Color theory can be used in many activities from designing a new profile picture to choosing yarn for your next knitting project, or figuring out what you’re going to wear tomorrow. But color theory is something that not many people understand.
Perhaps it’s because the name is intimidating. It conjures up images of chalk dust floating around in beams of light, or the sound of textbook pages being turned. But color theory is so much more than just theory, it’s how we perceive the world.
Certain colors are chosen for certain roles. They each have different meanings that can be altered if paired with one or more other colors. And their meanings have altered throughout time. Don’t think that the meanings are easily changed though, they have taken root in the bones of society.
But if you want to understand how colors work and how you can use them, keep reading. You’ll learn about hue, value, and saturation, as well as the meanings of colors. In part 2, which will be posted on Sunday, I’ll explain the relationships different colors have, and I’ll analyze color palettes and explain how they work.
Hues are the colors in their rawest form. I would go so far as to say that hue is color, as pure as it can get. Red, yellow, and blue are hues. Orange, green, and purple are hues. Think of a rainbow, as strong as it can be, blindingly bright and bold. Every single color, even if it’s only slightly different than the next, is a hue.
In the picture above you can see that the reds are each a slightly different color. They have the same value and saturation, but they are different hues. Each of the oranges are a slightly different color as well. They also have the same value and saturation, but the hues are different.
But hues on their own can be overwhelming, which is where value and saturation comes in. Value and saturation take the naked hues and dress them up, making them appropriate for their setting.
Value is basically darkness. Without any hue, a value scale would have black on one side, white on the other, and every shade of gray in between. With hue you can have dark red and bright red, dark blue and bright blue. Bring saturation in to the mix and you can have the complexities of ivory and olive, plum and burgundy.
These two spheres are the same, except the one on the right is in grayscale, so it is purely value.
Without values we wouldn’t be able to have depth in art. The value differences between the shadows, midtones, and highlights show us how the light interacts with shapes and textures. In the image above the area where the light hits the sphere has a higher value. The shadow of the sphere has a lower value.
Saturation can also be called intensity or brightness. Simply put, saturation is the intensity of a color.
A simple way to think about saturation:
You have three clear glasses. In one you have just water. In another you have just food coloring. In the last glass you have an equal mix of water and food coloring. The glass of just water has no saturation, because there’s no color. The glass of just food coloring is fully saturated, it’s pure color. And the glass that has an equal mixture of food coloring and water has some saturation, but not a lot.
In the picture above, on the top row, we have light gray and bright red on the two extremes. In between them are several lovely shades of grays that turn to pinks, and pinks that turn to reds. All of the colors are the same hue and value, but they have different saturations.
In the bottom row it’s the same thing, except gray and gold, instead of gray and red.
Even knowing hue, value, and saturation, it’s not enough to be able to use color theory in your day to day life. Many people who do use color theory in their day to day lives wouldn’t able to explain the difference between saturation and value. They make use of color theory by learning and utilizing the meanings and relationships that colors have.
Red, in a word, is passion. That’s why it’s a symbol for many romantic things. Red roses, a red box filled with chocolates, cheesy red balloon hearts on Valentine’s day. But it’s also a symbol for anger. It’s a very strong color, and eye catching. If someone’s wearing bright red, they’re probably a confident person.
Red can also symbolize hunger, in fact it has been shown that red can make you hungry, which is why it’s such a prominent color in restaurants.
Orange is health and happiness. The health part is no surprise as oranges (the fruit) have high amounts of Vitamin C, and carrots are rich in beta-carotene and Vitamin A. The happiness could be because of how bright the color is, or because it is also has the symbols of wealth and youthfulness.
Yellow is a very energetic color. It also draws attention, because many yellows are very bright. If you want to stand out, try wearing something bright yellow; it isn’t nearly as common as red these days.
Some other meanings that yellow carries are warmth and optimism, so if you’re feeling sad or lonely, surrounding yourself in things that are yellow may help cheer you up!
Green is soothing and represents balance, nature, and relaxation. Seeing green may help you relax, so if you’re feeling stressed out about something, take a walk in a grassy park, or find some leafy trees to admire. If you feel as if you’re going to be in a situation where lots of people are going to be stressed out, for example an exam, wear green. It’ll relax their subconscious mind.
On the other side of the coin, green can also mean envy or jealousy, and lime green has been used by the art industry (especially Disney) to represent illness, villainy, and death. If you do choose to use green for something, stick to soft, light greens, or rich, dark greens.
Blue means faith, stability, and calmness. It’s considered to be the most calming color of them all, and has also been linked to improved concentration and memory. Blue is a color used a lot by banks because it carries connotations of intelligence and trust.
Like green, blue is also seen as a very natural and soothing color, so if you want to give off a natural and calm feeling, using blue and green will work well.
My attempt at an ‘artsy’ photo
Purple is the color of royalty. Hundreds of years ago purple dye was made from very hard to get shells, and because they were hard to get the dye was expensive, so only royalty and nobility could afford to purchase purple garments.
Purple is also seen as a mysterious and sad color, and a creative and childish color, so consider whether or not you really are conveying what you think you are when you use this color.
Pink is the color of sensitivity, sympathy, and tenderness. While it is considered to be more of a feminine color in modern western society, it used to be known as a masculine color. Some other meanings of pink are love, sexuality, and care. Be careful when using pink colors, as it can be harsh on the eye if it’s too bright or saturated.
Black is mysterious, strong, and elegant, and it is a good color to wear if you want to impress someone. But be wary as it is also a color used to represent evil. Matching black with another color can prove to be quite powerful, or cut out the black entirely and replace it with dark purple or dark gray.
Flipping the common way of viewing the color black as evil, here are some things that are good: fresh soil in a garden, hot coffee in the morning, dark chocolate, a cozy armchair that you can curl up in, a pet’s fur, and a dark sky filled with glittering stars.
Gray symbolizes reliability and intelligence, but is also seen as a conservative and gloomy color. It’s a neutral color and it is very neutral in symbolization, so it’s a good color to wear to work.
White is pure and innocent, but it can be a bit harsh in bright lighting, because of it’s reflectivity. It’s seen as a very fresh and clean color, so if you want something to appear fresh, clean, healthy, or pure use white.
Like I did with black, I’m going to flip the common way of viewing the color white as pure. Here are some disturbing or evil things that are white: bleached bones, frost on plants and crops, animal teeth, harsh office lighting that’s a bit too bright for comfort, and flashes of lightning that destroy trees and houses.
Brown is friendly and down to earth, so it’s a great color to wear if you’re going to be hanging out with friends or family. It’s associated with the outdoors and longevity, but it’s also a conservative color. Like gray, brown is a very good choice if you want to appear neutral.
Hopefully I was able to give you some insight into the world of color theory. In part 2, I’ll be explaining color relationships, as well as showing how to build a successful color palette, and analyzing color palettes that have been used by professionals.