Monday, January 9, 2012

{Colour Theory Week} Introduction to Colour Theory

Colour wheel by Claude Boutet, 1708

If you're just starting out in vintage and are wondering where to start shopping, or if you've made a New Year's resolution to overhaul your wardrobe, or if you just want to add a little discipline to your shopping habits, one of the things you'll need to consider is colour. So I've decided to kick off 2012 with a theme week all about it. We'll be talking a little about colour theory; neutrals and wardrobe basics; and designing colour palettes, with a little colourful inspiration from the 1930s, 40s and 50s.

You probably already have at least a passing acquaintance with the colour wheel, but I'll go through the basics here in case you need a refresher course.


Primary, Secondary and Tertiary colours

For the purposes of fashion, the primary colours are red, blue and yellow, and form an equilateral triangle on the colour wheel. Mixing any two of these gives the secondary colours: red and blue give purple, blue and yellow make green, and yellow and red give orange. In turn, combining a secondary with a primary gives a tertiary, so mixing orange with red you get red-orange, and orange with yellow makes yellow-orange. And so on.

Hue, Saturation and Value

Hue is the actual "colour" of a colour - its position on the colour wheel.

Saturation refers to how pure or intense the colour is. Vibrant colors are highly saturated, and colours with low saturation appear "muted". Variants in saturation are called tones of the same colour - sage is a tone of green, for example.

Value refers to the relative lightness or darkness of a colour. If a colour is made lighter (by adding white) the result is called a tint, and its value is high. If black is added to make the colour darker, this is called a shade, and has a low value.

Wilhelm von Bezold's 1874 colour wheel illustrates shades and tints

Warm and Cool Colours

The colour wheel is split into half warm and half cool colours. Reds, violets, oranges and yellows (and tints and shades thereof) are warm, create a feeling of energy, and tend to advance in a scheme. Blues, indigo and most greens are cool colours - these are calm and soothing, and tend to recede.

Types of Colour Scheme

There are all sorts of different 'official' colour schemes, from tetradic to triadic to accented split complementary. But since I'm firmly of the opinion that basically any colour can go with any colour, to me there are two basic types:

Monochromatic and Analogous schemes are those which use tints and shades of the same hue, or colours adjacent on the colour wheel. These are fairly easy to get right, as similar colours harmonise well. They're rarely daring, but they needn't be dull as contrast can be introduced in terms of tonal value and proportion.

Complementary and Split Complementary schemes (note: that's complement with an e, as in "complete", not to be confused with the similar-sounding but different compliment with an i, an approving remark). Complementary schemes are high contrast, using colours on opposite sides of the colour wheel:

Complementary colours are opposite one another on the wheel - red and green, yellow and purple, blue and orange, violet and lime, etc. A split complementary scheme takes a colour and the two colours either side of its complement - for example violet, red-orange and green (as above), or turquoise, indigo and orange.


  1. Oh, I'm so excited to see the rest of your color theory posts! The color wheel has helped me so much in my wardrobe choices. It's amazing how one splash of an interesting color can make a boring dress look fabulous! x

  2. Very informative! I love the color wheel as a styling tool. It's so nice to mix up the standard neutrals once in a while!

  3. I'm a complimentary dresser, I love a bit of contrast. Unless I get out of bed on the wrong side, in which case I wear black and grey. How boring. I must read on this week and remind myself to use all my coloured clothes.

  4. Fascinating! I always get confused by the difference in primary colours and names for shades in science and art, since in science, green is a primary colour rather than yellow! I've never heard of the split complimentary before!

  5. Kezzie, I decided not to go into detail in the post to avoid confusion, since it's the red-blue-yellow system that's relevant to clothing.

    Science is based on the colours in light, which combine to make white: Computer monitors are based on an additive RGB system because they work by lighting up pixels. Meanwhile, painting, dyeing and printing operate on a subtractive system - usually CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, black) in printing.

    xx Charlotte

  6. For some reason I've read your colour posts backward but they are still fabulous and I'm looking forward to getting more tips from you and seeing more lovely clothes! XxxX


I'd love to hear your thoughts!


Related Posts with Thumbnails