Even though we learn our colors in primary school, the art of color coordination is still tricky.
But knowing how to combine the right colors can help you transform your home, wardrobe, and creative projects.
We spoke with two color experts: Jill Morton, a color psychologist and brand identity expert who lectures at the Hawaii School of Architecture, and stylist and decorator Maria Killam, the author of “How To Choose Paint Colours: It’s All In The Undertones.”
“Everything in our lives has a color and color sends a message,” Morton tells Tech Insider.”It has a meaning.”
Take the pharmaceutical industry. Everything from the marketing materials to the colors of the medicine are important in driving sales.
“Think about pills,” Morton says. “If you’re going to take a pill to calm down and it’s a fiery bright red pill, that presentation likely isn’t going to make you feel calm.”
Part of that has to do with the color wheel. You’ve probably seen one of these before. The first circular color diagram was actually designed by Sir Isaac Newton in 1666 after he discovered sunlight contains all the colors of the rainbow with his experiments on prisms.
He concluded that red, yellow, and blue were the primary colors from which all other colors were derived, and created a “color circle” to prove it. Though he wasn’t entirely correct, it did lead many artists and scientists — from French chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul to painter Albert Henry Munsell — to generate their own wheels and research on color theory.
Our modern color wheel can be broken up into “cool” and “warm” colors. Cool colors are typically greens, blues, and purples while warm colors are reds, oranges, and yellows. The cool colors are associated with professionalism and feeling calm while warm colors are all about energy, passion, and exuberance.
The color wheel further breaks down into three categories. There are the primary colors: yellow, red, and blue.
Next, you have secondary colors, a combination of two primary colors: orange (yellow and red), purple (blue and red), and green (blue and yellow).
The third category consists of the tertiary colors, which are a combination of a primary color and a secondary color. That’s where you’ll find yellow-green or a reddish-violet.
These are the basic hues or parent colors. You can also add white, gray, or black to these colors — known as a tint, tone, or shade, respectively.
“Darkcolors like navy blue, deep forest greens, are more professional or more sedate, not calming necessarily. They’re serious colors,” Morton says. “Then there are more pure colors — bright green, bright red, bright blue — that have more energy and more power. Next are your lighter colors or ‘tints’ like pale pink and pale blue. They’re softer and gentler versions of whatever color their parent is.”
How do you pair colors together?
Color harmony is all about how best to pair primary, secondary, and tertiary colors.
“The thing about harmony is certain color combinations are just more pleasing to the eye,” Morton says. “If there are too many colors, it’s just chaos. It’s too unsettling, regardless of if you like the color or not. Amateurs use too many colors.”
She says there are three basic ways to pair colors that any beginner can master: Black and white plus any color; three neighboring colors on the color wheel, also known as harmonious colors; and two opposing colors on the color wheel, or complementary colors.
You can also get more complicated with color combinations like triadic and split-complementary. Here’s a helpful graphic from a KISSmetrics infographic:
The goal, as Killam explains it, is to have your colors flow well together and be pleasing to the eye. That also means making sure the base of the colors are similarly muted or bright.
“That’s where people screw up the most,” she adds. “They mix neutrals with different undertones or dirty and clean colors together.”
Instead, you’ll usually want to keep dirty colors — colors with gray or muted undertones — separate from clean colors without undertones.
So how can we apply this to our everyday lives?
Once you understand the basics of color theory, it can help with everything from home design to what you wear to a job interview.
“The color you wear sends a message,” Morton says, explaining that for a professional interview, you’d want to wear darker, more serous colors, while you can be a little more punchy and bright in a creative field. “I read someone got hired at Google because of their sneaker color,” she adds.
But while color coordination might seem difficult, it’s really all about how you respond to the aesthetic.
“The color you love is the color you should surround yourself with,” Morton says. “Personal preference has everything to do with what color you choose.”