1849 – French physicist Edmond Becquerel (1820 – 1891) makes the first
full colour photographs, an exposure lasting hours or days is required.
But the colours are so light sensitive that the fade right before the


How to Pair Colours: A Short Intro to Colour Theory

1.1 Colours in Space

Hue, Lightness and

Painting Colours in


Hue, Lightness and Chroma

All painters, whether working in traditional or digital media, are in a
real sense navigators in space. Whether they are aware of it or not,
each touch of colour they apply can be considered, using various
systems, as a point within a space defined by three dimensions.


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Figure 1.1.1. Left: Portrait of Vincent Van Gogh by Henri Toulouse Lautrec. Pastel, 1887. Right: RGB colours from this image, plotted in YCbCr colour space using the program ColorSpace by Philippe Colantoni. (www.couleur.org).

The three-dimensional system most familiar to painters is the
classification of colours of objects according to dimensions of hue,
lightness (= value or greyscale value)
and chroma or relative chroma
(often loosely referred to as “saturation”
. Hue refers to the
circular scale of “pure” or “saturated” colours formed by the colours
seen in the spectrum (red, orange, yellow, green, cyan, blue and
violet), together with the non-spectral colours like magenta, seen
when the two ends of the spectrum are mixed. Lightness refers to the
scale from black to white; tone, value, and greyscale value are
synonyms or very closely related. Chroma or colour strength refers to
the amount of visual difference from a grey of the same value. In short
then, the system may be said to classify any object colour according to
the closest full or “saturated” colour, the closest grey, and the visual
difference from that grey (Fig. 1.1.2). Because the maximum chroma
attainable with any set of paints varies with value, a hue page that
shows all variations of value and absolute chroma attainable for a given
hue has an irregular right margin (Fig. 1.1.2), and because this margin
varies for each hue (Fig. 1.1.3), a hue-lightness-absolute chroma space
has an irregular, tree-like shape. Simpler systems arbitrarily treat the
maximum chroma attainable for each hue as uniform, resulting in a
circular “colour wheel” and a cylindrical colour space.

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Every great outfit needs a great colour palette, which is whybrushing
upon your colour pairing skills should be at the top of your to-do list
if you think you could use a little help in the colour department. The
good news is that a big part of what makes one colour pairing better
than another is down to simple technique and a few basic rules of
aesthetics, i.e. things you can learn. This is where colour theory comes
in. Colour theory encompasses lots and lots of
differentdefinitions,concepts and design applications, but if all you
want to do is get better at pairing colours you really only need to
focus on two core ideas of the theory:

Figure 1.1.2. Explanation of the dimensions of hue, value/ lightness and chroma in the Munsell system. Grey scale and 10YR hue page from the Munsell Book of Color, Glossy Edition.

Colour order systems based on hue, lightness and relative chroma first
appeared in the early 19th century, but the key concept of absolute
chroma was devised by the American artist and art teacher, Albert
Munsell (1858-1918), and published in a small book entitled A Color
(Munsell, 1905). Munsell published quantitative scales of hue,
value and chroma in an Atlas of physical colour chips (Munsell, 1915),
which after his death was elaborated by the Munsell Color Company
(directed by his son Alex) as The Munsell Book of Color (1929). This
was further refined and developed by the Optical Society of America,
culminating in the “renotation” published in 1943, which related the
Munsell System to the world standard system of colorimetry developed by
the International Commission on Illumination
(the abbreviation is based on the title in its French form, Commission
Internationale de L’Eclairage)
. This 1943 “renotation” forms the basis
of all subsequent editions. The Munsell Book of Color has 40 hue pages
(Fig. 1.1.3), and is available in a choice of editions having either
matte or glossy colour chips. An alternative hue-lightness-chroma
system, CIE L*H*c space, is also available as a physical atlas of
colour chips, the RAL Design Atlas. Hue, lightness and chroma are
included by the CIE as three of the six defined attributes of
perceived colour, of which the Munsell and CIE L*H*c systems provide
two alternative sets of quantitative measures.


