Notes on Colour

What is Colour?

Colour vision by most people is taken for granted. We are not aware of the process, which occurs to let us experience colour. To understand colour, we have to understand some basic principles such as: what is light and what are it’s characteristics? How does it behave with different types of materials, and how do we receive this information and transform it into a form that we can perceive?

Light is a form of energy, which is called radiant energy, such as heat. Light can be more precisely defined as an electromagnetic energy. Light has one special property: it travels at a constant speed. In a vacuum light travels at 186,000 miles per second or more precisely, 299,792,456.2 metres per second.

Visible Spectrum

Further reading: Colour (wikipedia), Light (wikipedia), Visible Spectrum (wikipedia), Human Eye (wikipedia).

Why is the use of Colour in Design so Important?

Colour Wheel

Of all the design elements you could use, e.g. line, shape, space, texture, etc., colour is one of the most powerful. It elicits the greatest emotional response.

Colours have associate with things in nature, feelings and things learned in our culture e.g. red – stop, “seeing red”, warth, tomatoes, etc. They can mean very different things across cultures (so it is important to research your target audience).

Colours for Print are Different to Colours for Screen

  • Subtractive colours – these are colours for print and are based on CMYK colours. Cyan = blue. Magenta. Yellow. K = Black.

Subtractive Colour Model - CMYK

When mixed together (like inks) they make black.

  • Additive colours – these are colours for the monitor/screen and are based on RGB colour. Red. Green. Blue.

Additive Colour Model - RGB

When these are mixed together (with light from the screen) they make white.

Subtractive Colour Model (wikipedia), Additive Colour Model (wikipedia)

Understanding Basic Colour Harmony

The basic colours on a colour wheel are like notes on a scale in music – they can be expanded into symphonies and millions of colours.

By using an interactive colour wheel you can come to a better understanding of primary, secondary, tertiary, analogous, complimentary, greyscale (achromatic) and monochromatic colours and how each colour is made.

Basic Red-Yellow-Blue Colour Wheel

Because of the limited range of colours that was availalbe throughout most of the history of art, many artists still use a traditional set of complementary pairs, including:

  • red and green
  • blue and orange
  • yellow and purple

The complement of each primary colour (red, blue, or yellow) is roughly the colour made by mixing the other two in a subtracting system:

  • blue complements (red + yellow) = orange
  • red complements (blue + yellow) = green
  • yellow complements (red + blue) = purple

Complementary Colour (wikipedia)

Understanding Colour Qualities.

Hue, or chroma, is the name of a colour.


Saturation refers to the amount of colour.


Value refers to the intensity of a colour.


Read more on basic colour terminology.

Colours are strongly affected by each other. A red on a green background looks very different to the same red on another shade of red. It does not stand out as much and tends to look smaller.

Colour Temperature

All colours may be viewed in terms of their temperature. Temperature in this context is the visual sensation of feeling warm or cold. Generally, the colours yellow, yellow-orange, orange, orange-red, red and red-violet are referred to as warm. Yellow-green, green, blue-green, blue, blue-violet and violet are referred to as cold.

Colour Temperature

We could therefore divide the basic colour wheel as shown for a general sense of colour temperature.

However, you must remember that the temperature of a colour is also affected by those colours surrounding it.

Cool & Warm Gray

Colour Temperature (wikipedia).

Colour Recession

Colors come forward or recede depending on their warmth, intensity and value. Warm, intense, and dark value come forward, cool, grayed and light value recede. However, recession is also affected by color keying, or what color the color is placed next to. According to Eliot O’Hara, “The law for keying a color or value is always the same, an area will vary in a direction opposite to its immediate surroundings.” (The Watercolorist’s Complete Guide to Color by Tom Hill.)

The Colour Wheel

As we see in the real world, the further away an object is, the more water we are looking through (water in the air). You can go outside and test this for yourself. Isn’t the green tree in the distance the same colour as the tree right next to you? As objects are further away, there tends to be more white in them, and less saturated.

An object right next to you will be at it’s fullest brightness and saturation in colour.

Here are some examples:

The Iron Giant Screenshot 1

The Iron Giant Screenshot 2

A Few Blind Mice

Colour Recession


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