These two hues are adjacent to Violet on each side, so this relationship is known as an analogous harmonious colour scheme. Nine out of ten colour theory experts agree that at least two hues but no more than five make a good analogous colour scheme!

Cupcake analogous colour scheme, produced using Adobe Kuler

Cupcake in analogous colours

So everything’s going nicely. We just need to look at one more important hue harmony: the triadic. The recipe for a triadic colour scheme is quite simple: take three hues that are equally spaced from each other on the colour wheel.

For our cupcake, the triadic colours of the Violet hue are Orange and Green. You might also notice that this scheme is quite close to the split-complementary one we talked about earlier.

Cupcake triad colour scheme, produced using Adober Kuler

Cupcake in triad colours

So enjoy those cupcakes! And when you’re done baking, why not start painting? If you want to experiment with acrylic paints, using some of the principles discussed in this article, then the next experiment in this series is waiting for you!

  1. There are many online colour wheel tools to choose from via the internet; in this article I refer to Adobe Kuler and Colour Scheme Designer 3
  2. If you refer to the photo at the beginning of this article, of the colour wheel composition, you will see six inner wheels of the primary colours (Yellow, Red, Blue) and the secondary colours (Orange, Violet, Green). You will also see that these hues have each been mixed with gradients of white paint to demonstrate the values from the hue through to white.  The six outer wheels show the same primary and secondary colours, but this time they have been mixed with gradients of black paint to demonstrate the values from the hue through to black.

Originally published: Saturday, August 20th, 2011 at 23:16 in Atelier, Inspiration

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