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Design: the parts and the whole — chapter 15 – color concepts



The range of color concepts seems as infinite as the range of color itself. This chapter attempts to explore some of the capabilities and joy of color.


Deciding what colors to use in solving a problem or fulfilling a need is a common situation designers and artists encounter. Their decision in these situations involves considerations of color schemes: ways of arranging colors to create different visual impacts.

Achromatic Color Scheme: This is a confused label for a color scheme as achromatic means no color. This scheme uses only white, black and grays.

Monochromatic Color Scheme: This scheme uses only one color plus black, white, and grays and all the possibilities of tints, tones, and shades that can be mixed with that one color. A large range in value contrast is possible, but no color contrast can be produced.

Analogous Color Scheme: A scheme that consists of three to four colors that are adjacent (next to one another) on the color wheel, such as red-orange, orange, yellow-orange, and yellow or blue-violet, blue, blue-green, and green. The close relationship of analogous colors provides a mild contrast of color.

Triad Color Scheme: This is an arrangement of colors that form an equilateral triangle on the color wheel: red, yellow, and blue; orange, green, and violet; red-violet, yellow-orange, and blue-green; blue-violet, red-orange, and yellow-green. These schemes have a variety of color contrast potentials with the primary triad, red, yellow, and blue being the strongest and most popular.

Complementary Color Scheme: This scheme uses colors that are directly opposite on the color wheel: red and green, orange and blue, yellow and violet, red-violet and yellow-green, red-orange and blue-green, yellow-orange and blue-violet. These schemes provide maximum color contrast. These colors are as different from one another as possible. A variation on a complementary scheme is called a split complement. In this scheme a color is used and the two colors on both sides of its complement on the color wheel. An example would be red with blue-green and yellow-green.

Polychrome Color Scheme: Poly means many. This is a scheme using many, usually unrelated colors. It can be used create a loud, clashing contrasting affect.

High Intensity Scheme: This scheme uses all or almost all the colors at a high intensity level, bright and concentrated.

Low Intensity Scheme: The colors in this scheme have been considerably altered by value or complement mixtures to create colors of low intensity.

Both high and low intensity schemes can be combined with any of the other color schemes (except achromatic). All schemes can utilize white, gray, and black by themselves or mixed with the colors. This adds vastly to expand possibilities of value and intensity range.


Warm colors and cool colors seem at first like strangely tactile terms to apply to something as visual as color. But it takes no design education to know which colors fit into which categories. Reds, oranges, and yellows are automatically thought of as warm colors due to their association with fire, heat, and the sun. Blue and green are considered cool due to their association with water, sky and trees. Violet is also sometimes considered cool but not always. Basic color temperature is an important consideration in design. Warm colors are seen as visually active while cool colors can be generalized as passive.

There are many general associations that the artist can consider when dealing with color; here a few:

RED – warmth, power, attraction, love, hate, war, vigor, action, Eros, brutality

ORANGE – receptivity, warmth, pride, joy, happiness, cheerfulness, liveliness, excitement, autumn

YELLOW – luminosity, brightness, youth, vivacity, cowardice, caution, warmth, joy, deceit, treachery, action, summer

GREEN – hope, quiet, compliance, softness, tranquility, concentration, jealousy, coolness, freshness, growth, life

BLUE – depth, relaxation, maturity, quiet, cold, wetness, repose, depression, clarity, coolness, transparency

VIOLET – power, spirituality, melancholia, mysticism, dignify, importance, celibacy, priggishness (Sidelinger 74 -85)

Even from these few associations it is obvious that there is no “absolute” association for any color. But there are some general trends in how people react to color, and a designer must be aware of this potential.

People readily respond to color in an associative way but they also respond to color in ways they may not be consciously aware. Interior and environmental design can use color to its advantage in many ways. In the designing of interiors for schools, factories, and office buildings, brighter, warm colors are often preferred because they promote activity and alertness, while cooler, dull colors are more sedating. Another positive economic aspect of warm, bright colors is that they allow lower heating levels in the environments while cool-colored spaces need more heat to keep people comfortable.

