It’s Part 3 of our color theory series! We’ve covered the importance of color relationships, and worked out how value and saturation help create contrast. Now, we’re heading into the last part of our answer of why some color schemes work when others don’t: how colors interact with each other.
Interaction and Reaction
This part to our answer relies on human perception and how our eyes see color, and it’s very, very simple: colors will look different depending on the other colors surrounding it.
We can look at colors individually and identify which color is which, no problem. On its own, the color appears as it should. Once we introduce multiple colors, though, that first color won’t look the same. Our brains aren’t reading them as separate colors anymore, it’s seeing everything as a set. The colors around it will affect the way that first color looks.
The example above is derived from the work of Johannes Itten, a Swiss painter and theorist. The color in the inner squares is the same, but see how it looks different depending on the background color? Against the red or gray square, the orange looks darker than when it does against the blue or purple squares. That is color interacting with each other.
This is not just an art principle. Ever paint walls in your house and hated it? It’s confusing, right, because you liked the color in the store. But once you got home and put it on the walls, it looked awful. That’s because of the way that color looks in the lighting of your house, coupled with whatever colors you have on furniture, rugs, decorations – all things that aren’t present in the store. The paint color is interacting with the colors of your living space. It looks different because the colors around it are different.
I pay attention to this in my color palettes. I can take the swatches and rearrange them in different ways, and each feels a little bit different, even though the photo is the same and the colors are the same. The way the color swatches are arranged is deliberate on my part because I want them to have a certain feel and to look a certain way together. I want to present the colors in a particular way.
Take a look at just the swatches. Do the colors look a little different to you depending on what colors are next to them? They should, even if it’s really subtle; they are reacting to each other.
Replicating this in your own work can feel frustrating because this interaction has less to do with actual steps to follow and more to do with a general awareness of how color reacts. There aren’t really any hard and fast rules here. It’s about developing a sensitivity to color by consciously seeing and analyzing the color schemes you work with over and over.
Taking it a step further, it’s about using colors in a way to get your message across to viewers. It’s about presenting colors to viewers to elicit a particular reaction. It’s subtle, and it’ll change depending on the artist, the piece, the message, and the color scheme.
So, when you’re deciding on a color scheme, ask yourself how those colors look together. Individually they may be strong, but look at them now as a whole. Are there any strange reactions going on? Do the colors read the way you want them to? Meaning, does Color A still look like Color A against Color B, or does it shift a little? Is it a good shift or a bad shift?
Mostly, it comes down to playing with the colors you’ve chosen – using different amounts and arrangements, deciding on a focus, then stepping back to see how it all comes together. Use everything you know. If you’ve got a color scheme that just isn’t working, try shifting the values and saturations. A subtle shift one way or another can make a color scheme pop. If it’s still not working, consider eliminating the offending color all together.
Also remember the color relationships. Complementary colors are going to oppose each other naturally, so red will look redder against green. A similar effect will happen with any colors far enough apart on the color wheel, and grays, too, will cause color to pop out from them. The closer in value, the closer to neutral, or the closer together colors sit on the color wheel to each other (analogous colors) will have the opposite effect and cause the colors to blend together.
Before I wrap up this post, here’s a few quick tips about perception and color.
Warmer, brighter, or lighter colors will advance towards a viewer, while cooler, desaturated, or darker colors recede back. Using warmer, brighter, or lighter colors on a focal point will not only bring attention to it, it’ll cause it to come forward visually. This is a good for things beyond art like links on a website, or a brand’s color.
Similarly, using a cooler, desaturated, or darker color on a website’s background is a good choice to keep attention on the content, and not the background. Because they will recede back, this is also good for art pieces where you want to create a background that doesn’t scream for attention.
Placing a lighter color next to a darker color will make both look lighter and darker. This is good to do when you really want to emphasize an edge or line, or make a highlight or shadow pop.
Placing two colors with similar values or saturations will cause them to blend together, even if they have different hues. Because the values are similar, they are going to read as similarly important. This is good for non-focal areas of a piece.
Having trouble seeing the values? Squint.
Placing three or more colors with the same hue but different values right next to each other will cause one edge to look darker and one edge to look lighter (squint if you can’t see it). Why? It’s an optical illusion. Your brain is blending the colors together, and is making one edge look darker and one lighter as your eye moves across the scale. This is exactly why I didn’t put the swatches of the value and saturation scales right next to each other; I wanted your focus to be on the color versus the optical illusion that’s happening.
Chances are, you’re going to be using a variety of colors at one time, or a monochromatic color scheme on different shapes, so this may never occur for you. But if you are creating value scales or use grids in your work, you’ll notice this very quickly. To avoid it, leave a little space between each box.
I don’t think there’s such a thing as a bad color, or even a bad color scheme. It’s more about how a particular color scheme looks together and works together – how successful is it? What’s not working? Sometimes, a fixed color relationship is needed. Sometimes, a simple change in one value or one saturation can help a color scheme. Sometimes, it’s not putting two colors right next to each other.
Makes sense now, right?
Knowing a little color theory can only help you as an artist, so I hope you’ve enjoyed these posts! I do plan to do more of them in the future, most probably in the new year, so keep an eye out. In the mean time, if you have a color question, send it over. Thanks for reading and bookmarking and sharing!
And if you liked this introduction to color theory, I cover all of this and more in my book, Understanding Color. You can grab a copy for yourself right here.