Subtractive Color Theory begins with white, and adds colors until black is reached. The more color we add, the darker the resultant color is, until we approach black. This is applicable here, because fabrics typically begin their lives without color, and are then dyed with color, and is similar to printing or painting.
Additive Color Theory, typically used in computing and electronic color, begins with black and adds color until white is reached. Here, the more color we add, the lighter the result becomes, until we reach white. This makes sense because color monitors begin as black. The pixels are then lit up with colors, and the more color we add, the lighter the pixel appears.
The difference is important because the primary colors of the two systems are different. In subtractive color theory, the primaries are red, blue, and yellow (often in printing we consider magenta, cyan, and yellow), while in additive color theory we have red, blue and green (you might recall this from RGB values for coding colors on the internet).
Now, the primary colors (red, blue and yellow), provide a basis for creating the commonly known color wheel:
Primary Colors are given by axiom to be red, blue and yellow.
Secondary Colors are given by mixing equal parts of any pair of unique primary colors: red and blue make purple, red and yellow make orange, blue and yellow make green.
Tertiary Colors are created by mixing equal parts of any primary color and an adjacent secondary color. They are typically named according to the nomenclature primary-secondary. For example, mixing red and orange gives red-orange. Mixing red and green doesn’t produce a tertiary color, as green is not adjacent to red.
We can then define relations between colors:
Complementary Colors are those found directly across from each other on the color wheel. If we’re considering only primary and secondary colors, these are the combinations which do not form tertiary colors. Mixing these colors generally brings the overall color towards neutral (browns and grays), while juxtaposing them tends to create high contrast.
Analogous Colors are those found adjacent or nearly adjacent to each other on the color. These tend to create low contrast, and flow almost continuously from one color to another.
We could consider other angular relations between colors on the color wheel, but we’ll save that for some more specific applications (and there really isn’t that much farther to go). Let’s now consider the three aspects of a particular color:
Saturation refers to how pure the tone of a color is. More rigorously, we think of gray as being low saturation, and pure colors as being high saturation.
Value refers to the relative lightness or darkness of a color. The darker (closer to black) the color is, the lower the value.
Finally, let’s touch on the idea of warm and cool colors. I’ve not been able to find a technical reason for this, but we perceive colors like red and orange as warm, colors like blue and violet as cool. Often we see that warmer, brighter colors have a greater weight in whatever canvas we’re looking at.
Now that we’ve set ourselves up with a good range of definitions, we’re ready to start looking at how to apply color knowledge to achieve some fashion goals.