Monday, 25 November 2013

glorious technicolour v. shades of grey

this is a post about colour theory, and why I hate rainbows. for more information, see "Polymer Clay Color Inspirations" by Lindly Haunani and Maggie Maggio, a fabulous book (that I read, cover to cover, on christmas day a few years ago) which is almost entirely responsible for me finding my colour voice.

bellow is a link to the LPCG colour theory board on pinterest. you can look if you like, make up your own mind...

...are you back? good.

this board contains 19 pins intended to educate the viewer on the wonderful (but occasionally baffling) world of colour theory. there are a lot of colour wheels, some annotated with the expected emotional responses of specific colours, visual representations of words like "analogous" and "complementary", a few example colour palettes and not much else.

of course, none of this is unique to the LPCG. you would find similar things in any relevant google image search.

so? what's the problem with that? well, it's a bit like the problem with sex ed. the information isn't wrong, but the same, limited stuff is repeated everywhere. this leaves teenagers (or artists) with the impression that they already know everything, because they know analogous colour schemes are calming and purple is supposedly a spiritual colour (or, you know, "HIV=BAD, stick a condom on it"). they may understand nothing about important concepts like consent structures (or value contrast). this may leave the artist frustrated, as they see others working with colours they would never have thought to use together making fabulous things, while their colours look flat, lifeless and muddy even though they used the brightest red and blue they could find.

(there will be no more use of sex ed metaphor, please discuss the importance of consent on your own time)

to learn more, we need to know what questions to ask:

so, why does your blue & red colour scheme not sing? and why can I wear purple and green and red and mustard yellow all at once and still get compliments?

value contrast.

imagine taking a black & white photo of your chosen red and your chosen blue. which one would be the darker grey? if you don't know, they probably have little to no value contrast. visually, this means if they are placed next to each other the human eye tries to "mix" them, resulting in an illusion of gloom, or a "buzzing", strobe  effect.

the next question is "how do we fix that?". there are 2 answers, firstly, you can chose different colours. there's nothing wrong, per se, with red and blue (or any similar combination), just with that red and that blue together. try your mid-value, tomato red paired with a deep navy or pale sky. or keep the blue and use a dark, rich burgundy or a pale pink. (or abandon both mid-value colours, using navy & pale pink or burgundy & sky blue, it doesn't make much difference to me).

the second solution? cheat. if you really love both colours individually, but they don't want to work together, use a 3rd colour with a lot of value contrast between them. that deep navy and rich burgundy could really sing with a pale grey/lilac/minty green outline between them. so could your original tomato and ultramarine. the original palette will also work with a dark boundary, as would the pale pink & sky blue.

so, by discussing ways to "fix" this particular disappointing colour scheme, we now have 10 options which will lead to a far more visually dynamic palette. they might not all be to your taste (hell, pale pink is never to my taste), but they will work.

if yellow + blue = green, why does bright, sunshine yellow and equally bright ultramarine blue make such a muddy green? and why can't you get orange right?

your primary school teacher lied to you. they probably said there are 3 primaries: red, blue & yellow. these mix to make green (blue + yellow), orange (red + yellow) and purple (red + blue).

but there are no perfect primaries. a "sunshine yellow" is tainted with red, so it will make fresh, bright oranges but slightly muddy greens. to make bright greens, you will need a "lemon yellow", which is tainted with blue and, as such, forms more earthy oranges. the same is true for the blues, with yellow-tainted turquoise making the clearest greens and murkiest purples, and red-tainted ultramarine making clear purples and mud greens. tomato red is heavily tainted with yellow, meaning clear oranges and sludgy purples, and blue-tainted fuchsia makes clear purples and muddy oranges.

so, to mix all those colours bright & clear, we need 6 primaries instead of 3. this doesn't answer the orange problem. why does a 1:1 mix of red & yellow make something

some colours are stronger than others. try picturing a tug of war, between a team of boy scouts wearing yellow shirts and a team of rugby players wearing red shirts. if we have equal teams, the red team will win every time. to make the contest fair, we need many more boy scouts than rugby players. a 1:15 ratio seems to work well, giving a fair contest and an orange that looks like it's half way between red & yellow.

blue is also stronger than yellow, but not by as much (try replacing the rugby players with accountants wearing blue shirts) and a 1:3 ratio works. bizarrely, a 1:1 ratio works fine for purple. you've got to wonder how the accountants manage to hold their own against the rugby players...

for mixing tints (lighter colours, with added white), and shades (darker, with added black), you can consider a second scout troupe wearing white shirts and a fleet of black taxis. you'll need quite a lot of white, but even the rugby players can't compete 1:1 with the black cabs, so use black sparingly when mixing.

of course, these are all rules to be broken. you might want earth tones, or secondaries that are visually closer to one primary than the other. the main thing is to use this knowledge to choose when you want lime, kaki or emerald, terracotta, mustard or tango.

ok, what's wrong with rainbows? and what do I do about this information?

rainbows are everywhere. after you've been on a few pride marches they just become boring. the simplistic sequence of bright colours that describes both colour wheels and pride flags has no visual drama. it always does the same thing. natural rainbows are a completely different thing.

personally, I like colours that work despite appearing to break all the rules. that's where I get my fun. I recommend sticking a basic colour wheel to a dart board, throwing 3 darts at it and trying to develop a colour scheme from that. I can almost guarantee you will be able to do it successfully (if you think you "hate orange", consider the full range from pale peach to deep brown, from almost yellow to the red you got from that 1:1 mix earlier). this actually sounds like a fun group activity.

colour is incredibly personal, so what you like probably isn't what I like. the aforementioned "rules" are not intended as gospel, more as an explanation of why you might be struggling to find your colour voice. if you love pastels or neutrals, or even rainbows, that is absolutely fine. you've probably found your voice already. otherwise, consider these ideas, there might be something useful to you in there. or check out the colo[u]r inspirations book. it really is an amazing book.

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