Color Theory: Overview
Why study color theory?
If you are involved in the creation or design of visual documents, an understanding of color will help when incorporating it into your own designs. Choices regarding color often seem rather mystical, as many seem to base decisions on nothing other than "it looks right." Although often told I had an eye for color, the reason why some colors worked together while others did not always intrigued me and I found the study of color theory fascinating.
While attending the University of Minnesota I enrolled in almost every course I could from different departments: graphic design, interior design, and fine arts. During my studies, I learned that there were 2 main reasons why scholars investigated color—the first involved the communication of colors; the other involved the application of color.
What is red? Candy apple red, blood red, catsup red, rose red... to try and communicate a specific hue is difficult without some sort of coding system. Early in the 1900's, Albert Munsell, a professor at an art school in Boston developed a color system which offered a means to name colors. With a published system, people could be specific about which red they were referring. Munsell's system has been reworked for today's use with the Pantone color system, TRUEMATCH, CIE systems and others.
Pantone® Warm Red
With respect to the arts, color was part of the realistic, visual representation of form, but one group of painters abandoned the traditional practices regarding color in painting. This group of artists were influenced by Cezanne, Van Gogh, and Gauguin. Led by Henri Matisse, they were known as the Fauves, or "the wild beasts." Their exuberant use of brilliant hues seem to disregard imitative color1. Whereas other artists had used color as the description of an object, the Fauves let color become the subject of their painting. A painting in the "Fauvist Manner" was one that related color shapes; rather than unifying a design with line, compositions sought an expressiveness within the relationships of the whole. This turn from tradition brought an integrity to color in that color was regarded on its own merit.
The next several pages of this site offer a tutorial regarding color theory. After reviewing the information, I hope you will see that the successful use of color is not at all mystical, and that by understanding a few things about color, it is possible to incorporate into your designs with a confidence based on tested concepts and methods.
To begin the tutorial, view: Color Basics
Review resources & learn more about color: resources and bibliography
To make comments or ask questions: contact worqx
1 The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Matisse, Minneapolis, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 1994.