A German study showed another side of environmental color on school children. They found that yellow, yellow- orange, and light blue environments had a positive intellectual impact on children. Their IQ scores increased 12 points in these warm, light environments as compared to white, brown, and black interior spaces. The children were also more cheerful and sociable when surrounded by the brighter colors. A coarser use of color psychology was instigated by the famous Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne (the “Gipper”) who had the home locker room for his team painted bright red to keep them fired up and agitated while the visiting team’s locker room was painted a tranquil blue-green in an attempt to sedate them. It should be remembered that for effective use of color in environments careful research needs to be done not only of color qualities but also the group of people to be using the space. Subtle color changes can change the impact color has on people (Zelanski and Fisher 30-1).

Another aspect of our response to color is cultural. Our use of color in our expressive language says a great deal about how we relate to color: I’ve got the blues, I’m in a black mood, I saw red, you yellow dog, I’m green with envy, I told a white lie, and so on. Red means “stop” and green means “go”; yes, it does to us, but it surely wouldn’t to most Chinese. Black is our color of mourning but in India the mourning color is white; in Turkey it’s violet; in Ethiopia, brown; and yellow in Burma (Lauer 255). This wide range in color symbolism applies to many other areas as well. Cultural color symbolism is an important consideration, especially for the growing number of artists and designers working cross-culturally.

Expressive color has mental, physical, and cultural dimensions. Tied to these are very personal aspects of color meaning. Every individual has a personal backlog of experiences with color. Color can sometimes be associated with events and incidents in our lives that we are no longer consciously aware of but that can still evoke strong emotional responses: the color of a favorite childhood toy, the crib color of infancy, the color of a much loved blanket, the color of a much hated closet in which a child was confined.

The painting of Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko are often pointed out as examples of expressive color at its purest. I remember as a student viewing reproductions and slides of his work. I basically understood how the concept of expressive color applied to the painting, but I also thought the work was rather boring. Some years later I was fortunate enough to see a large showing of Rothko’s paintings at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. His large canvases of stained and rubbed veils of color hung on the walls but seemed to move back and forth due to the push and pull of the color fields. Standing in front of a large orange and yellow canvas I felt consumed by the color and warmth; it was an uplifting experience. Standing in front of one of Rothko’s somber black and violet fields of rich layered color sent chills through my body.  This exhibition convinced me of the expressive potential of color.


The study of color interaction is the analysis of optical effects that colors have on each other and our eyes. Colors are rarely seen in isolation. They are always seen with other colors next to or around them, this concept recalls the project done in the value chapter where the small inside square of the value scale remained constant in value but appeared to become lighter or darker because of the value around it; we termed this value interaction. This same phenomenon is constantly taking place with color. We see colors in relation to other colors; they constantly interact.

An optical event called successive contrast is one of the more perplexing color interactions.  Successive contrast takes place when you stare at a color for some time, about forty-five seconds, and then shift your eyes to a white surface. The result is that you seem to see a ghost image of the same subject but the color you see is the complement of the original color. If you stare at the shape of a red apple for a minute and then shift your eyes to a white surface you will see the shape of a green or blue-green apple. It is speculated that this occurs because in staring at the red apple you have tired the red receptors in your eyes, then when the eyes are shifted to a white surface which contains the entire spectrum of light, your tired eyes cannot receive the wavelengths producing red, and instead only see those from the opposite end of the spectrum which produce the complement, green. This visual phenomenon is also called after-image.

Simultaneous contrast is another unusual color interaction. Complementary (or any strongly contrasting colors) that are placed side by side will intensify each other along the edge where they make contact. Many times if you stare at these edges they appear to become brighter and almost glow.  This effect has been often used by designers and artists to heighten color contrast and intensify edges.

