Color Theory – Part 1 – Technicalities


Color doesn’t actually exist without an observer.

Color is a visual perception that results from the way light interacts with objects. When light hits an object, certain wavelengths are absorbed by the object and others are reflected. The reflected wavelengths are what our eyes perceive as color.

Color is actual an electromagnetic spectrum, that consists of the range of wavelengths of light that humans can detect (usually between 380 nanometers to 750 nm).

This range corresponds to the colors: violet, blue, green, yellow, orange and red.

The visible spectrum is responsible for the colorful world we perceive around us, as objects reflect or emit light within this range of wavelengths, which our eyes then detect and interpret as various colors.

Color PropertiesHue, Saturation, Brightness

Colors can be described in terms of various attributes, including hue, saturation, and brightness:

HUE: This refers to the dominant wavelength of light that gives a color its basic name (e.g., red, blue, green).

When we perceive color, we are essentially detecting light at various wavelengths. Different wavelengths correspond to different colors.

For example longer wavelengths are associated with colors like red and orange, while shorter wavelengths are associated with colors like violet and blue.

The primary colors or hues are red, yellow, and blue.

By mixing these primary hues, secondary hues such as orange, green, and purple are created.

Hue is often represented as a color wheel, which organizes colors in a circular format according to their relationship with one another.

It is a visual tool that organizes colors in a circular format, showing how they relate to one another. It helps us understand how colors mix and harmonize.

The primary colors—red, blue, and yellow—are evenly spaced around the wheel. Mixing these colors creates secondary colors—orange, green, and purple—shown in between the primaries.

Tertiary colors fill the gaps between primary and secondary colors, resulting from mixing a primary with a nearby secondary color.

The color wheel helps artists, designers, and decorators choose colors that complement each other or create specific moods. It’s a handy tool for creating pleasing color combinations and understanding color relationships.

SATURATION: also known as chroma or intensity, is a characteristic of color that describes its purity or vividness. In simpler terms, saturation refers to how vibrant or intense a color appears.

A fully saturated color is vivid and pure, with no admixture of gray, white, or black. As saturation decreases, the color becomes less intense and more muted, eventually becoming a shade of gray at zero saturation.

Saturation is often depicted as a scale ranging from 0% (completely desaturated, grayscale) to 100% (fully saturated, pure color). This scale represents the amount of pure pigment in the color compared to the presence of white light.

BRIGHTNESS: Brightness, or value, describes how light or dark a color appears. It is determined by the amount of light reflected from the surface.

In a color space such as the HSL (Hue, Saturation, Lightness) or HSB (Hue, Saturation, Brightness) color models, brightness is represented as a numerical value or percentage. This value typically ranges from 0% (absolute darkness, black) to 100% (maximum brightness, white), with 50% representing a neutral, mid-tone gray.

Saturation refers to the intensity or vividness of a color, while brightness, also known as lightness or value, describes how light or dark a color appears. Increasing saturation makes colors more vibrant and intense, while increasing brightness makes colors lighter or brighter.

Color Properties Temperature

The warm and cold system, often referred to as warm and cool colors, is a classification of colors based on their perceived temperature or psychological associations.

Warm colors are hues that are reminiscent of warmth, such as reds, oranges, and yellows.

These colors are typically associated with energy, excitement, and coziness. Warm colors tend to advance or appear closer to the viewer and can create a sense of warmth and intimacy in a composition.

Cool colors, on the other hand, include hues like blues, greens, and purples.

These colors evoke a sense of calmness, serenity, and tranquility. Cool colors tend to recede or appear farther away and are often used to create a sense of spaciousness or coolness in a composition.

Main Color Palettes

Analogous Palette: An analogous color palette consists of colors that are adjacent to each other on the color wheel. For example, a palette might include shades of blue, blue-green, and green. Analogous palettes create harmonious and cohesive color schemes, making them easy on the eyes and suitable for conveying a sense of unity or tranquility.

Main Color Palettes

Complementary Palette: A complementary color palette consists of colors that are directly opposite to each other on the color wheel. Examples include blue and orange, red and green, or yellow and purple. Complementary palettes create strong visual contrast and vibrancy when used together. They are often used to create dynamic and eye-catching compositions, as the contrast between the colors intensifies each hue.

Main Color Palettes

Split-Complementary Palette: A split-complementary color palette is a variation of the complementary palette. It includes a base color and two colors adjacent to its complementary color. For example, if the base color is blue, the split-complementary palette might include yellow-orange and yellow-green. Split-complementary palettes offer a balance between contrast and harmony, providing visual interest without being as stark as complementary palettes.

Main Color Palettes

Triad Palette: A triad color palette consists of three colors that are evenly spaced around the color wheel, forming an equilateral triangle. For example, a triadic palette might include red, blue, and yellow. Triadic palettes offer a balanced yet vibrant combination of colors, providing both contrast and harmony. They are versatile and can be adjusted to create various moods and effects.

