Before we consider how best to mix colors, it behooves us to understand how each particular tool we have works. All colors are not created equal, in terms of their changes as we modify saturation and value, in terms of their psychological effects, or in terms of their fitness for achieving particular fashion goals.
Color psychology isn’t exactly “hard science,” in that it isn’t a theory derived from some set of axioms. It is, however, based on at least a body of empirical evidence. Since we’re not building lasers here, I’m alright with that.
Let’s begin with a simple observation about value. Given any starting hue (and saturation), we can range from zero value (black) to maximum value (white). In our journey, we’ll pass through black, dark-“color”, regular-“color”, pastel-“color”, and finally to white. Going from dark to light in our naïve color sense, we see that the color “looks” as if it changes from heavy to light in a mass/weight sense:
Similarly, we can consider the saturation. Again, with a fixed starting hue (and value), we can range from zero saturation (gray) to maximum saturation (no gray, pure color). In this process, a single color is at first not present at all, then becomes increasingly stronger until it is a pure tone. As we pass from gray to color, we see that the image seems to transform from low energy to high energy:
Now, the hues are a wee bit more complicated. I can’t see a simple relationship in our perception of color as we move around the color wheel. If you have any theories, I’d love to hear them! This is where we move a bit further into the world of anecdotal evidence. Fortunately, as our certainty declines, so does the relative importance of the results.
One of the major difficulties in coming up with a good catalog of color psychology is the influence of cultural difference, both international and interpersonal. For example, in modern western cultures, red is the color of the devil. However, in the Middle Ages, the devil was often represented with yellow or green. Green is also believed to be very lucky in the Irish culture. I prefer the Blue Devil. We see that things can get mixed up pretty easily. For this reason, I’ll try to stick to the more universal interpretations, with the disclaimer that I am a male
Black: Black often symbolizes power or control. It’s widely regarded as a formal color (e.g. black-tie affairs). In contexts, it can mean mourning or death (funerals), or submission (priests). For our purposes, black is a weighty color that signifies power and commands respect.
White: White represents light, purity, and innocence. It is notably clean and light in weight. Other connotations include simplicity and reverence. Very much considered a summer color (via the “rule” don’t wear white after Labor Day), though it can also be very formal (especially when paired with black) as in weddings, or from the fact that the most common shirt worn with a suit/tuxedo is white.
Red: Red is likely the heaviest of the hues. Its color is very bold to the eye, though not necessary displeasing. A range of meanings include love, anger, fire, power, respect and leadership. One of the most noticeable colors, even a small amount of red is easily noticed. Photographers are rumored to carry red soda cans with them to add a flash of red to pictures. Studies have shown that red actually has a physical effect, increasing heart rate and breathing rate.
Blue: Blue is one of the most popular colors, both in and out of the fashion world. Important meanings include calm, cool, cold, confident, and loyalty. The last of these is an oft-cited reason to wear blue to job interviews. Blue can, however, be interpreted as cold (in a sad/emotional way), so we should be careful to ensure that enough energy is present in the color to avoid this (if we wish to avoid it, that is).
Yellow: We often think of yellow as a happy color, associated with sunlight and optimism. However, its hue is the most “annoying” to our visual system. This may be the reason that yellow is actually the color which makes people angriest. In general, this effect can be tempered by reducing how striking the yellow appears by choosing lower values and saturations.
Green: Conversely, green is the easiest color for the eye to accept, likely due to the abundance of it in nature. This color is associated with growth, relaxation, fertility, and vigor. Of course, we also know it can symbolize jealousy, though I think this is more figurative than literal.
Purple: Often symbolizes royalty, ergo, wealth and success. Can also refer to delicacy in light shades (high value), or sensuality in darker shades with high saturation. Given its relatively infrequent appearance in the natural world, which accounts for its connection to wealth and rarity, purple can also seem unnatural or artificial.
Orange: One of the least used colors, orange is a tempered red in terms of intensity from a purely physical perspective, but its rare use also makes it easily noticeable. Similar ties as red; anger, desire, fire, danger, autumn, earth. People often connect “brown” most closely to orange.
Brown: Element of the earth, related to nature, stability, simplicity and tradition, and dependability. A very nonoffensive color, making it a common safe choice for fashion, especially with men.
Pink: Despite being technically red, pink, which is just red with very high value, is viewed very differently. Often represents femininity, softness, spring, flowers. Emotionally can represent love, admiration or gratitude. A very peaceful color, unlike the powerful and sometimes angry “red.”
Gray: Often viewed as a lack of color like black, when in reality it is just a lack of saturation. Commonly, gray will actually be a red or a blue with very low saturation. The difference is noticeable in some cases if you hold up the gray to some red or blue items. Depending on the underlying color, there are additional “readings” of the gray, but in general it represents wisdom, respect, neutrality, formality, or balance. Also interpreted as dull or boring.Wow, what a whirlwind! Soon we'll apply these things to the mixing of colors, and look at some general properties of color combinations, before attacking actual fashion applications (coming soon, I promise!).