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Introduction to Color

I. What is Color?

We see color only when there is light. Objects exhibit color because of the selective manner in which their surfaces reflect and absorb light. A surface absorbs all the light rays except one and that ray is reflected showing the color we see. White surfaces reflect all wave lengths equally; they absorb none. Black surfaces absorb all wave lengths equally; they reflect none. This is why black and white are referred to as neutrals. There must be both absorption and reflection to have color.

II. Terms Related to Color

Hue is the actual color while value refers to a color’s lightness or darkness. Tints are colors that have white added; this lightens the color. Shades are colors that have black added; this darkens the color. The lighter the color, the more the whole room recedes and the darker the color, the more a whole room advances.

A color’s intensity refers to its brightness or dullness. A color in its purest form has the greatest brilliance. To lessen a color’s intensity, add its complement. To intensify a color, place it beside its complement. A color with a very strong intensity is conspicuous. It is best to use this color judiciously and selectively.

The terms warmth and coolness refer to the color wheel. The warm colors, or advancing colors, are yellow, orange and red. These colors draw attention to themselves and make a room appear closer, thus perhaps smaller. The cool colors, or receding colors, are green, purple and blue. These colors can make a room appear more distant, thus perhaps larger. (The exception here would be that darker values of cool colors can make a room appear smaller.) Bright, warm and dark colors will make a large room feel more cozy and smaller, while dull, cool, light colors will make a room feel bigger and airier.

Neutrals are families of white, off white, gray, black and off black. White tends to give the appearance of space. It is also used to make surrounding things seem crisp and clean; think of a white trim against a navy blue wall. Off-white is produced by adding other neutrals (gray, black, or brown) to white. When using off-white, make sure that their undertones are from the same hue. (Undertones are created when a color is added to a base hue.) Gray is simply various amounts of black and white which make a true achromatic (“no color.”) Black really sets off neutrals and sharpens and adds richness to rooms. It can be very dramatic and theatrical; however, it can also be very depressing sometimes. Off-black is a term not often used, but it is simply dark grays or tinted black. Lastly, browns (and beiges) are made by mixing several colors on the color wheel or by neutralizing orange.

III. Influencing Factors on Color

Texture, materials and lighting can affect color because of the different ways differing textures absorb or reflect light. The time of day can change the look of a color because eastern light is clear and bright, northern light is clear and cool, southern light is constant and warm and western light is hazy and hot. Do be sure to consider the orientation of your house; the north side may need warming up or the west side may need cooling down.

IV. Color Categories

From blue, red and yellow, the primary colors, we can make secondary colors, orange, green and violet. From primary and secondary colors we can make intermediate colors, red-violet, red-orange, yellow-orange, yellow-green, blue-green, and blue-violet. For reference, view this color wheel.

Red + Yellow = Orange
Yellow + Blue = Green
Blue + Red = Violet

Red + Orange = Red-Orange
Red + Violet = Red-Violet
Yellow + Orange = Yellow-Orange
Yellow + Green = Yellow-Green
Blue + Violet = Blue-Violet
Blue+ Green= Blue-Green

NOTE: The primary color is always listed first in the naming of an intermediate color.

V. Color Schemes

There are multiple color schemes to consider when designing a color scheme for a room. Monochromatic color schemes are based on one color in various values and intensities. With this color scheme you can avoid monotony by utilizing shades, tints, intensity, of the one color. Do be sure you really like the color! An analogous color scheme is created by using 3-6 colors side-by-side (adjacent) on the color wheel. Generally, one hue is predominate. Direct complimentary color schemes are chosen because they are directly opposite of each other on the color wheel. (There are also split complementary and double complimentary, but for our purposes, we’ll stick with direct compliments.) Triadic color schemes are when three colors that are equidistant on the color wheel are chosen; and example of this would be the primary colors. Tetrad color schemes are created by choosing four colors that are equidistant on the color wheel. You can also choose an achromatic color scheme; this is a color scheme with all neutrals. “Oh say, can you see,” the red, white, and blue patriotic color scheme. Lastly, the dichromatic color scheme is when 2 colors are used that are not in ready-made color scheme. As mentioned before, rules were meant to be broken.

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