In learning about color, we begin to understand more about an intrinsic component of our day-to-day lives because, more than anything else, color is information. This section discusses the basics of color theory, how you respond to color, color trends and more.

What is Color?

In scientific terms, color is light, which is carried on wavelengths that the eye absorbs and the brain converts into messages so that we "see colors."

Color is also information. It helps to distinguish flowers, birds, fish and animals. It can signal fear, anger and embarrassment. It tells us to stop at red lights and to proceed when the light is green. Color identifies ripe fruit or decaying vegetables and other foods.

How Do We See Color?

It is pigment that gives color to objects. Pigments have the ability to absorb some colors and reflect others. An object that appears blue actually absorbs all of the other colors but blue light. The unabsorbed light is reflected back to the eye and the brain interprets the object as blue.

Two of the components that make up the eye are rods and cones; the rods permit night vision or vision in dim lighting. The cones - and there are three types of these - permit colored vision. Receptor I picks up on the blue end of the spectrum, II on the green areas and III on the red end. Other colors are combinations of these three color areas.

Can Everyone See Color?

Almost everyone can see color. People commonly described as being "color blind" can actually "see" color, but they confuse hues that most people distinguish clearly. There are three types of color blindness: protanope (the most common), in which people confuse red and orange for yellow and green; deuteranope, in which people exhibit the same symptoms but also are unable to distinguish gray from purple, and tritanope, in which people confuse green with blue, and gray with violet and/or yellow.

Some diseases, alcohol and nicotine excesses, and the aging process may also inhibit accurate color perception. For instance, the lens of the eye naturally yellows with age, and this alters color perception. While there is no cure for inherited color blindness, color vision may be restored if an illness is cured.

Color Theory

The color wheel is an arrangement of colors in a circle in order of the spectrum. If the two ends of the visual spectrum are brought together, they will form a circle, which represents the color wheel.

The color wheel graphically places the related colors close to each other and complimentary colors directly opposite. The most common wheel has 12 colors. It is important to remember that the color wheel function is not so much to represent paint colors as it is to identify color families. This is useful when room decoration is being discussed, because proper color families, as well as tints and shades within those families, may be selected in harmony according to established decorating principles. The colors on the color wheel are known as primary, secondary and tertiary colors. Paint-color systems such as those found in paint-store displays, work on the same principles, with each paint strip representing one color and different values of that color.

Color Balance

Each color has its own level of strength. There are only two colors that have an equal weight - red and green. If primary blue and primary yellow are seen together in equal amounts, they will not appear balanced since the blue, which is deeper, visually appears larger and heavier than yellow ever can. Consequently, a larger area of yellow would be required to balance a smaller blue area. The visual weight of a color can be altered by its value: lighter colors will visually appear lighter in weight than darker colors. Because of this, a balance between yellow and blue can also be achieved by using a deep yellow and a light blue.

Harmonious Color Contrasts
Complementary Colors

This is the name given to colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel. When complementary colors are viewed next to each other, they will intensify each other: the red appears redder and the green greener. When complementary colors are mixed together in the right proportions, they will neutralize each other, or gray each other out. Complementary colors are red and green, blue and orange, and yellow and purple. In decorating, complementary color schemes are exciting and stimulating.


This is a contrast of any three hues on the color wheel that are located equidistant from each other. The most common triad scheme is the use of the primary colors, red, yellow and blue. This information is useful when considering colors for interior decorating.

Analogous or Adjoining Colors

This is a favorite color relationship that is created by the use of adjoining hues, which are called analogous colors. For example, in decorating, if you like the color yellow, you could combine yellow, yellow-green and green. This color harmony is a non-contrasting color scheme, which is soft and invites easy living.

Monochromatic Colors

This is a scheme based on one color. Tints and shades of one color can produce an interesting effect. In decorating, for example, a floor covering can be dark brown, the walls antique white and the drapes in a tan tone that can either be solid or contain a pattern. If an accent color is desired, the color family directly opposite brown, which is in the red-orange family, would be best.

"Warm" and "Cool" Colors

When looking at the color wheel, draw an imaginary line from north to south. On the east side of the wheel, you will see the warm colors. These colors are also referred to as "advancing colors." On the west side of the wheel, you will see the cooler, or "receding colors." These colors are not absolutes, however -almost every color can be cool or warm, depending on what color it is compared to. If red is compared to yellow, red is the cooler of the two. If leaf green (with a yellow cast) is compared to sea green (with a blue cast), the blue-cast green is "cooler" than the yellow-cast green. If you are decorating and need to use a cool color, but want to decorate with red, be sure to choose a blue-cast red rather than an orange-cast red. Remember any color can be made cooler by adding blue. Use the color wheel for reference. Even though reds, oranges and yellows are commonly known as warm colors, all colors can have a warm side. To make a color warmer, add yellow or red.

