Colour is the brain’s interpretation of the different wavelengths of visible light waves. The study of colour and our everyday experience of it is a mix of both art and science.
Scientists, artists and philosophers have proposed different ‘colour models’ as they try to explain how colours work. These models look at attributes of the colour such as hue (the actual colour of something), saturation (how pure the colour is versus how grey it is), and brightness (how much white or black is a part of the colour).
Using these parameters, most colours can be described. A helpful tool for considering the relationship between colours is the colour wheel. It takes the linear spectrum seen when light is refracted through a prism and joins the free ends to create a circle.
Although this means that colours from opposite ends of the spectrum (red and violet) are now adjacent on the wheel, the effect is a seamless progression of colours from any one point on the wheel to any other point. While one colour model may be based on different assumptions about its primary colours to the next model, most are consistent in their placement of colour around the wheel.
The wheel allows us to visualise and define colour harmonies; that is, collections of colours that work together to create a usable scheme. Neutral colours can be important for decorative schemes. True neutrals are black, white and greys, but in decorative terms, the word ‘neutral’ has expanded its meaning to include desaturated and less bright colours, particularly those with an earthy feel.
Research shows that colours can affect the way we feel. The effects are measurable under controlled conditions, but often do not manifest themselves to the same degree in real-life situations.
The research deals in generalisations, where colours may be described only in broad terms, and the impact or modifying effect of adjacent colours is ignored. Reaction to colour is often also a function of cultural and personal experience.
It is sensible for designers to be aware of the symbolism of colour, and use it where appropriate, but remember that it is only one part of a larger whole; context is all.
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