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This content is taken from the KLC School of Design's online course, The Power of Colour. Join the course to learn more.

Skip to 0 minutes and 9 seconds This is Julia Begbie from the KLC School of Design, and I’m going to talk to you now about bringing colours together with intent.

Skip to 0 minutes and 23 seconds On the screen now you can see the Munsell colour system. And this illustrates a really helpful way to think of colour. So when you’re thinking about colour, consider the world of colour as being like a sphere or like a planet, where pure colour– or the hues of colour– are found around the equator, and where the value of colour– so its strength and impact– varies as you travel to the North Pole, where white is added, creating tints along the way, or to the South Pole, where black is added in order to create shades.

Skip to 1 minute and 9 seconds So let’s look at an example. Here we have Joa Studholme talking about taking inspiration from nature when picking colours. You can never go wrong with what nature gives you. I mean, be it an aubergine, a brinjal, where you’ve got the deep, deep purple and the bright green of the leaf. All nature is a great inspiration.

Skip to 1 minute and 34 seconds So how do we explain the visual impact that the combination of colours within an aubergine or eggplant has if we’re using colour theory? Well, I’m going to take this inspiration to the colour wheel and use the colour wheel to work out the relationship of the colours in this particular object. So what happens when we isolate the colours of the aubergine on the colour wheel?

Skip to 2 minutes and 10 seconds On the colour wheel that you see on the slide in front of you, you can see that the colours of the body of the aubergine directly oppose the colours of the stalk.

Skip to 2 minutes and 23 seconds This makes the aubergine palette a complementary one. Now, we’ve previously discussed how complementary colour schemes create maximum visual impact, or could be described as causing maximum visual disturbance. But why is this?

Skip to 2 minutes and 43 seconds In the eye, prolonged exposure to light of a particular colour will temporarily reduce your sensitivity to that colour. This is called neural adaptation.

Skip to 2 minutes and 58 seconds I’m sure that you will have experienced the afterimage coloration that you see when you’ve been staring at a particular colour for a minute or so. So staring at strong colour temporarily exhausts the cone cells that respond to that colour. This is because your eye takes feed from the red, green, and blue cone cells in order to be able to see white light. But if you fatigued your red cone cells, you won’t be able to see red. You’re temporarily left seeing only with the green and blue cone cells in your eye. So if you want to see how your eye dictates complementary partner colours, then stare fixedly at the centre of this box and wait until I change the background.

Skip to 4 minutes and 5 seconds The green afterimage that results from exhausting cone cells that respond to magenta demonstrates the relationship between red and green as seen with the human eye. They are equal and opposite colours. And used together, they ultimately trigger very different receptors in your eye. So fully saturated complementary schemes create very high levels of visual stimulation and don’t make restful combinations.

Skip to 4 minutes and 39 seconds Complementary colours are the most visually stimulating combinations that you can put together.

Skip to 4 minutes and 50 seconds So returning now to Joa’s aubergine, we can describe the colours of the aubergine– the body of the aubergine– being mostly a shade of red violet. And the stem, or the stalk, is an accent of fully saturated yellow-green. The duller and more muted colour covers the greater surface area, and the brighter colour of the stalk contributes a smaller quantity of colour. And this combination of larger weaker colour with smaller stronger colour creates a balanced effect. So you can experience the effects of neural adaptation with different colours. And you’ll find that prolonged exposure to any strong or bright colour will leave you with an afterimage from the opposite side of the wheel.

Skip to 5 minutes and 50 seconds This stimulation of the eye’s receptors has been used historically by artists. And this is with the aim of creating dramatic impact. So here’s an example of the application of a complementary colour scheme in art. Van Gogh creates a very restless mood with this painting, and he uses several techniques in order to achieve this. There’s movement in the surface texture, but of course there is also the use of the complementary colour palette.

Skip to 6 minutes and 26 seconds Now, I’m going to return to an image that we looked at in a previous presentation. And we’re going to take a look at a harmonious scheme. Harmonious schemes, if you recall, are made up of colours that are close neighbours on the colour wheel. Because there isn’t such a marked contrast in terms of the way that your eye perceives colour, then harmonious schemes tend to be gentler. And even as is the case with this particular scheme being fully saturated or nearly fully saturated, they still don’t have quite the same eye-boggling impact that a complementary coupling does. And a palette of harmonious shades is gentler still.

Skip to 7 minutes and 13 seconds So these insights into colour theory provide us with mechanisms for manipulating the impact that colour can make. You can choose to begin with a complimentary pairing– colours from opposite sides of the wheel– in order to achieve maximum contrast. Or you might choose to start with a more gentle, harmonious scheme and select colours that are nearer neighbours.

Skip to 7 minutes and 40 seconds You can further adjust harmony and balance by whitening or blackening colour to further knock back its impact.

Skip to 7 minutes and 52 seconds Finally, you could consider bringing accent colour to play. This can help to lift a duller combination and bring an injection of life. So again, you can exploit your understanding and pick a more fully saturated accent colour in order to bring a greater impact.

Skip to 8 minutes and 16 seconds In this week’s activities and discussions, we’ll be asking you to start creating your own colour palettes and actively applying the colour theories that we’ve been discussing in presentations throughout the course so far.

Colour combining

In this video, Lead Educator Julia Begbie discusses colour combining. We can analyse colour combinations based on their relation on the colour wheel.

One way to conceptualise colour combining is via the Munsell colour system. We’ll look at more systems like this later this week.

Question for discussion

  1. Pick one combination of colours that you find inspiring. How would you analyse the colour relationships referencing the colour theory we’ve learned so far?

Share your answer in the Comments.

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This video is from the free online course:

The Power of Colour

KLC School of Design