This Colour System

The medium a designer uses to work determines the colour system at work. When an artist is painting with a variety of paints, mixed colours are derived from a subtractive colour method. If the same individual uses a computer instead to design same composition or subject matter, the colours are derived from an additive colour method.

Subtractive Color. When we mix colors using paint, or through the printing process, we are using the subtractive color method. Subtractive color mixing means that one begins with white and ends with black; as one adds color, the result gets darker and tends to black.

The CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow and black) color system is the color system used for printing. Those colors used in painting—an example of the subtractive color method.

Additive Color. If we are working on a computer, the colors we see on the screen are created with light using the additive color method. Additive color mixing begins with black and ends with white; as more color is added, the result is lighter and tends to white.

The RGB(red, green and blue) colors are light primaries and colors are created with light. Percentages of red, green, & blue light are used to generate color on a computer screen.

Colour Wheel

twelve color wheel

A color wheel (also referred to as a color circle) is a visual representation of colors arranged according to their chromatic relationship. Begin a color wheel by positioning primary hues equidistant from one another, then create a bridge between primaries using secondary and tertiary colors.

These terms refer to color groups or types:

primary colors

Primary Colors: Colors at their basic essence; those colors that cannot be created by mixing others.

secondary colors

Secondary Colors: Those colors achieved by a mixture of two primaries.

tertiary colors

Tertiary Colors: Those colors achieved by a mixture of primary and secondary hues.

complementary colors - red and green

Complementary Colors: Those colors located opposite each other on a color wheel.

Analogous Colors: Those colors located close together on a color wheel.

The color wheel can be divided into ranges that are visually active or passive. Active colors will appear to advance when placed against passive hues. Passive colors appear to recede when positioned against active hues.

color wheel displaying active - passive ranges

  • Advancing hues are most often thought to have less visual weight than the receding hues.
  • Most often warm, saturated, light value hues are “active” and visually advance.
  • Cool, low saturated, dark value hues are “passive” and visually recede.
  • Tints or hues with a low saturation appear lighter than shades or highly saturated colors.
  • Some colors remain visually neutral or indifferent.

Color relationships may be displayed as a color wheel or a color triangle.

Painter's color wheel

The Painter’s color triangle consists of colors we would often use in art class—those colors we learn about as children. The primary hues are red, blue and yellow.

Printer's color wheel

The Printers’ color triangle is the set of colors used in the printing process. The primaries are magenta, cyan, and yellow.

Goethe color wheel

Nine-part harmonic triangle of Goethe begins with the printer’s primaries; the secondaries formed are the painter’s primaries; and the resulting tertiaries formed are dark neutrals.

Complementary Colours

We look at a color wheel to understand the relationships between colors. Analogous colors are positioned in such a way as to mimic the process that occurs when blending hues. The colors that are positioned opposite one another are complementary colors.

red and green yellow-green and red-purple purple and yellow yellow-orange and blue-violet orange and blue red-orange and blue-green

To call those hues in direct opposition to each other “complements of each other” is appropriate. Complementary colors bring out the best in each other. When fully saturated complements are brought together, interesting effects are noticeable. This may be a desirable illusion, or a problem if creating visuals that are to be read.

Color combinations

Color combinations may pass unnoticed when pleasing, yet offend dramatically when compositions seem to clash. One outcome we seek in the final form or composition, is a successful use of color.

We determine whether or not we are successful by critically assessing the visual balance and harmony of the final composition—balance and harmony are achieved by the visual contrast that exists between color combinations. Planning a successful color combination begins with the investigation, and understanding, of color relationships.

Using a color wheel and a template, the relationships between colors are easy to identify.

Monochromatic Relationship
Monochromatic Relationship Colors that are shade or tint variations of the same hue.

Complementary Relationship
Complementary Relationship Those colors across from each other on a color wheel.

Split-Complementary Relationship
Split-Complementary Relationship One hue plus two others equally spaced from its complement.

Double-Complementary Relationship

Double-Complementary Relationship Two complementary color sets; the distance between selected complementary pairs will effect the overall contrast of the final composition.

Analogous Relationship

Analogous Relationship Those colors located adjacent to each other on a color wheel.

Triad Relationship
Triad Relationship Three hues equally positioned on a color wheel.

Check out colour psychology


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