Figure 1.1.3. The forty hue pages of a modern edition of the Munsell Book of Color, Glossy Edition. Click on each hue page to enlarge, and scroll down for more pages. In the matte edition the range of colours tends to be a little greater among the light colours and a little less among the dark colours.

The dimensions of lightness and chroma apply specifically to colours
perceived as belonging to objects, as opposed to lights.  

Colours perceived as belonging to lights (Fig. 1.1.4B) can be described
in terms of three dimensions of hue, brightness (perceived amount of
light) and either saturation (colour purity, i.e. perceived
freedom from admixed white light) or colourfulness (colour
strength, a function of both brightness and saturation).

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Thecolour wheel, to understand the three main properties of colours
and to help you identify differences and similarities between colours.

Figure 1.1.4. Attributes for colours perceived as belonging to (A) objects and (B) light. Saturation refers to purity of colour of light, and can vary throughout its range (white to monochromatic) at any level of brightness; it is represented in B by the angle from the neutral axis. Colourfulness refers to strength of colour of light, and can be thought of as saturation times brightness; it is represented in B by the distance from the neutral axis. Chroma (strength of colour of objects) depends on the colourfulness (saturation and brightness) of the light given off by an object for a given level of illumination. Chroma is necessarily zero at maximum and minimum value (white and black respectively), and reaches its maximum range at intermediate value levels.

Lightness and chroma apply to colours of objects seen in nature or
depicted in an image, as well as to colours of an image itself. This is
true whether the image surface reflects light (e.g. a photograph,
painting, or projector screen), transmits light (e.g. a stained glass
window) or emits light (e.g. a computer monitor or TV screen). However,
areas of the visual field occupied by objects can also be seen as
light, and thus the dimensions of brightness, saturation, and
colourfulness apply not only to primary light sources but also to the
light remitted by non-luminous objects to our eyes.


Painting Colours in Space

Traditional colour

discusses the “colour wheel” and the tonal scale, but typically these
are either not related to each other, or they are integrated in a very
simplistic way, as in the colour sphere of Johannes Itten. Many painters
thus spend much time making up elaborate paint mixing charts without
attempting to visualize the series of mixtures they generate as paths
through colour space, and so tend to rely colour “recipes” obtained by
examining their mixing charts to see how they mixed a particular colour
previously. Lacking a conscious three-dimensional conceptual framework
for colour, many painters vaguely think of colours being “warmer” or
“cooler”, without troubling to consider what they mean in terms of the
more precise attributes of hue and chroma. Traditional colour theory
typically offers little guidance on the physical principles involved in
creating effects of light and shade, which require the framework of
colour space for their full explanation, and instead relies on crude and
inaccurate formulae, such as “get the shadow colour by adding the
complementary colour” and so on. A hallmark of traditional colour theory
is the admonition “Don’t use black!”. The real problem is not the black
paint, but the painter’s inability to visualize any unintended effect of
adding black paint as an easily corrected shift within colour space
(Fig. 1.1.6).

Students who have previously been exposed only to traditional colour
theory are frequently astonished when they first learn to think
consciously of their colouring activities as maneuvering through a
three-dimensional colour space
. A three-dimensional conception of
colour assists painters by providing a framework (1) for observing
colour relationships, (2) for selecting and mixing colours, and (3)
for creating colour relationships from the imagination.

  1. As a framework for observing colour relationships.

Painters trained in the concept of colour space do not try to copy each
colour in their subject in isolation (the strategy of every beginner).
Instead, they use the concept of colour space as a frame of reference
for grasping thebrelationship of each colour to the totality of
colours present. Tonal realist painters, for example, typically observe
colour relationships in the light from their subject, and then, by a
process of either conscious or unconscious translation, identify each
individual colour in terms of the hue, value and chroma of the paint
they will need to use in order that the whole ensemble
replicates the visual appearance of the subject as closely as possible.
In practice, this usually involves first selecting the most important
ten or so colours in the subject, and finding the place of these in
relation to each other (Fig. 1.1.5). This begins the process of building
what I call a scaffolding for progressively finding the place of
all remaining colours, most of which can usually be considered as
variations on, or intermediates between, these scaffolding colours.