Chevreul's Laws

The hue, value and intensity of colors change depending on their neighbors. This fact, known as Chevreul's Laws, in recognition of the 19th century French chemist who made many startling discoveries, has applications for interior decorating. Consider the following points.
  • Light colors appear more striking against black or dark colors.

  • All colors appear more striking against white or light colors.

  • When dark colors are set against light colors, they look darker than they do on dark colors.

  • When light colors are set against dark colors, they look lighter than they do on light colors.

  • When two colors are placed next to each other, each tints its neighbor with its own complement. For example, complementary colors viewed side by side seem more intense than if viewed separately.

  • Dark hues on a dark ground, not complementary, will seem weaker than if seen on a darker complementary color.

  • Light hues on a light ground, not complementary, will seem weaker than if seen on a light complementary color (see illustration on p. 74).

  • A bright color against a dull color of the same hue will appear duller than if viewed against a dull complementary color.

  • When a bright color is used against a dull color, the contrast will be stronger when the latter is complementary.

  • Light colors on light grounds can be greatly strengthened if bound by narrow bands of black or dark complementary colors.

  • Dark colors on dark grounds can be greatly strengthened if bound by narrow bands of white or light complementary colors.

    Color and Light

    Without light there would be no color. And light - in its many manifestations - affects color. Most people are familiar with the traditional advice to use a warm color in northern-exposed rooms to make them feel warmer, since the north light tends to be "cooler" than that coming from the south.

    Most people are also aware that colors will appear different when viewed under different light sources. The most common comparison made to illustrate this is in incandescent and fluorescent lighting. Generally, incandescent light will enhance warm colors and weaken cool colors, while fluorescent light tends to enhance cool colors and weaken warm colors. Because fluorescent lighting is economical to use, especially in commercial environments, the industry has developed numerous types of fluorescent lamps, ranging from cool to warm and even "full spectrum" lighting, which attempts to replicate natural daylight.

    Natural Light

    The most evenly balanced light is daylight, having almost equal parts of all the colors in the spectrum. Daylight, however, is never constant and will change at least four times a day: sunrise, high noon, afternoon and dusk. The light from the north tends to be the coolest, and because it has strength without glare, it is the one preferred by artists when selecting studio space.

    Artificial Light

    Candle light -The warmest of all lights, candle light enhances reds, oranges and yellows. Similarly cool colors, such as blue and green, become dull and lifeless in candle light.

    Incandescent - It has color-enhancing qualities similar to candle light, but because of its strong qualities, it appears whiter. It lacks colors from the blue end of the spectrum and, because of this, gives a poor appearance to cool colors.

    Fluorescent - This is the lamp most often used in commercial areas and in areas of the home where good overall lighting is required. Although there are many different types of fluorescent lamps, the one most commonly used lacks the warm colors of the spectrum. Fluorescent lamps tend to enhance blues and greens, and render reds, oranges, and yellows duller. If using fluorescent lamps in the home, choose "full spectrum" or daylight varieties, which will enhance all the colors of the spectrum.

    Halogen - Also known as quartz lamps, halogens are a special type of incandescent lamp, but the quality of light is much better than from standard incandescent lamps. The halogen lamp is more energy efficient and has a longer life than the standard incandescent. This lamp is becoming more popular in homes because it provides quality incandescent-type lighting in very compact units.

    Mixing Colors Color Mixing

    All colors but red, yellow and blue are achieved by mixing variations of these three hues.

    Pure colors mixed with white, gray or black suffer a deterioration of hue, which becomes pale, opaque, or dull, respectively, causing the resulting color to appear weaker. Colors mixed with other hues become "unsaturated," suffering a loss of color strength or intensity. The most saturated colors are those created by mixing complementary colors.

    Additive Color Mixing

    When two or more distinctive colors of light are combined to produce new colors, the process is known as additive color mixing. It's what makes colored television possible. Dots of light, in the three additive primary colors - red, green and blue - are blended by the eye, which consequently sees the full color spectrum. When the three primary colors of light - red, blue and green - are combined, they produce white light.

    Subtractive Color Mixing

    When pigments in paint, dye and ink colors are mixed together, they subtract qualities from one another to create a new color pigment. If paints or inks in all three primary colors are mixed together, the result will be black pigment, unlike additive colors, which would produce white light.

