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The Experience of Color / Color Awareness / The Uses of Color / Color-Order Systems / Color Study
--Frank H. Mahnke
Color is stimulating, calming, expressive, disturbing, impressional, cultural, exuberant, symbolic. It pervades every aspect of our lives, embellishes the ordinary, and gives beauty and drama to everyday objects. If black-and-white images bring us the news of the day, color writes the poetry.
The Experience of Color
Color is, first, a sensory event. The beginning of a color experience is a biological response to the stimulus of light. The colors of the real world--of printed pages, objects, and the environment--are seen as reflected light. Images on a monitor screen are colors seen as direct light.
Colors, whether they are colors of light or colors of objects, are mysteriously unstable-- they seem constantly to change. Much of the work of the design industries is done in images of direct light, on a monitor, for products that will ultimately be produced as objects or printed pages. Which is the "true" color--the one seen on the screen, or the one that is experienced as the object? Are they the same color? Can they be the same color? Is there such a thing as a "true" color at all?
Light is the cause of color, colorants are the means used to create color, and the color that we see is the effect. The effect of a color changes whenever there is a change in colorant or in light. In addition, colors change according to their placement. Forms, colors, and their arrangement are foundationelements of design. The way in which colored forms are arranged--their placement in relation to each other--also modifies how colors are seen (and the reverse is equally true; colors modify the way we understand forms and their arrangement). This means that every change in light, colorant, form, or arrangement has the potential to change the way a color is perceived. Colors are inherently dynamic, changing in every new situation and with every new use.
Designers use color. They are concerned with effects, not with causes. Understanding the basics--what we see, and how and why we see it--is only part of the story of color. Understanding how colors "work" is background knowledge that supports the art of color. Designers who work with color every day do so in a comfort zone; a healthy mix of fact, common sense, and intuition. We understand color in much the same way that we understand the shape of the earth. The earth is round, but we experience it as flat, and act on it according to that (practical) perception of flatness. Color is light alone, but we experience it so directly and powerfully that we believe our eyes. Color problems in the design industries are solved with the human eye. No matter what technical aids are used, final color decisions are made by human eyes alone. Designers work with color from the evidence of their eyes.
Color is sensed by the eye, but the perception of color takes place in the mind, and not always at a conscious level. Color is experienced at different levels of awareness depending on how and where we see it. Color is understood in context: as form, as light, as surroundings. Color permeates the environment, appears as an attribute of objects, and communicates without words.
Environmental color is all-encompassing. The natural world immerses us in colors, whether they are the cold whites of Antarctica or the lush greens of tropical forests. Manmade environments also surround us with colors. The accidental color compositions of urban streets are as much an immersion in color as the controlled-color environments of architecture, landscape design, interior design, or theater design.
Environmental colors have a powerful impact on the human body and mind, but few people are consciously aware of colors around them. Environmental color is noticed only when it is a focus of attention, like a beautiful sunset or a newly designed room. Most of the time surrounding colors are experienced with an astonishing lack of awareness. Someone who states flatly that he "hates green" will nevertheless take enormous pleasure in a garden, describing it as a "blue" or "yellow" garden, when in fact the surroundings are overwhelmingly green, with blue or yellow present in a very small proportion to the whole.
Graphic colors are the colors of images in any medium: painted, drawn, printed, or on-screen. Graphic art is a powerful form of nonverbal communication. Graphic art informs: it tells a religious story, sends a sales pitch or political message, communicates an emotion, even illustrates an idea about "pure design." The colors of a graphic image are an integral part of the message. Because they are part of a larger idea, the colors of graphic art are experienced on many levels--conscious and unconscious, sensory and intellectual--at the same time.
The colors of objects are perceived very directly. The separateness of an object allows the viewer to focus both eye and mind on a single entity and a single color idea. We are the most consciously aware of color when it is a quality of a defined object: a red dress, a blue car, a yellow diamond.
The Uses of Color
Color is recognized universally as a natural component of beauty. The word for red in Old Russian is synonymous with the word for beautiful (Red Square is beautiful square). Colors are used to create beauty; more than that, they are useful. Designers use color not only to communicate, but also to manipulate perception, to create focus, to motivate actions and alter behavior, and to create continuity. Among its many uses:
Color can be used as pure function, to reflect or absorb light. Color is a visual language. Colors can alert or warn; they can be used to convey mood or to express emotion. Intense colors and strong contrasts communicate action and drama. Gentle colors and soft contrasts convey serenity.
Color identifies. It provides instant discrimination between objects of similar or identical form and size. The red file holds unpaid bills; the green file the paid ones.
Color can be used to modify the perception of space. It can create illusions of size, nearness, or distance. Color can minimize or obscure objects and spaces, or be used to delineate space; to separate one area from another.