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Colourharmony, i.e. the study about how to pair two or more colours
based on a few differentformulas.

Figure 1.1.5. : Left: Lyndall by David Briggs, 2005, oil on canvas. Right: plan view (above) and side view (below) of ten selected colours from the image plotted in YCbCr space using the programme ColorSpace by Philippe Colantoni.

  1.  As a framework for selecting and mixing colour.

Artists who think in terms of colour space do not need to remember
recipes for mixing colours: they understand that most colours can be
mixed from any number of combinations of paints, as long as the target
colour is within the three-dimensional gamut of those paints. They
literally visualize colour mixing as moving colour from place to place
through colour space. They decide on the changes in hue, chroma and
lightness required, and predict in advance what effect various additions
are are likely to have. These crafty painters can mix every colour they
want very quickly and accurately, particularly if they equip their
palette with a series of strings of pre-mixed pools of colours at
various values. This approach to colour mixing was developed to an
elaborate degree by the influential mid-20th century American teacher
Frank Reilly, whose approach has been described in books by his
ex-students including Apollo Dorian, Frank Covino, Jack Faragasso and
Angelo John Grado.

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Figure 1.1.6. When a mixture of a colourant such as Cadmium Red Deep with white paint (A) is darkened using Ivory Black, the paint mixture decreases rapidly in chroma (B), whereas the paint mixtures needed to represent an object of colour A in shadow decrease less rapidly in chroma (blue arrow).  The required shadow colour (C) can be obtained by adding just enough of the the original colourant (Cadmium Red Deep) to restore the required amount of chroma. (Adding black may also result in a hue shift, which can be rectified by adding a small amount of paint of an appropriate hue and the same value).

  1.  As a framework for creating colour relationships from the

The dimensions of colour form an essential conceptual framework for any
kind of activity that involves creating colour relationships from the
imagination. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, much
thought on colour spaces (including Munsell’s own writings) was directed
towards discovering rules of  “colour harmony”,  and there are still
many echoes of this kind of investigation today. On this site however I
am much more concerned with the application of colour space to the
creation of convincing effects of light. The concept of colour space
provides a quantitative framework for applying the simple physical laws
that govern the behaviour of light and colour, some of which were
understood in a qualitative way as far back as Leonardo. If the artist
gets these relationships right in a painting, the payoff is not merely
technical correctness but can be a vivid glow of light and feeling of
atmosphere. And, just as with, for example, perspective and anatomy,
having the understanding that allows you to do something from the
imagination makes working from nature far more efficient.

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In this post I’ll give you a quick intro to both of these and also show
you lots of examples for how to use three of the most important colour
formulas/rules to build outfits
(monochromaticmɑnəkrə’mætɪk],complementaryandanalogous[ə’næləɡəs]). As
usual, I want to put out my little disclaimer here that, just like many
other concepts and techniques, you absolutely do not have to follow the
rules of the theory to the letter in order to build great outfits. Use
colour theory as a starting point to gather fresh ideas for colour
combos and tweak your existing go-to looks, but don’t feel like you have
to implement everything in this post.

Figure 1.1.7. Imaginary sphere under three imaginary light sources, painted as three layers in screen mode (one for each light source). David Briggs, 2007, Photoshop CS2.

Many painters think of colour space in terms of relative hue,
lightness and chroma, but there others who train themselves to think in
terms of absolute scales of these dimensions such as those of the
 Munsell Book of Color (q.v. Graydon Parrish and Steve Linberg’s
. The
glossy version of the Munsell “big book” is favoured over the matte
version among oil painters because paint mixtures can be tested on the
individual removable colour chips and then wiped off safely. Painters
who stop short of going the full Munsell often find it very helpful to
at least think of lightness in terms of an absolute scale of some
kind. In the remainder of this introductory section we will examine each
of the major dimensions or attributes of colours in turn, but in order
to really understand our subject we must first take up the thorny
question of what these “colours” actually are!