An artist whose name is synonymous with the study of color interaction is Joseph Albers. Born in Germany, he was a student and later a teacher at the famous design school, the Bauhaus. Albers left Germany in the mid 1930’s as fascism came into power. He, like so many other European artists, came to the United States. He eventually became chairman of the design department at Yale University and had a tremendous impact on color in American art. He did extensive color research and applied it to his own painting, of which the most famous series is titled Homage to the Square. Albers studied how it was possible, through color interaction, to make one color appear as two, how to make three colors appear as two, and how to make two different colors appear to be the same. This kind of manipulation was possible through careful study and understanding of color properties. As an example, if you place a small square of red-violet on a background of violet the red-violet appears redder than it did on a white surface. The same square of red-violet placed on a red background will appear more violet than when it is on white and much more violet than when it is on the violet background. The reasons for this apparent change is color interaction. The red background enhances and exaggerates the violet in the red-violet while diminishing the red qualities in the red-violet due to the amount of red that the background itself is reflecting to the eye. The same procedure happens on the violet background, only this time the red is enhanced. This rather wordy explanation is an example of simple color interaction. The same type of interaction can take place with more complex variables. An important factor to remember when working with color interaction is that value interaction is also taking place and can also affect the colors being involved.

The concept of color interaction is a window to the much larger concept of how nothing exists in isolation. Everything is affecting and being affected by everything else. This principle is basis of much scientific, psychological, and spiritual thinking.


Local color is the color of an object in neutral white light. It is the color that we “know” an object to be: oranges are orange, grass is green, lemons are yellow, and so on. But in reality the orange that we see might not simply be the color orange. Because of the type of light under which we see the orange it might appear more yellow or redder or even more green than just orange.  Or the color of the orange might be affected by an apple setting next to it with some of the red of the apple being reflected on the surface of the orange. These color changes and subtleties caused by light and environment are called optical color (Lauer 251).  Knowledge of local color can certainly be of assistance to a designer, and knowledge of optical color can open up new and exciting possibilities.  Being able to discern subtle color changes on a surface and then translate those qualities into the color scheme of your work can be of considerable use in creating variety, emphasis and unity in a composition. Examples of optical color abound in the history of Western painting, with high points in the Baroque, Romantic, and Impressionistic periods.

Arbitrary color diverges from both local and optical color. Arbitrary color is subjective. This choice of color doesn’t follow optics or nature but usually the personal needs and desires of the artist. The source of the color choices might be emotional, symbolic, formal, traditional, or aesthetic.  The artist uses color apart from the associations that we may be familiar with in our observations. Many small-scale societies, such as the Australian Aborigines, used color for symbolic and expressive purposes defined by a traditional aesthetic that existed for thousands of years. In the late nineteenth century European artists such as Gauguin and Van Gogh began using arbitrary color for personal expression and opened the door for the divergent forms of expressionism that developed in the twentieth century with a profusion of arbitrary color. Color became a tool for pure expression rather than illusion.


Color  has many impacts on a composition that go beyond interactions and emotions. The first is that of the spatial effects of color. Warm, high-intensity colors such as yellow and orange appear larger than equal sized areas of cool, low-intensity colors such as some blues or violets. The brighter, lighter colors appear to “spread” and appear to be larger. This expansion of color not only affects the size of the color but also its placement, as warm colors appear to advance toward the viewer in space while cool colors appear to recede.  These spatial tendencies may be enhanced or diminished by other spatial devices the artist employs in the composition.  Interior designers can use cooler colors to make a small room appear larger, or high ceiling can appear lower with the use of warm colors. In landscape painting cool colors can be used to enhance the aerial perspective and give a greater sense of depth (Zelanski & Fisher I, 37-8). Hans Hoffman was a non-objective painter whose canvases were often a powerful interplay of color and space. His rectangles and blocks of color would recede and advance in a dance of shape, space, and color. While color often dominates our visual experience in a composition, many times the value properties of the color are also major factors in enhancing color’s spatial effects.

Color can also play a large role in creating a sense of balance in a composition. Generally high-intensity colors carry more visual weight than low-intensity colors. A small area of bright red can balance a large area of blue-gray. Color can also be used as a factor balancing other elements within a composition, especially value. A composition that has a heavy use of dark values on one side may be balanced on the other side with an area of intense color.

Color also has the power to create either dramatic or subtle areas of emphasis within a composition. In a work dominated by low-intensity color or by achromatic areas, a splash of a pure hue immediately grabs the viewer’s attention. This device is used a great deal in advertising design. Color emphasis doesn’t always have to be loud and obvious. It can also be subtle and quiet with accents of color creating rhythms and visual movement in a composition.