Main Color Palettes

Monochromatic Palette: A monochromatic color palette consists of variations of a single color. It includes different shades, tints, and tones of the same hue. For example, a monochromatic palette might feature various shades of blue, ranging from light sky blue to deep navy. Monochromatic palettes are elegant, simple, and easy to use, as they provide a cohesive and unified look without overwhelming the viewer with too much variety.

Tints, Shades and Tones

Tints: Tints are created by adding white to a hue, resulting in a lighter version of the original color. Tints retain the hue’s basic characteristics but are lighter in value. For example, if we take the hue blue and add increasing amounts of white to it, we create tints of blue, such as sky blue or baby blue.

Shades: Shades are created by adding black to a hue, resulting in a darker version of the original color. Shades retain the hue’s basic characteristics but are darker in value. For example, if we take the hue blue and add increasing amounts of black to it, we create shades of blue, such as navy blue or midnight blue.

In the context of a monochromatic palette, variations of a single hue are achieved by adjusting its tints and shades. This allows for a range of colors that are visually cohesive and harmonious, as they all share the same base hue while offering different levels of lightness or darkness

Tones: Tones are created by adding both white and black (or gray) to a hue, resulting in a desaturated or muted version of the original color. Tones retain the hue’s basic characteristics but are less vibrant and more subdued compared to the pure hue. By adding gray to a hue, the color becomes less intense, creating a softer, more understated appearance.

In practical terms, tones can be thought of as the colors you get when you mix a hue with various amounts of both white and black.

Color Models

RGB is an additive color model used primarily in digital displays, such as computer monitors, television screens, and electronic devices.

In RGB, colors are created by combining varying intensities of red, green, and blue light. When all three colors are fully combined at their maximum intensity, they produce white light. Each color channel (red, green, and blue) has a range from 0 to 255, resulting in 256 possible intensity levels for each channel.

RGB is often represented as a hexadecimal (HEX) code in digital design, where each color channel is represented by a two-digit hexadecimal number. For example, pure red would be represented as #FF0000, where FF represents the maximum intensity of red, and 00 represents no green or blue.

RGB is not typically used for traditional printing methods like offset printing, flexography, or screen printing, where CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Black) color mode is the standard.

CMYK is a subtractive color model used primarily in print media, including magazines, newspapers, and other printed materials.

Colors are created by subtracting varying amounts of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black ink from a white substrate (typically paper). When all four inks are combined at their maximum intensity, they produce a deep, rich black.

CMYK colors are represented as percentages, with 0% representing no ink (white) and 100% representing the maximum amount of ink for each color.

For example, pure red would be represented as C=0%, M=100%, Y=100%, K=0%.

CMYK is commonly used in offset printing, digital printing, and other print production processes.

Pantone Matching System (PMS):

Pantone is a proprietary color matching system used primarily in the printing industry to ensure accurate color reproduction.

Pantone colors are pre-defined swatches of ink colors that are mixed according to a standardized formula. Each color in the Pantone Matching System (PMS) is assigned a unique number, making it easy to specify and reproduce specific colors accurately.

Pantone colors are often used for branding, logos, and other applications where precise color matching is essential.

Pantone colors are not limited to CMYK or RGB color spaces and can be reproduced using various printing methods, including offset printing, screen printing, and digital printing.

Pantone colors are designed to be highly saturated and vivid, making them ideal for applications where color accuracy and vibrancy are important. The colors are available in various formulations, including spot colors and specialty inks, allowing for customization and versatility in printing applications.

Other Color Systems:

RAL (Reichs-Ausschuß für Lieferbedingungen und Gütesicherung): is a standardized color matching system used primarily in Europe for paints and coatings. RAL colors are represented by a four-digit number and are used mainly for architectural and industrial applications, such as painting buildings, machinery, and equipment.

NCS (Natural Color System): is a color system developed in Sweden that aims to describe colors based on how humans perceive them. It uses a three-dimensional model to represent colors in terms of hue, chromaticness, and lightness. NCS is used in various industries, including architecture, interior design, and product development.

BS 4800: BS 4800 is a British Standard for colors used in building and construction, including paints and decorative finishes. It specifies colors using color codes and is commonly referenced in architectural and industrial applications in the UK and some other European countries.

These are just a few examples of color matching systems used in Europe and around the world. Each system has its own set of colors, standards, and applications, catering to the diverse needs of different industries and regions.

For the creatives in the field of branding the essential color systems that must be know are: RGB, CMYK, Pantone and Hex.

As an observation, brand designers may encounter RAL colors when designing physical environments or products, particularly in Europe.

Go to Adobe Color to test different color combinations, draw inspiration and much more!

In the next article we are going to explore the symbolism of every color in today’s time.

Color Theory – Part 2


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