Colour theory Explained

August 31, 2021

Colour theory Explained

Colour theory Explained

Fiona Dawson, one of our Taubmans colour specialists, walks us through the theory of colour and how a basic understanding can help you elevate a space. To begin, what is colour theory?

Colour theory is a series of rules and guidelines that have been developed to explain how and why colours work and interact with each other. Designers use a colour wheel, along with the science of how human eyes filter colour and how colour affects our psychology.  All of this goes into giving you the confidence to select a colour palette.

Where it all began

The science of colour began in the 1600s when Sir Isaac Newton performed a series of experiments using sunlight and prisms to discover the visible spectrum of clear  or ‘white’ light. Prior to this, colour was considered either light or dark. Thanks to Newton's discovery, it was revealed that clear light was composed of seven visible colours. His work spawned the first ever colour wheel – a tool still used by designers today.

Basics of colour

The colour wheel is made up of three colour categories:

Primary Colours – red, yellow, and blue. These are the foundations of colour, as a primary colour cannot be created by other colours. 

Secondary Colours – that are created by mixing primary colours.

Tertiary Colours – produced by mixing primary and secondary colours together. 

How does the colour wheel turn into the array of colours we have available? 

Fiona explained that, "A standard colour wheel can create a range of colours by adjusting the tint, tone or shade to any colour on the colour". 

What is the difference between tint, tone, and shade? 

Tint – refers to how much white is added to a colour.

Tone – refers to how much grey is added to a colour.

Shade – refers to how much black is added to a colour.

When talking to Fiona about how these adjustments affect colour she says, "Tone can give you some really beautiful colours, with some beautiful depth, while tint can create light pastel colours. A popular design strategy is to use a monochromatic colour scheme. This refers to a colour palette created using a pure colour and adding tint, shade and tone to get variants on the same pure colour." 

Colour Rules

Why does the colour wheel continue to be relevant in modern colour selection? 

Fiona explains that finding colours that complement and work together goes back to the colour wheel. Since it was created by depicting how light displays the visible colour spectrum, it remains important to ensure colour combinations aren't jarring to the eye. There are a series of design rules that use the location of pure colours on a colour wheel as a guide. "Any colours directly opposite each other on the colour wheel will be complementary." 

Other colour wheel rules include:

Split Complementary colour scheme – where you select a colour then find it's opposite on the colour wheel and select the colours either side of the opposite colour on the wheel. 

Triad colour scheme – colours that complement each other based on what falls under the tips of a triangle around the colour wheel. 

Analogous colour scheme – three colours that sit adjacent to each other on the colour wheel. Fiona says, "This colour scheme works well when you are wanting to use a myriad of colours for a feature colour and accessories with accent tones".

Using colour to your advantage

Now we know how to select complementary colours and how to adjust colour based on tint, tone and shade, how do we make an informed decision on a colour palette to select? 

"Colour is personal. It is an extension of you. Understanding how colour works in a space is something to take into consideration – how they can react, what emotions they can evoke. Colour is a wonderful medium. We can use colour to make a small space feel larger and a large space feel smaller. We can use it to brighten up a space."

The psychology behind how we perceive colour, and the physical reaction it can cause, has been extensively studied. For example, red is the most vibrant colour out there and has been known to induce passion, anger, rage or even hunger. Fiona says, "Fast food venues use red to encourage hunger and excitement". Meanwhile pink is associated with nurturing, compassion, romance, glamour and cleanliness – making it great for bedrooms. 

Fiona says the other element that goes into making an informed colour decision is lighting. "Lighting and your surrounds will affect your colour. Natural light and timber floors will reflect and warm up your colours.”

Excited to begin playing with colour yourself? The Coloursmith app allows you to create and play around with the concepts we have discussed here. To begin, you can choose to go into 'colour from library' then:

    • Select a colour
    • Intensify the colour or lighten it (playing with tone and shade)
    • Name your colour 
    • Generate a QR code for your new colour and show it to any trade store for them to make for you

Alternatively, you can upload an image, select a colour from it, save it and get it made. Creating your own bespoke colours will help bring more meaning into your home. Order your test pot today here.