Color can be used to generate an emotional response. Colors can be selected to stimulate, or to calm. Color has physiological effects on the body. It can be used to arouse a nonvisual sense, instill unconscious motivation, alter behavior, or induce mood.
Color is associative. The most ordinary items of everyday life are identified by color associations. When Mary asks John to look up something in the yellow pages, he has no need to ask what or where those pages are.
Color is symbolic. It can represent a product, an institution, a nation. Cultures use color to symbolize and communicate social status: brides wear white in western Europe, red in India. We mourn in black in the West. In India, mourners wear white. Catholic priests wear black, Tibetan lamas saffron yellow. In ancient China, the emperor alone wore yellow.
Color can be used to create continuity between separated elements in design. Color can be used to attract the eye, establishing emphasis or focus in composition. Color suggests. It is impressional. An abstract composition of blurred blues and greens suggests water, not a desert scene. Moonscape colors are never mistaken for those of Monet's garden.
One way to understand color is to organize it into a system; to hypothesize (and illustrate) a structured model of color relationships. The color-order model is a thread that runs from the very earliest writings on color to the absolute present; to tomorrow. Someone always has had, will have, plans to have a new, positively definitive, absolutely true, undeniably logical, right way to organize color. But color is such an enormous topic that no single color-order system can be truly useful. Color-order systems that attempt to be too comprehensive do not succeed. In the early 1930s, The National Bureau of Standards tried to categorize and describe 10 million colors for scientific and industrial use. The result was a massive color-name volume and a breathtaking failure. The group "grayish-yellowish-pink," for example, included about thirty-five thousand samples (Sloane 1989, page 23). More successful systems address a narrower range of issues.
These systems fall fairly neatly into three groups:
- Technical-scientific color-order systems
- Commercial color-order systems
- Intellectual-philosophical color-order systems
Technical-scientific systems lie in the province of science and industry. They measure color under limited conditions. Most deal with the colors of light, not the colors of objects. One technical means of measuring the color of light is by determining the exact temperature in degrees Kelvin (K) of a special piece of metal, called a blackbody, as it heats up. The color of a blackbody changes at specific temperatures. Color temperature refers to the point in degrees K at which the blackbody changes color (emits colored light) as it heats, from yellow, to red, to blue, to white.
The International Commission on Illumination has developed a color triangle that locates mathematically the color (in degrees K) of any light source. Another system, the Color Rendering Index (CRI), addresses both objects and light sources. It evaluates the way in which a given light source renders the colors of objects in comparison to a chart of eight standardized pastel colors.
Although the information provided by technical-scientific color systems is extremely accurate, little of it is useful to artists or designers, even in characterizing how "natural" or "unnatural" colors will appear. These systems of color organization have little application to the day-to-day work of the design studio, although they can be of enormous use in ensuring quality control in manufacturing.
Commercial color systems are familiar to everyone. They are the systematic arrangements of colors that exist to assist users in making selections from the range of colors that is available in a particular product line. Thousands of commercial color-sample systems are available to artists, designers, and the general public. These systems don't claim to include all possible colors, but attempt to include enough to meet most needs within that product (or industry). Paint charts are color-sample systems. Charts of printer's inks, wood stains, clothing catalog fabrics, leather goods, window blind materials, floor coverings--all are color-order systems devised to help the user make a selection.
Commercial color-order systems are practical both in intent and in fact. They do not contribute to an understanding of color, but they were never intended to do so. They offer a limited sampling of colors in a finite number of color families. Within their limits they are useful tools and first-class aids in specifying colors for design.
Intellectual-philosophical systems explore the meaning and organization of color. Great treatises on color have been written by painters from Leonardo DaVinci to Wassily Kandinsky, but a fascination with color has never been limited to artists. Plato and Aristotle wrote on color; their works were known during the Renaissance; Goethe and Schopenhauer wrote on color in the nineteenth century. But the greatest explosion of interest in color began in the intellectual ferment of the late seventeenth century, and the early eighteenth century saw a flowering of color writing that persists to the present day. Two threads of inquiry run through these studies: first, the search for a perfect color-order system; second, the search for laws of harmony in color combinations. The two paths have converged into the present-day field of study known as color theory.
Early writers made no distinction between the art of color and the science of color. The colors of light and the colors of objects were dealt with as a single discipline. The natural sciences developed quickly into separate areas: biology, mathematics, physics, chemistry, and later, psychology, among others, but even color theorists whose focus was the arts continued to approach their topic as an aspect of science. The aesthetic and philosophical color-order systems they proposed were viewed as scientific information until well into the twentieth century. Today, writers on color still come from scientific, artistic, and philosophic disciplines, but color theory for artists and designers has been separated from science. Color theory has, at last, its own place in the arts.