The dominant principles of design, unity and variety, are often structured into a composition through the use of color. Color used to create repetition and similarity can weave unity through the work; and conversely, through contrast of hue and value, color can give the composition the variety needed for interest and emphasis.


When using the phrase “color palette,” we are not referring to a surface for mixing colors, rather we are speaking of a favorite set of colors used by an artist, designer, group, or even period of art. The following are some common color palettes:

1. Basic Palette – a palette generally consisting of the primary colors: red, yellow, and blue; and the  secondary colors: green, violet, and orange; with the  addition of white and black.

2. Earth Palette – a palette consisting of only earth pigments. These are colors that come from the earth:  sienna, ochre, umber, black and white. A strict  earth palette has no blue, although occasionally an ultramarine blue is added.

3. Basic Palette Plus Earth Colors – a palette combining the colors of the basic palette with some or all the earth colors.

4. Monochromatic Palette – one pigment plus white and    black, allowing an infinite range of tints, tones,  shades and grays.

5. Warm Palette – a palette consisting of colors that would be categorized as warm – reds, oranges, yellows

6. Cool Palette – a palette consisting of colors that would be categorized as cool – blues, greens, and  violets.

7. Extended Palette – a palette allowing any number of    colors that the artist might choose, usually far  exceeding the basic palette and based on personal  preferences.

8. Limited Palette – a palette restricted to a very small number of colors, many times only two or three colors; such as cadmium orange and thalo blue, or  cadmium yellow, acra crimson, and black. This is also a  kind of personal palette selected for personal  expressive purposes. (Myers 318)

Many artists and designers adopt various palettes to fit their immediate needs and projects. Other artists come to develop very specific palettes that are identifiable as “theirs.” Most artists’ palettes evolve as their styles evolve, slowly modifying as they make transitions in their work but usually with some cohesion that remains a unifying thread.


The uses of color are limitless. The following are a few: color has the power to get the viewers attention; color can evoke emotional responses in the viewer; color can communicate cultural information; color can help organize visual information in ways the brain can better group and understand; color can guide the viewer to certain points and places in a composition; color can create illusions of depth; color an either emphasis or camouflage items; color can be a vehicle for personal expression; color can be tool to create illusions of  reality or non-reality; and color can enhance the value of items.

Color is an integral part of our lives in both the natural and man-made aspects of the world. Nature designs complex uses of color into the many levels of organic and inorganic systems. Human beings, as part of nature’s design, continue to use color for their needs and enjoyment.


Color is such an important part of  our visual experience that it permeates all areas of our lives. I find it fascinating that it is also an important part of other creatures’ lives as well, such as the insects mentioned earlier. The relationship between insects and flowers has long been an interest of scientists and poets. The colorful petals of the flower encompass its reproductive organs like the circles of a bulls-eye, beckoning insects to partake in its nectar and pollinate the plant in the process. Research has confirmed the obvious — that insects can see color. Bees have color vision that can see into the ultra-violet range but cannot see the red wavelengths that we can see (Barth 88). This raises the interesting question of what a bee sees when it looks at a meadow of flowers eliminating the reds and adding the ultra-violet; undoubtedly quite a different view than we see. Another question is how all those red flowers become pollinated. A partial answer is that there are plenty of birds with red vision and there are some red-vision insects as well (Barth 113).

The rainbow, the essence of light and color, can be studied using the analytical segmentation of physics, but it can also be looked at in a more poetic context. In the book of Genesis, after the flood, God placed the rainbow in the sky stretching between heaven and earth saying: “This is a token of the covenant which I make between me and you, and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations” Gen. 12-14 (Hope and Walsh 40).

