Colours: systems, harmony, contrast and more

Colours have the ability to invoke in us a variety of moods. Although not everybody will have the same feelings seeing a certain colour (think about age and positive/negative memories related to a specific colour), the psychological effects are shared by the majority (my interpretation: at least the majority of the European countries).

The theory of colours can be interpreted in different ways, but the one I think about here has to do with the use of colours related to interior design, but at least part of it is also relevant in paintings (especially impressionism).

To give the impression that there is structure in this topic, this page is divided into the following different sections:
colour schemes
colour contrast
colour harmony
psychological effects of colour
colour systems

Colour systems

Classification of colours is quite handy to avoid discussions with colour blind persons and people who tend to understand something else than you actually mean. ("Are we talking about sea-green or sea-blue here??!!")
The Munsell system is the most commonly used in interior design.But there exist other colour systems from men like Wilhelm Ostwald and M.E. Chevreul and some other not quite important men. On the other hand, the Pantone system describes colours of textiles and used in the graphics industry. The others are discussed here only very briefly to complete the information.

  • The Munsell system is a way to describe colours, using three different parameters: hue, value and chroma.

    Hue. This is the quality which defines colour, based on the colour circle divided in 10 different hues: five principal and five intermediate hues. Each hue is then divided into 10 divisions, in which number 5 is the pure hue and the low and high numbers implying a colour close to the adjacent colour in the colour circle.

    Value. The value of a colour describes the lightness or darkness of a given colour: lower values are the darker colours and the higher ones contain more white. The scale ranges from 0 (black) to 10 (white).

    Chroma. The chroma of a given object tells us to what extend a colour is greyed out. A low number represents a colour containing a lot of grey, and higher numbers a more pure colour. There is no maximum set on the chroma-scale, as different colours reach their brightest intensity at different levels (e.g. the maximum chroma for blue is 12).

    Example: The numbers of the three parameters combined describe the overall colour of an object. This is notated in the following format: hue value/chroma, i.e. 5.0Y 5/6 =
    5.0Y = a pure yellow
    5/ = In the middle of the grey scale
    /6 = a yellow that still contains a lot of grey, as the chroma-scale for yellow is up to about 14.
    The general description of this "5.0Y 5/6" is a darker, greyed out yellow, which more looks like a light brown.

  • The Pantone system is not really a proper colour system: it has no technical basis like the Munsell system but was designed to be a visual communication system (...). It is used in the graphics, plastics, software and textile industry.

    The original matching system from 1963 consisted of 500 colours, where each colour does have a three-digit reference number. During the past decades more colours could be manufactured because of improved processes, more knowledge of the chemistry, and better analysis machines (IIRC a spectrophotometer). When adding these new colours, the palettes were arranged chromatically, with the colours falling into basic colour groupings. The newer Pantone colours that were, and still are, inserted between the existing colours, are given four-digit numbers. Two examples of those new colours are the pastel tints and metallic colours. "In keeping with the visual nature of the system, it was felt that it was more important to keep the palette chromatically logical than to have the colors fall in strict numerical sequence." says Pantone. Logical?? Last, there are additional letters to the three digits, like C, M and U, and standing for coated, uncoated and matte coated paper. This means that the ink used is the same, but the visual interpretation of the colour is different because of the differences in type of carrier material.

    It seems to me that it's more a pretending there is a real colour system, but that the people who created this didn't really have a clue about (the science of) colours. Apparently there are a lot of people out there who prefer to learn all those numbers by heart, instead of understanding a system.
Giving some credit to other, less important, colour systems, here a few lines:
The majority of these systems are based on solid geometrical figure], which are collectively known as colour solids.
- Otto Runge used a sphere to demonstrate his system.
- M.E. Chevreul divided the colours on the basis of a hemisphere: black at the top and white in the middle of the circle and looks like a sliced pie.
- J.H Lambert chose the pyramid.
- Wilhelm von Bezold sorted the colours using a flat-sided cone.
- Wilhelm Ostwald and Ogden Rood on the other hand, both preferred a double cone. Ostwalds picture had white on the top, black at the bottom and the colours in the middle.
- A. Hofler tried it with a octahedron as well as a double tetrahedron.
- Carpentier and Alfred Hickethier got stuck with a cube.

Colour schemes

There are 7 basic colour schemes (not to be confused with the 8 colour contrasts). These schemes are based on the colour wheel, which is a circle with 12 colours in this case.

     YO         YG
  orange          green
OR                   BG
  red              blue
     RP         BP

- Monochromatic: one colour, but used in different tints, shades and materials (a light blue stainless steel chair gives another impression than a fluffy dark blue chaise lounge).
- Complementary: two colours opposite in the colour wheel are combined. Red with green, blue with orange etc. Normally one colour dominates the scheme.
- Analogous: 2 or 3 colours adjacent in the wheel. E.g. green, blue-green (BG) and blue.
- Split complementary: one hue (pure colour) + two hues on either side of the complementary hue. Purple with yellow-orange (YO) and yellow-green (YG).
- Triad or triadic: three hues equidistant around the circle. Like orange, green and purple. This may not sound very compelling to you, but especially children tend to like those fresh combinations.
- Double complementary: is based upon two pairs of complementary hues. This combination, like OR+red+BG+green is often used, because it is a safe and balanced combination.
- Tetrad: is like triad, but then based on 4 hues at equidistance in the colour wheel. This combination is considered as the one most difficult to combine.