It make no difference whether color is seen as pure light on a monitor screen or as an attribute of a physical object. No matter how color is seen, or in what medium it is rendered, the primary experience of color is visual. Color study focuses first on eye-training: the visual experience of color.
The second focus of color study is color control. The instability of colors cannot be eliminated, but it can be minimized. Designers deal with the instability of color in two principal ways: first, by understanding and adjusting for color changes that occur when colors are seen under different lighting conditions; and second, by understanding and adjusting for the color changes that take place when colors are given different placements relative to one other.
Finally, color study provides guidelines that enable designers to create consistently effective color combinations. There will never be new colors, but there will always be infinite numbers of ways to combine them. The ability to use color effectively is a skill that can be taught and strengthened. Color competence is the ability to predict and control (to the extent possible) color effects. It is also the ability to generate color combinations that respond to the central issue of color in design:
What makes a group of colors work together to solve the problem at hand? Most color courses taught today have their foundation in the teachings of Albert Munsell (1858-1918) and Josef Albers (1888-1976). Munsell's method follows the classic color-order tradition. It is a formal system based on orderly progressions of hue, value (dark and light), and saturation (vivid versus dull). Albers took a more free-spirited approach. He believed that true understanding comes from an intuitive approach to color. He rejected the formality of color-order systems and stressed the power of eye-training exercises.
The Albers intuitive approach dominates American color education today. Detached from its background in color-order systems, it is not as accessible an approach to teaching color as it can be. The intuitive approach makes infinitely more sense when it follows an understanding of what color-order systems are about. By learning first to discriminate hue, value, and saturation, and mastering the idea of intervals, students acquire skills that make the Albers exercises comprehensible from the start. Color-order and the Albers intuitive approach are not alternative ways to study color, nor are they competitive. The first leads seamlessly to the second, and together they embrace an understanding of color without limits or gaps.
Some students who have been very successful in traditional academic areas find this flexible standard of "rightness" very difficult!
Because color perception is influenced by forces of physiology and psychology, and no two individuals see or share the exact idea of any given color, it's easy to conclude that color study in a class would be (at best) a waste of time or (at worst) a scheduled free-for- all. But there are great benefits from studying color in a group. For every problem assigned there are wrong answers, but there are also many different possible right answers. Twenty students may bring in twenty different yet equally acceptable solutions to the same color problem.
Academic (non-design) education tends to reward students who find the single "right" answer to a question or assignment. The possibility of many right answers for each problem is extraordinarily liberating because it increases exponentially the chances of success. It is also extraordinarily instructive, because seeing a variety of responses, even "wrong" ones, sharpens developing critical skills.
The first goal in color study is to enable the student to see colors without the interference of preconceived ideas. Students with a (self-assessed) "good sense of color" may feel inhibited, disoriented, or exasperated at the start. Just as mastering written music may at first slow down a natural musician, learning basic color skills may at first hamper an artist or designer, but the inhibiting effect is short-term. There is a moment when learned material becomes reflexive, like the magical moment for children when learning to read ends and reading begins. The ability to control effects and create with color is artistic empowerment. The designer who understands color has a competitive edge in every industry.
Albers, Josef. 1963. Interaction of Colors. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1963.
Birren, Faber. Principles of Color. West Chester, PA: Schiffer Publishing Company. 1987.
Goethe, Johann von Wolfgang. Goethe's Color Theory. Translated by Rupprecht Matthei. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1971.
Hope, Augustine and Margaret Walch. The Color Compendium. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1990.
Itten, Johannes. The Art of Color. Translated by Ernst Van Haagen. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1960.
Itten, Johannes. The Elements of Color. Edited by Faber Birren. Translation by Ernst Van Haagen. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1970.
Mahnke, Frank H. and Rudolf H. Mahnke. Color in Man Made Environments. New York: VNR, 1982.
Munsell, Albert Henry. A Grammar of Colors. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1969.
Nicolson, Marjorie Hope. Newton Demands the Muse. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1966.
Ostwald, Wilhelm. The Color Primer. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1969.
Rodemann, Patricia A. Patterns in Interior Environments: Perception, Psychology and Practice. New York. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1999.
Sharpe, Deborah. The Psychology of Color and Design. Totowa, NJ: Littlefield, Adams and Company, 1975.
The Color Theories of Goethe and Newton in the Light of Modern Physics. Lecture held in Budapest on April 28, 1941, at the Hungarian Club of Spiritual Cooperation. Published in German in May, 1941 in the periodical Geist der Zeit. English translation courtesy of Dr. Ivan Bodis-Wollner, Rockefeller University, New York, 1985.