Out of all of the Using Colors posts I’ve done so far, this one on using purple has to be the hardest to write because purple is the color that’s hardest for me to use. And here’s why.
On a color spectrum, the colors are separated out according to how wide their wavelength is, which if you’ve been following along with these posts, is different from a color wheel, where colors are shown in equal amounts. From a color theory perspective, this makes sense. We want to see how color is made, and no color is really bigger or better than another. It’s just color.
But it’s not entirely accurate.
In real life, visible light is physically split into wavelengths of color, aka a spectrum. The wider the wavelength, the more shades you can get from any single color. Red’s got a pretty decent area. Blue and green are enormous. Purple (or violet*, as it’s called), like its complement yellow, not so much.
So, when it comes to using colors like purple or yellow or blue-green, that smaller range only gives us so many colors. In (color) theory, we should be to get the same amount of shades from every hue. But reality tells us differently, and all we need to do is look at a color spectrum to see that. Practice tells us the same – mixing up a shade of purple may take more white or gray or black than it would with another color with a wider range, like red. We need to take bigger steps for shades of purple to see a change.
And that small range is what throws me off; I’m a girl that likes options, and lots of them.
That said, I can appreciate purple, and it’s got a long history.
Over the centuries, purple was worn almost exclusively by leaders and rulers because it was hard to make in ancient times, so its first associations are with royalty, exalted positions, and exclusivity. Other associations of purple include protection, mysticism, meditation, mystery, visions, spirituality, the soul, intuition, enchantment, contemplative thought, the mind, drama, creativity, and aloofness.
Put another way, purple’s the mystical spiritual princess of the color wheel. The one tapped into her beliefs, and more than willing to sit down and chat about big ideas and when and how to execute them. She may come off as cool, and she is, but she’s also astute and creative, too.
So, the big question: how do we use purple?
Because it’s a cool color, purple’s going to recede into the background. The spotlight is not where it generally wants to be, so while you can force it there by keeping everything else quiet and desaturated, it’s going to be tough to pull purple out as a diva color (unless it’s super bright and super saturated, just like any other color).
But it’s an awesome background color.
It looks great against any of the warm colors because its coolness adds instant contrast. And because red, orange, and yellow have diva tendencies, the quietness of purple works well because the other colors want the spotlight, and purple doesn’t.
This doesn’t mean you don’t “see” it – you do. But where does your attention go to last in the swatches above? It should be on the other colors, not necessarily purple.
It also plays well with the cooler side of the color wheel, too. Even here, it lets blue and green take charge, preferring to hang back, adding to the overall color scheme without attracting too much attention.
See how it adds a little something to the swatches above? It’s great as a background singer, truly.
The trick to using it for me (or any color that might challenge me) is to find a particular hue of purple I like best. Maybe for you it’s a true secondary purple, or it might be a tertiary shade like blue-purple or red-purple. I personally love the warmth of a red-purple, so if I’m going to include a purple into a color scheme, that’s where I start first.
If you do branch out into the tertiary shades of purple, you’ll find that the warmer red-purples will start to come forward a little more because, surprise surprise, it’s got more red in it than blue, red, our #1 diva color. Understandably then, the cooler blue-purples will recede back even further. So, if you’re looking to have a purple as a diva color, you might have more luck with the shades of red-purple over blue-purple because of that red, especially if you’d prefer not to go super saturated with it.
* A note about “violet” and “purple”:
Before you go, let’s talk real quick about a distinction that needs to be made.
You’ll find that a lot of people, myself included, use “purple” in place of, or interchangeably with, “violet”. I personally do this to keep things simple when it comes to color theory, but there is a difference and they are separate colors, so you should know that. While they both sit between red and blue, violet is closer to blue, and purple is closer to red; it’s a subtle, but important shift.
Put in our color theory terms, you can think of “violet” as more blue-purple, and “purple” as more red-purple.
Beyond that, violet is an actual wavelength of light, and its color is seen in that wavelength. Purple, on the other hand, is a color mixture of red and blue. So, for me, as far as color theory goes, I choose to use purple over violet because it’s referring to a color mixture, not a wavelength of light, and the way I use it as more of a general term to cover that area between red and blue on the color wheel. Make sense?
Other color theory sources may choose to use “violet” as their general term; you’ll know which right off by how they label their color wheel. I’m not going to get into which term is right or better because honestly, it’s just semantics – we’re talking about the same thing. Mostly it comes down to personal preference and how we learned to identify that color. But now you know my thinking behind it, so you can make your own decisions about what you call it!
As for us, this is going to wrap up this series of posts! We’ve gone through the primary colors and the secondary colors of the color wheel now – can you believe it? So, if you’ve missed a post along the way, here they are again for you: Using Red, Using Yellow, Using Blue, Using Orange, Using Green, and Using Purple
Your turn – how do you like to use purple? What color do you struggle with?