Theory Week Four – What is Colour?


In this session we looked at theories of colour.  As a photographer I haven’t been as aware of colour theory as I should have – I have always worked in an intuitive way to create harmonious images, and sets of images:

‘In visual experiences, harmony is something that is pleasing to the eye. It engages the viewer and it creates an inner sense of order, a balance in the visual experience.’  (

In decorating and styling the interiors of my own house I also use intuition – I love to experiment with colour:

I see that in interior design it is more important to have a good theoretical understanding of colour; a digital photograph can be manipulated using software, a series of images can be chosen from, and photos can often (but not always) be taken again if the results aren’t right.  These apply less to interior design – the final result cannot be manipulated using software, so it’s important to get it right! However at the design stage there is room for experimentation and exploration with colour – and having a good understanding of colour theory should get designers off to a good start with this.

The colour wheel

  • Primary Colours – red, yellow and blue
  • Secondary Colours – achieved by mixing two primary colours in the correct proportions – orange, green and violet
  • Tertiary colours – achieved by mixing a primary and a secondary colour in the correct proportions – red-orange, yellow-orange, yellow-green, blue-green, blue-violet, and red-violet.

Hue essentially means colour, saturation refers to the colour’s intensity, and tonal value refers to how black or white the colour is. A shade of a colour is achieved by adding black and a tint of a colour is produced by adding white.

Colour Relationships

Complementary colours on the colour wheel are opposite each other, so blue and orange, yellow and purple and green and red are complementary.  It is considered good practice to break up these colours with, for example, white.

Analagous colours are next to each other on the colour wheel, so for example oranges are analogous to yellows and reds.  There are other relationships between colours such as monochromatic which is a set of the same colour in different shades, tints and tones (achieved by adding black, white or grey), and split complementary, which is a set of three colours: a principal colour and the two colours either side of its complementary colour.   

I made some concept boards to explore colour relationships:  









Self-directed work:

  • Painting a colour wheel.  I did this with gouache paints, while my five year old looked on sceptically at why I had this for homework!


  •  Creating a concept board inspired by what we had learned about colour.  I made the above boards and have also made a more traditional board, with a health spa client in mind:


I chose a palette of soft pinks and greens, with some greys (cool and warm) and dark warm browns.  To me these colours appear to be harmonious and create an atmosphere of tranquility and calmness.

Breaking this down in terms of colour theory, the ‘root’ colours are mainly reds and greens – complementary colours on the colour wheel.  They are tinted to create the paler tones of pinks and light greens.  I have broken up these colours with greys and also added some dark, warm browns, and darker shades of green to create visual interest – a palette entirely made up of pastels seems slightly insipid to me!  There is some blue-green in the water on the image in the top left, which i’m not sure works in this palette, so that would probably go at the next stage if this were a client’s brief!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s