Modified February 19, 2017. Original text here.

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Next: The Dimensions of What,


Also note that this post is just about pairing colours for single
outfits. Colour theory can of course also be super helpful for planning
out yourwardrobe’s colour
since the parameters for a whole wardrobe are very different from those
of a single outfit, I have covered that topic in a


defining colour // the colour wheel


First things first: To create great colour pairings you need to be able
to assess the basic characteristics of each individual shade. It’s not
enough to identify your top as “blue” or even “dark blue”. A “blue” top
might look amazing or awful with apastelyellow shade, depending on
whether it is a mutedperiwinkle, a bold royal blue or a supersaturated
indigo. When it comes to colour, it’s all about thesubtledifferences.
And the easiest way to understand those differences is to spend a little
time familiarising yourself with the colour wheel and the three basic
properties that make up every single colour imaginable:
hue,saturationsætʃə’reʃənand brightness.



The hue of a colour refers to its exact spot on the 360 degree colour
wheel, which is basically a logical representation of the entire colour
spectrum, i.e. all shades that can be created by mixing the three
primary colours.



The saturation of a colour is how intense it is, compared to a black –
white spectrum (the complete absence of a hue). At 0% saturation level
any colour will look grey (or white or black, depending on its
brightness level). At 100% the colour is as vivid and intense as that
particular hue can be.



Brightness refers to the relative lightness of a colour, from black (0%
brightness) to white (100% brightness).


Exercise: Practice describing colours in detail


The interplay between these three properties is what gives a colour its
unique tone. Even just a subtle shift in either of the three can make
all the difference between a good and a bad colour match. Before you
move on to the next section, make sure you fully understand the effect
each of the properties has on the others. Practice identifying the
colours of some of your clothes or even just of the objects around you.
Don’t worry, you don’t need to be able to come up with the exact HEX
code for every colour you see, it’s fine if you can for example label
the skirt you are wearing as “warm-toned red veering into orange, medium
saturation, high level of brightness”. What’s also important is that you
can pinpoint the differences of two similar colours. If you own two
pieces that both have a similar green colour for example, try
identifying which of their properties are different and to what degree,
i.e. “the green of item 2 is a little less saturated and has more yellow
in it”.


colour harmony // 3 formulas for pairing colours


Ok, now that we got the basics out of the way, we can get to the
exciting part: combining single colours into palettes. A great way to
improve your colour pairing skills is to play around with a few formulas
(also called “colour rules”) for harmonious colour palettes that colour
theorists (yes, that is a thing) have identified as universally
appealing. The three I’ll explain in this post are the monochromatic,
the complementary and the analogues colour rule (more on those below).
But first: let’s take a moment to pinpoint what these formulas have in
common, so you can use that knowledge to go out and build your own
unique colour palettes,without the help of a formula.


The one universal feature of great colour pairings


The thing that all colour rules have in common is that they help you
create a palette that is both full of contrast but also very cohesive
overall. Contrast is what gives a palette visual appeal, what makes it
interesting. Cohesion is what makes it look like a “theme” of shades,
rather than a random mix and also prevents the colours fromclashing.
Both contrast and cohesion are created through varying the hue,
saturation and brightness levels of each colour in the palette. But how
do you create a palette that’s both contrasting AND cohesive? You choose
colours that are very different to each other in 2 (or sometimes only 1)
of the three colour properties, whether that is the hue, the saturation
and/or the brightness level, but keep the other property almost constant
for all colours in the palette. That one almost constant property is key
because regardless of how bold or contrasting the other properties are
across the colours, it is what gives the palette a cohesive overall
feel. This mix of contrast+cohesion is the one thing all colour rules
have in common and also the most important principle to keep in mind
when you build your own colour palettes from scratch.


An example:The colour palette below does not follow any of the three
colour rules that I’ll describe in more detail later on exclusively.
It’s just a combination of four relatively warm spring-y shades. The
difference between the two versions is the second shade: it’s the exact
same hue on both sides, but less saturated and also a touch lighter on
the right. On the left, that shade looks – not horrible- but somewhat
out of place, not quite right. The shade on the right matches the other
colours in brightness and saturation and just because of that, because
of a tiny move along the colour wheel, the whole palette is a lot more
cohesive and, in my opinion, much nicer to look at.


