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Thursday, May 29, 2008

Color Theory Chapter 6: Complementary Colors and Contrast

As we’ve discussed earlier, the greatest hue contrast we can create is with complimentary colors. Thus, applying complimentary colors to an outfit is going to be an efficient way to generate contrast, providing some visual punch and complexity. In this post, I’m going to go over some basic rules for using complementary colors, as well as utilize complementary colors to achieve another fashion goal.

Many combinations of complementary colors simply create too much contrast, putting strain on the visual system. This, of course, leads to a poor aesthetic interpretation, which leads the viewer to not like your style. If you don’t believe me, take a look at a few examples.

Worse still, complementary colors can often create Itten’s simultaneous contrast, an even more unpleasant visual experience. Therefore, we must find ways to appropriately bring complementary colors together, highlighting the good aspects of the contrast (interesting combination of hues, sharp edges, grabs attention), while mediating the bad aspects (simultaneous contrast, excessive vibrance, visual strain).

Let’s revisit some of the examples of bad use of complimentary colors from above. One similarity between them is consistently intensity, coming from moderate to high value and very high saturation. We see that even having one such color is generally unpleasant.

How about some examples in which the colors have decreased saturation, especially those which have medium value levels?

This is certainly an improvement, but let’s take it a little bit further. Our last step will be to introduce a second high contrast, this time in value. In general, we’ll make the color with the higher saturation have the lower (darker) value, in accordance with the above results. As we see, this yields some nice results:

We thus have a useable set of rules for applying complimentary colors:

  1. First, ensure that at least one color does not have excessive intensity (characterized by medium to high value and very high saturation), and if possible, make sure both colors have a reasonable intensity.
  2. Decrease saturation as value increases. In general, the darker color should have significantly more saturation than the lighter.
  3. Introduce a strong secondary contrast (typically with value) to mediate the strong hue contrast.

Why don’t we look at an application? This time our goal will be to generate interest in our inner layers of clothing. We often lose much of the value of certain pieces of clothing when worn underneath other layers. As I mentioned in Practical Post 1 – Silver Sharpie, graphic tee shirts are wasted when they’re design is hidden beneath a polo shirt or a sweater; things we wear rather often! It then behooves us to generate interest in these inner layers, both to extract additional value from them and just to generate interest in what we are wearing in general.

A simple way to do this is with a polo shirt and undershirt of complementary colors. In both cases I’m wearing black pants, though in each case the outfit would work with brown or blue pants. I decided on black since we haven’t covered analogous or triadic colors in detail yet. We have two examples, a yellow polo with purple undershirt and a green polo with red undershirt.

Note how attention is brought to the neckline, and therefore the undershirt, especially in the green/red case. Can you figure out why the effect is diminished in the yellow/purple example? It relates back to the ideas of proportion and intensity discussed in Chapter 4; the yellow is both more intense and occupies a (much) larger portion of the visual field, making it difficult for the purple to attract attention. This example shows that for this particular application, it would probably be better to use a purple polo and a yellow undershirt. Although it is not always necessary (or optimal), a fourth “guideline” (not quite a rule) is the following:

  1. When there is a large contrast in value and proportion, make the larger proportioned color the one with lower value.

We can apply this rule to achieve the same goal in a dressier setting. Here we pair a white and green striped dress shirt with a maroon sweater, creating a very nice contrast. The difference in hues is mediated by the difference in values, and the large proportion of the dark value allows the accent color to draw attention to the neckline and face. The stripes add to the interest in the inner layers as well!

Accents and manipulations like these are beginning to fill our sartorial tackle-box. We can already see more complicated and interesting outfits emerging! Our quest continues next time when we consider split and dual complements. Until then, embrace your natural contrast. (If you don’t like that, you’re welcome to insert your own sendoff.)

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