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Monday, June 2, 2008

Color Theory Chapter 8: The Intermediary Contrast

Just a brief lesson this time (we’re getting into specifics territory). Often we want to use a particular color combination, but just find that the resulting color contrast simply does not work. Fortunately, this is not the end for our color friends! Today we’ll look at how to downplay a contrast, making it more appealing, through the addition of more contrasts.

Let’s think about why this should work. If there is only a single contrast in a visual field (in this case typically a hue contrast with high intensity), then the eye will tend to focus on it. Providing a second contrast (especially of a different variety, say value or saturation, or even a hue lying between the initial two hues) takes attention away from the initial contrast, often making it seem less strong.

The concept is best illustrated with a specific example. Suppose that I want to utilize a blue-orange color combination. Since the colors are complementary, we’re going to be dealing with a very strong hue contrast. Worse still, I have nothing orange with low saturation or value, it’s all high intensity stuff! It seems like we’re headed straight for an eyesore! Not so, thanks to a light brown and a gray addition. A beige collar and gray stripe on this orange shirt allow us to safely pair it with a navy sweater, as follows: (visible despite me playing Guitar Hero)

The shirt provides a surprising number of additional contrasts:

  1. Strong value contrast between the sweater and the collar.
  2. Hue contrast between the sweater and the collar.
  3. Saturation contrast between the orange and gray stripes.
  4. Saturation contrast between the gray stripes and the sweater.

Immediately, we see a reduction in strain on the blue-orange hue contrast. The addition of a few other color elements has given the visual system a lot to look at, mediating the power of the complementary color contrast, making it an interesting, rather than overbearing, part of the entire look.

Similar methods can be used to reconcile many other color combinations. It's quite helpful, especially if you've got an item of clothing that just doesn't seem to go with anything else. Often, adding another layer of color is all it takes to make an outfit work.

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