An aspect of color in the big picture that can be one of pride or shame is the color of people — race.  White, black, brown, yellow, and red are often the colors that people are categorized into. To the observant eye this is very poor color classification. White people are very rarely white; they are pink, tan, variations of ivory and low intensity, light-valued hues, but they are rarely white. The same applies to black; while there are a few people in this category that have very dark valued skin, most people called black fit within a tremendous variety of browns with rich subtle variations and color qualities. Probably the most inaccurate of all the color labels is “red” to designate Native Americans, but it seems in keeping with Columbus’ mistakenly labeling them Indians and then Europeans extending the mistaken label to all the indigenous peoples of two continents. Variations in skin color are real but there are hundreds of subtle color and value qualities ultimately caused by the adaptation of people of varying regions of the world to their climates. The basis of light skin is unpigmented skin cells; dark skin is a result of melanin in the skin cells stimulated by exposure to ultraviolet light; reddish skin results from blood vessels being more visible under and in the skin; and yellowish skin is caused by a slightly thicker skin that masks the red blood vessels (Hope and Walsh 258). These differences in skin color have been the basis for thousands of years of massive and vicious racial separation, subjugation, slavery, and genocide.

I feel one of the strangest social rituals in our current society is the widespread practice of tanning, which has its largest following in young European Americans (“whites”). Consciously risking skin cancer, these people attempt to darken their skin colors — some to extreme levels. The obvious reason is fashion and the belief that it increases their sexual appeal. The result: an apparent attempt to simulate the skin color of those people in our society who are discriminated against because of the darker color of their skin.


materials: acrylic paint set, brushes, water container, palette, palette knife, pencil,  ruler, black marker, illustration board 10″ X  30.”

objective: To apply six different color schemes to the same subject and develop them with a consistent intensity theme.


1. Lightly pencil a 1″ boarder on the illustration board.

2. Draw a long vertical section of the still-life set up in class with light contour line. Let the image run off  the space and suggest considerable implied space.

3. Divide the long drawing into six 4 1/4″ X 8″ rectangles with 1/2″ between. Erase all the drawing that is in the 1/2″ divider spaces.

4. Develop the top box in an achromatic color scheme; the second box in a monochromatic color scheme; the third box, analogous; the fourth, triad; the fifth, complementary; the sixth, polychrome.

5. You need not attempt to create an illusion of volume or texture (though you may if you wish). The areas created  by the contour line may be painted in flat color.

6. Each color scheme should have a wide range in value.

7. All color schemes should have an overall consistent intensity level. All should have a high, medium, or low  intensity color use.

8. If needed you may paint your borders gray or white.

9. Label each color scheme appropriately. In the bottom lower border label the project Color Schemes and your name.


materials: Same as project #16, except two pieces of illustration board 10″ X 12.”

objective: To develop a study of a black and white photograph twice, with expressive color qualities as  opposite as possible.


1. Go to the library and research in photography books and magazines until you find an interesting black and white photograph by one of the following artists that you would enjoy using for this project: Brett Weston, Edward Weston, Dorthea Lange, Edward Steichen, Robert Mapplethorpe (no S&M), Charles Sheeler, Ansel Adams, Diane Arbus, Henri Carier-Bresson, Lee Friedlander, Bill Brandt, Imogen Cunningham, Alfred Stieglitz, Margaret Bourke-White, Aaron Siskind, Andre Kertesz, Walker Evans, Edward Curtis, Nadar, Arnold Newman, Alfred Eisenstadt, Paul Strand, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, or Irving Penn. The image you decide to work form should be a least 8” X 10.”

2. Put a 1″ border on both 10″ by 12″ boards.

3. With tracing paper, trace an 8″ X 10″ section of the photograph. Trace all contour lines.

4. With pencil carbon technique (rub graphite on the back of the tracing paper) transfer the line drawing to both  the illustration boards.

5. Develop the two paintings using expressive colors that  are as contrasting as possible. Remember that while color has inherent expressive associations, value and intensity are equally powerful tools to work with.

6. If needed you may paint the borders gray or white.

7. Label both boards in the lower front border Expressive Color – A Study after a B/W photo by (whoever did your study from) and  your name.


materials: Color-aid paper (provided), rubber cement, scissors, exacto knife, ruler, tagboard 8″ X  16.”

objective: Using color-aid paper to construct three-color interaction examples. The first will make three  colors appear as four, the second will make  three colors appear as two, and the final  will make four colors appear as three.


1.Put a 1″ border on the tag board. Divide the inside space into three

4″ X 6″ rectangles with 1″ between.

2. Spread out the color-aid paper you have chosen and analyze it in terms of color interaction.  What colors  do you have that might affect others? Test your ideas. Work on one exercise at a time, keeping color  properties in mind. How is color change being affected by hue, value and intensity? What are the color properties of each of your colors?