    Tints, Shades and Tones

    These are three commonly used terms. A tint is the addition of white to any hue; a shade is the addition of black to any hue. Tone is a term used to refer to a tint or shade. It is used descriptively, such as "a tone of blue or blue toned with green." Both rose and burgundy are tones of red; peach is a tone of orange.

    Tones can also be achieved by using complementary colors. In the case of the yellow color, it can be made progressively darker or grayer by adding quantities of purple. The result of this procedure is the creation of a tone of yellow, and is sometimes referred to as "graying off" or "grayed color."


    Afterimages are ghosts of color that appear when the eye has been fatigued. Focusing for as little as 10 seconds on a colored area such as a red spot will fatigue that part of the eye's retina, which is sensitive to red, causing a shift of sensitivity to its complementary color. Thus, a pale green spot - the complementary colored negative afterimage - will appear for a short time when one looks at a blank white surface. The afterimage of yellow is violet and the afterimage of orange is blue. However, if instead of looking at a white field, one views a dark or black field after focusing on a red spot, a positive image - or a pale red dot - will be seen.

    This article is reprinted with permission from COLOR: A Stroke of Brilliance, published by Benjamin Moore Paints. Part 2 of the article will appear in the September issue.

    Glossary of Terms

    Spectrum: When white light or daylight is passed through a prism, it will separate into color bands or a spectrum. This rainbow effect ranges through red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet, red being the longest wavelength and violet the shortest wavelength.

    Primary Colors: These colors are true unto themselves and cannot be made using any combination of colors. Primary colors are responsible for making all other colors. The primary colors of pigment are blue/cyan (a blue tending to green color), red/magenta (a red tending to purple color) and yellow. The primary colors of light are blue, red and green.

    Secondary Colors: The combination of two primary colors produces secondary colors. On the color wheel, secondary colors are located between the primary colors. They are orange (made of red and yellow), green (made of blue and yellow) and purple (made of blue and red). A true secondary color is made of equal parts of each primary color. Variations on this ratio will vary the hue of the secondary color.

    Tertiary Colors: The combination of a primary and a secondary color in equal parts produces a tertiary color. The name of the new color is a combination of the two color names, i.e., yellow with green produces yellow-green.

    Color Families: All colors can be grouped into color families. These families represent the area of colors that have been used to make another color. There are six basic color families and they are represented on the color wheel: red, blue, yellow, green, purple and orange. A color such as pink would be from the red color family.

    Neutral: Gray, white or black, without any identifiable hue or lacking color, are known as neutral or achromatic colors. Neutral colors, such as white and beige, characteristically match well with other colors. Neutralizing a color refers to lessening the effect of a specific color by combining it with its complimentary color.

    The following three terms are used to describe color:
    hue, value and intensity.

    Hue: This is another name for color and refers to the color family, such as red, blue or yellow. Even if a hue is tinted with white or shaded with black, it is still the same hue.

    Value: All colors have what is known as high value or low value. In simple terms, this means that the lighter the color the higher the value; the darker the color, the lower the value. Value is the relative lightness or darkness of a color. The word "relative" is important because the value of a color depends on its neighboring color. For instance, two identical gray-colored squares will look different if one is placed against a white background and one is placed against a black background.

    The gray will look lighter or higher in value on the black and darker or lower in value on the white. The gray square will also appear larger on the black and smaller on the white background. The same optical confusions are present with every color because every color has a value.

    Intensity: Intensity, or chroma, refers to the brightness or dullness of a color and describes the degree of color strength. The more pure the color (i.e., the less gray), the higher the intensity. Red on the color wheel has maximum intensity. Bubble Gum Pink is a bright, high-intensity color; Dusty Rose is a low-intensity color. The brightness of a color can be altered by its choice of neighbor. If red is placed next to green, the red will look stronger against the green than against another color because they are complimentary colors. In decorating, colors with strong intensities are best used as accents - to provide sharp contrast and to add sparkle and life to a room.

    Snow Blindness:

    Long, continuous exposure to very bright light can cause a temporary abnormality of the color sense in which all objects are tinged with red. It happens most frequently on Arctic explorations, on glaciers, in telescopic observations of the sun or watching welding operations.

    Do Dark Colors Really Make a Room Look Smaller?

    No. It is a contrast of dark vs. light colors that makes a room appear smaller than it really is. To keep a room looking as large as possible, eliminate contrasts in the values of the colors in the room.

    Re-Shaping a Room with Colors

    There is an old myth that says if you have a long and narrow room, you can make it appear shorter and wider if you paint the end walls a dark color. This only works if you can see both ends of the room at the same time.

    Going Bold

    If you want to try something colorfully bold, introduce it in small amounts first. That way, you will eliminate the potential for costly mistakes requiring you to do the job over again in another color.