What about neutrals? 什么是中性色

Black, white and all shades of grey are not technically colours, because
they do not have a hue and therefore also no saturation level. That fact
alone means that you can basically pair them with any other palette
without destroying its overall cohesion. The one exception to this are
palettes whose colours all share the same brightness level (but vary in
terms of hue and/or saturation). Grey shades do have a brightness level,
so make sure the one you choose matches the brightness of the rest of
your palette.


Next, we’ll look at some examples of how to create outfits using three
common colour rules (monochromatic, complementary and analogous).


Monochromatic colour palettes 单色展板

The colours of a monochromatic palette all share a single hue, but vary
in brightness and saturation. Although a single hue may sound a little
restricting at first, you’d be surprised how many different colours you
can create just by switching up the saturation and brightness levels.
For example, thatmintybase hue in the palette above (RGB 0, 255, 216 at
its brightest and most saturated) can not only be a bright, summery
turquoise and a palemintbut also amuted slategreen and an almost neutral
grey. And check out the 4 sample outfits below, they’re far from boring,
right? When building a monochromatic outfit remember that you can
supplement your monochromatic shades with grey, black and white as well
if you need more variety or something to balance out bolder colours.

0, 255, 216

Complementary colour palettes 补色色彩展板

Complementary colour palettes are based on two different, complementary
hues (that are roughly opposite to each other on the colour wheel).
Shades of the same hue can have different brightness/saturation levels
for extra variety. What is different about the complementary colour rule
compared to the other two rules is that the one constant property (hue)
is not the same acrossallcolours of the palette, only within the two
groups of hues.In that sense, a complementary palette works essentially
like two mini monochrome palettes, i.e. 2x different
saturation/brightness levels of one hue.


Classic complementary hue combinations are green/pink, blue/orange and
yellow/purple, althoughcombosof hues that are not the exact opposite on
the colour wheel (like yellow/turquoise) also count as complementary, as
long as the contrast between the hues is obvious. Also: a complementary
colour palette does not necessarily have to be bold or very colourful.
The outfit in the bottom left image for example also has a complementary
colour scheme with its mix of sand and light blue shades.


An alternative to the complementary formula is the triad colour rule,
which works by pairing three opposing hues instead of just two (e.g.
yellow, red and blue). I usually find three opposing hues too many for a
single outfit, but I love it on other people (check outthis


Analogous colour palettes 近似色彩展板

Analogous colour palettes consist of different, but neighbouring hues.
The constant property can be either the saturation or the brightness
level or both.For analogous palettes with hues that are not too far
apart you can generally get away with being a little more lax about
keeping your colours all the same saturation or brightness level and add
one or two “outliers” to the mix (like the brighter yellow in the right
picture below, or the deeper blue in the left picture).On the other
hand, if you want to create an analogous palette based on relatively
bold hues and without any neutrals to add some balance, your palette
will look much morecohesiveif all colours share almost the exact same
level of saturation and/or brightness (like in the palette above or in
the bottom right outfit).


colour resources 色彩资源

Adobe Kuler

you to create, save and share your own colour palettes and experiment
with all major colour rules. I could play with this for hours, it’s
hands-down my favourite colour tool.


a creative community where you can create and share colour palettes and
patterns and explore those of others. If you’re ever stuck for
inspiration, check this out.

Color Hunter

A great way to find out the exact colours of any image, especially if
you don’t have Photoshop and can’t use the colour picker tool. Simply
upload your image andColor
dissect it into individual shades for you.

“Intro to Color Theory: Color and Emotion” (Skillshare course)

This is a two-hourvideo
at designers, but I also found it super helpful for all things wardrobe
building. Check it out if you want to learn more about color context and
the emotions colours convey.

image credits
Complementary:Elizabeth and James AW
unknown. Analogous:Gary