Ah well, designers may talk in vague blahblah terms, but that's what every industry branch does. After all, when you keep things unclear you have an advantage that the client thinks s/he really needs you to get something done very well.

Psychological effects of colour

Colours have the ability to invoke in us a variety of moods. Although not everybody will have the same feelings seeing a certain colour (think about age and positive/negative memories related to a specific colour), the psychological effects are shared by the majority (my interpretation: at least the majority of the European countries).

This is a bright cheerful colour closely related to the sun. Especially on dull grey days it will cheer you up, makes you more mentally alert and enthousiastic. Too much and too bright yellow make induce restlessness and freak you out.

Orange is quite a stimulating colour, related to action and vitality, but when used excessively it may induce restlessness like yellow.

Very stimulating, and excites the brain. Also related with alertness, vitality and excitement and in a negative way with agression and violence. A darker red invokes feelings of richness (the "red pluche", royalty and the church) and reverence. The brighter version has "amorous connotations".

When used in full or near-full chroma, purple is another colour inducing the impression of richness and reverence. The other side of the medal is instability and uneasiness, as some countries relate this colour to death. But if you use it as a pastel tint, it is said that purple can trigger soft, romantic feelings; soothing and sedative.

The psychological effect strongly depends on how the colour is used: dark blue is connected to richness, royalty and the church, invoking feelings of calmness and sedation. However, if used indiscriminately, it can produce strong feelings of melancholia and uneasiness and can be quite depressing.

Pure green and greyed out green: coolness, tranquility and sedation. If mixed with a bit of yellow, it probably will induce biliousness (whatever that means, it wasn't in my dictionary, but but it sounds like bile and meant negatively).

At the end of the day, all colours do have positive as well as negative effects on your mood and the effect strongly depends on how you use the colours (contrast/harmony), the combination (colour schemes), the purity of the colour, the purpose of the room, the type of people who're going to use the area, etc. And interior designers can add this information to their wooly speeches :)

Colour harmony

Colour harmony is the idea behind why a certain colour scheme seems to fit the purpose of a room, a pleasant combination of colours. This is based on one or more of the following aspects:

- tone is a harmony using whites, greys and black.
- tone + chroma: used in a monochromatic colour scheme by varying the tone or chroma of one colour (different tints and shades of one colour).
- analogous harmony with a maximum of three adjacent colours in the colour wheel. (e.g. using red orange and yellow).
- complementary harmony is based on a good combination of two colors diametrically oppisite of the colour wheel. An important aspect is the amount of surface covered with the two colours: the warm colours (see colour contrast) are advancing colours, whereas the cold ones (like green and blue are receeding) when you have a orange - blue room, the orange is the dominant colour. To make the room not too freaky, the amount of surface covered with orange has to be smaller than the blue objects, in a ratio of about 3.5:6.5 to create the harmony.
- light. Light influences the colour we think we see: a an object we call red actually absorbes the green light waves of the emission spectrum, hence relatively more red waves are reflected. There are four types of light: direct sunlight, North light, artificial incandescent light and fluorescent light (emits just a few specific wavelengths). By manipulating the type of light used, you can alter the colour of the object you see. Example: a room with a window facing north (northern hemisphere) has the natural North light, which is predominantly blue. To create warmth in a room you use blue-ish colours, because those objects absorb the blue, thuse relatively emitting more warm orange-like wavelengths; a balance in the "cold" room.

Colour contrast

Colour contrast is another part of the colour theory as used in the interior design area (probably other fields too, but I got to know them via that course.

As a brief reference, the so-called colour wheel:

     YO         YG
  orange          green
OR                   BG
  red              blue
     RP         BP

These are the 8 colour contrasts:
- Achromatic; using the colours black, greys and white. Ok, white contains all colours, but meant is, that you don't see what is generally called a colour.
- Hue; means the pure colours like combining red and blue.
- Light and [dark]; e.g. a light yellow combined with a dark purple, the divider is [chroma] (see also the Munsell system).
- Temperature; there are "warm" and "cold" colours, which has to do with the psychology of colours, aka what and how you feel in a red room will be different from the feeling in a blue-dominated room. Imagine a vertical line from yellow to purple: the colours on the left are considered warm, and the right cold.
- Complementary colors; two colours diametrically opposite in the colour wheel.
- Simultaneous; the effects of combining greys with a colour.
- Saturation; the contrast of a pure colour with its diluted form (diluted with white, grey and/or black).
- Extension; this is the most vague term and deals with the "visual balance" (use your imagination).