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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Color Theory Chapter 4: Proportions and Intensities

This time, we’ll look at how varying the proportion and intensity of colors in a visual design can change how both the individual colors and the entire visual field appear. We often call the different ways a color can appear (in context of other surrounding colors) different “readings” of that color.

To interpret these phenomena, we borrow from the printing world. We denote the color with the largest amount of area the ground, or the dominant color. Those with a smaller proportion of the visual field are called subdominant colors. Typically, the color with the smallest (still significant) portion of the visual field has high contrast with the ground, and is called the figure or the accent.

Now, in general, the ground color will carry the most weight in determining the characteristics of the overall visual field. For example, if the dominant color has low saturation, the surrounding colors will appear grayer, as if they also have lower saturation. Conversely, if the dominant color is very vibrant, it will seem to raise the saturation of the surrounding colors. This is especially true of the subdominant colors; in some cases the effect may be opposite for accent colors, especially if they have a very strong contrast with the ground. Here are a few examples using the above colors:

Let’s apply this to a practical example. Suppose that I’m wearing a black suit (black jacket, pants, socks and shoes), with a white dress shirt, and a red tie. Here, black would be the ground, red would be the subdominant color, and white would be the accent (though one could argue that the red should also be an accent, I label it subdominant because of how it behaves with respect to the black, as we’ll see). I recommend taking these (or similar) items out and looking for the effects yourself as well. First, put on just the shirt and tie. Study the color of the tie for a moment, then put on the jacket and study its color again. You should notice (unless you have an especially light or vibrant red tie) that the tie now appears darker, given the drastic change in dominant color value from white to black. Now, this is a very common combination to wear, and it works well because of the deliberate strong contrast between all three elements. The contrast between white and black creates sharp edges which frame a flash of very visible color. The red is more striking if it is of slightly high value and of high saturation. This contrast is not accidental, and in some respects, not optional. Let’s see what happens if we neglect the effects of the ground color on our accents:

Take off the red tie, and put on a dark blue one. Now there is no ambiguity over whether the color of the tie is subdominant or accent, given the lack of contrast (due to the lower value). Again observe the effect of changing the ground color from white to black by removing and replacing the jacket. Now, the already dark tie appears even darker, approaching, but not quite reaching the color of the jacket. This destroys the “clean” edges we had before, introducing a region of ambiguity where the tie meets the jacket. The result is not terrible, thanks to the region of white which remains behind a portion of the tie, but much of the excitement generated from the red tie is lost. We also have created a bit of visual confusion between the dark blue and black. This is the same reason that it is generally a bad idea to wear black shoes with navy trousers. Well, how can we remedy this? Consider what made the first example successful; clearly defined edges and strong contrasts. This generated a very clean look with a region of visual excitement (which actually leads the eye upwards towards the face: bonus). The problem with the navy tie was the lack of contrast between the ground and the subdominant color. Let’s increase the value of the tie while maintaining high saturation, approaching something like a sky blue (despite my moral hatred for the color). This maintains a strong contrasts with the white (given the hue), and creates a stronger contrast with the dominant black, owing to the increased value, leading to a much more vibrant, exciting look.

Now, these principles can be applied to many situations, and the available contrasts are, as I said last time, nearly limitless. Keeping both contrasts and proportions in mind when designing a look will both allow you to avoid bad results from seemingly safe combinations as well as create interesting and attractive designs from unusual combinations.


Iago de Otto said...

Fashionable Mathematician, a query: Are you as good with numbers as you are with colors? There is some quite valuable information here on your blog, and I can see returning to it when apply these color concepts to designing my next website in turns of holding the visitor's attention with the color scheme and keeping it all calm on the eye as well. Getting some ideas here . . . thanx, FM.

Rabenstrange said...

I thought a light blue tie with a black suit was pretty much the ultimate no-no in suit fashion.

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