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Color in Our Environment

Posted by Hannah U. Tiffany on Friday, February 10, 2017 Under: Design

Color in Our Environment

“If one says, ‘Red’ – the name of the color – and there are fifty people listening, it can be expected that there will be fifty reds in their minds.  And one can be sure that all these reds will be very different.” – Josef Albers

Color is tricky.  I call it one of the “soft sciences.”  I believe we all have a sense of color in the same way we have a sense of tone; we know when colors look good together and we know when musical notes sound good together.  But the “rules” about color, rules that help us know if two colors will look good together for example, are pliable and have more exceptions than the rules of grammar.   Fortunately for me, as I start studying color and how color works, two educators have already paved the way.  Josef Albers (quoted above) and Johannes Itten were both artists and educators associated with the Bauhaus who studied, developed, and taught color theory extensively.  They differed quite a bit on their approach to color.  Itten was very methodical and technical in his approach and is credited with developing the most common “color wheel.”  Albers (who studied under Itten) famously called color “the most relative medium in art,” and is best known for his theories about color being governed by internal and deceptive logic. 

When talking about color, the terms “hue” (red, blue, yellow), “shade” (dark blue, light blue), and “saturation” or “chroma” (greyed-yellow, pure-yellow) are most commonly used.  Of course, when it comes to naming colors, people have different names for every single shade, variation, and iteration.  I imagine someone sitting at a desk, inventing names for every tint of white: “dove white,” “comfortable white,” “makes me want to eat cake white.”  It’s simpler to view all colors as variations of the pure hues in the color wheel.  For example, “mauve” is desaturated red-violet. 

There are lots of myths about how color affects us and how color should be used.  Because color is so relative, it’s impossible to say that color will act the same way or have the same effect every time it’s used.  One common idea about color is that people have universal responses to certain colors.  Although it’s fair to say people often associate greens and blues with calm environments and reds and oranges with energy, it would be incorrect to assume that every time people see red, they assume danger or feel alerted.  How we perceive and react to color is subjective and related to our history, environment, and current mental state.    This is so important to keep in mind when thinking about how to use color in a space. 

Despite the fact that we all perceive color differently, there are some guidelines that can be called upon when designing a space.  Remember that colors are affected by their environment.  Contrasts in hue, shade, and saturation allow us to visually differentiate between colors.  How these contrasts are used affects both the colors and the space.  For example, the phenomenon called “hue shift” is when a background color pulls its own qualities from a related color placed in the foreground.   So, a blue-green swatch placed on a blue background will appear more green, whereas the same blue-green swatch placed on a green background will look very blue.   Similarly, “shade shift” shows the same effect except a color placed on a light background appears much darker than the same color placed on a darker background.  This is important to keep in mind because no color exists in a vacuum.  Will your bright pillows appear brighter on your sofa, or will the sofa dull them down? And which one of these effects are you intending?



Complementary colors are also very important to keep in mind.  For reasons unknown to modern-day science (as far as I know), our eyes seeks balance of complements.  For example, in a painting of green fields, a red flower will create balance.  Another example is the mixtures of blue-violets and yellow-oranges in the dusk sky.  When complementary colors are used it gives us a sense of balance.   It makes our eyes happy.




Another important rule of thumb is that colors of similar shade (light or dark) will tend to group together visually.  In a given space you’ll have different groups of items.  For example, in a kitchen you have walls, surface materials (cabinets, counter tops, flooring), and other items (appliances, fixtures, and accessories).  If you paint your walls in all light tones, choose medium tones for your surfaces, and bright vibrant colors for your accent pieces, you will create three basic visual “groups.”  This can be switched in all kinds of ways depending on your intention for the space.  Perhaps you want dark walls and light surfaces, or everything light except for some very dark accent pieces.  This rule of thumb helps give us a framework to use when deciding on colors, finishes and fixtures. 


In this kitchen, the walls and counter tops are the light grouping, the flooring and cabinetry are the medium tones, and the red vases are the third value group. 

A few other things to keep in mind are more commonly understood.  Colors set moods.  When thinking about color, you’ll want to consider what mood you’re trying to set.  Colors create depth and define visual spaces.  You can achieve this effect by strong color contrasts from one area to the next.  Color can also create visual weight.  Something that is very dark may appear heavy, whereas light colored objects may appear to “float” in a space.




With all of this in mind, the most important thing to remember is that color is personal.  The colors you prefer right now may not be the colors you are drawn to five years from now.  This is very common.  Your favorite color at age 8 may have been red, but now you love the soft greens and browns.  Or maybe yellow was your favorite color when you were 4, and it’s still your favorite color now.  Color is everywhere around us and brings life to our visual surroundings, so when it comes to making choices about the colors you use in your life, just remember they’re your colors, so enjoy them!

In : Design 

Tags: color  "color interactions" "contrast of color"  design   

About Me

Hannah U. Tiffany Recent Seattle transplant from Virginia, with a design background in full-scale interior design. Earned Bachelor of Science in Interior Design from Virginia Tech. Hannah is also an amateur artist, and you can check out her personal artwork at