3. In each of the three rectangles glue down two    background colors (3″ X 4″ each). On top of these  backgrounds glue a small color shape (3/4″ X 1″ each)  that achieves the desired color changes.  Also glue a  piece of the same top color on the white tag board so  we can see its actual color (on the third example glue  small squares of each of the top colors on the white  tag board).

4. Label the project on the front lower border Color    Interaction and your name. Label each exercise, as  well, 3 colors as 4, 3 colors as 2, 4 colors as 3.


materials: same as project #16, illustration board 12″ X 28.”

objective: to paint the same still life of fruit three different ways: first, with local color;  second, with optical color; and third, with  arbitrary color.


1. Lay out the illustration board with three 8″ X 10″ rectangles, each  with 1″ borders.

2. In the top rectangle, do a contour line drawing of the class still life. Then trace the drawing and transfer it to the other two rectangles.

3. Develop the top rectangle with local color. Paint the shapes of the fruit and the background in the colors that you know them to be. Paint them in the flat local color.

4. Develop the second rectangle with optical color. Look very carefully at each object for reflected color and light effects on the surfaces. Exaggerate these optical  effects with your paint.

5. Develop the final rectangle with arbitrary color. Choose your colors for the shapes and background based  on personal expression rather than natural or optical  qualities — be a wild as you wish with the color but  maintain the original shapes.

6. You may paint your borders gray or white if needed.

7. On the back or lower border label the project Local, Optical, and Arbitrary Color and your name.


materials: basic writing materials.

objective: to apply the color concepts of this chapter to a 19th or 20th century  painter of your choice.


1. Write a report on an internationally recognized 19th or 20th century painter, one whom you admire. It should  be an artist who uses a great deal of color in his or her work. You should be able to find an abundance of high quality book reproductions of the artist’s work (not prints from the Internet).

2. Divide the report into six sections, one for each of the categories: Color schemes, psychological and  expressive color, color interaction, local-optical-  arbitrary color, color and composition, and color palettes.  Each section should explain  in detail how the artist’s work relates to the  concepts. Some of these concepts may relate very  closely to the artist of your choice; other concepts  may not have a great deal to do with the artist’s work.  Choose an artist whose work exemplifies most of the  concepts in the chapter. Some of the report may be  based on library research but most of the report will  be your own personal analysis.  Most of the concepts  are not going to be obviously explained in information  that has been written about the artist.  You are going  to have apply your understanding of the concept to the  artist’s work and formulate your own opinion. In  writing about the artist’s work you may generalize  about the entire body of the artist’s work, analyze a  period of the artist’s work, discuss specific works, or  do some of all of the above.

4. All areas of the report using written sources (books and magazines) must acknowledge those sources using footnoting or the Works Cited procedure (as used in this text). This citing includes all direct quotes and all information that you summarize from other sources.

5. One color photocopy of the artist’s work must be included with the report as a supportive visual. It should be a work you discuss in the report.  The report is to be word processed in 12 point Times New Roman font and put in a clear plastic folder with a title page that includes the project title, your artist’s name, and your name.

6. The report will be evaluated on how well you cover each of the color concepts in relation to your artist, writing skills, format & presentation, and source acknowledgement.


materials: same as project #16, but with 20” X 24″ hardboard (furnished by materials fee)

objective: to create a still-life in the style of the 19th or 20th century  painter you have chosen to write  your color report on.


1. Carefully review the color concepts of the chapter and how you applied them to the painter of your report.  Decide how you could this artist application of color to interpret the still life set up in class. You may improvise  on the still life to make it work within the style of your  artist (cubist, surreal, impressionist, romantic, expressionist, etc.) Your end product must still be recognizable as the still life from class.

2. Prepare and prime the hardboard as demonstrated in class, then sketch the composition with pencil and execute the painting with acrylics. All the surface area must be painted.

3. Be very careful to use your hues, intensities, and values as your artist would – refer to you copy of the report. Try to emulate the painting style of your artist to the best of your current abilities.

4. With acrylic, label on the front of the painting In the Style of    ___________________(your artist’s name) and your name.

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