Putting color theory into practice

By Tim Peterson

Posted on Thursday, December 9th, 2021

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Selecting colors in our work can be a great challenge. It doesn’t need to be intimidating, though. Every designer must be aware of a few fundamental principles of color to be consistently successful at basic design.

Think in black and white

Effective color choice doesn’t involve as much thinking about color as it does black and white. The value of a color is how it appears in terms of black, gray or white. Making a black-and-white copy of the color chart you use most often will give you an idea where each color falls on the value scale.

Light versus dark (like ivory and dark brown) shows the most contrast, and the least contrast is shown by colors whose values are the same (like medium green and bright red). Strong contrasts between values projects a higher energy than colors whose values are closer together. Value contrast is one of the most important principles to use in prioritizing your message.

Depending on the nature of your customer’s business, some signs need extreme contrasts while others are more suited to the lower energy level and stability of lower contrasts. Designs that contain a range of values from light to midtone to dark show balance.

Set the right temperature

All color has temperature. I divide colors into three groups:

Warm—red, orange and yellow

Cool—blue, green and purple

Neutral—black, white and the earth tones (tan, brown, gold), which are made by combining warm and cool colors.

Warm colors appear to come forward. The human eye is physically stimulated by warm colors in the same way it perceives near objects. The lens of your eye reacts in the opposite manner when viewing cool colors, making them appear to recede. You can feel this phenomenon at work by looking at red with blue, as it appears to vibrate where they touch.

The combination of warm colors of copy on a warm background is a high-energy mixture, as the whole design wants to project forward given the nature of warm colors.

Warm colors of copy on a cool background is a more stable mix, as the receding background pushes the copy forward, automatically prioritizing your message.

Placing a cool color on a warm background can be difficult to pull off, as the effect of the cool message receding and the warm background advancing creates a conflict. This dynamic can be a great source of energy, but one of the colors must be used sparingly.

Remember that contrast in values is critical in any of the above combinations.

Putting the principles to work

My layouts begin with a prioritization of the copy. The most important element receives the most contrast between it and the background. Secondary elements are done with less contrast, while borders and filigrees show the least. I try to think in terms of foreground, middle ground and background or light, midtone and dark.

An effective way of achieving color unity is by using a limited palette of shades or tones of one or two colors, at most, for the copy. Adding black or white to a color will move it to the cool side, while ivory or dark brown will warm it up. This unity can be aided by adding a bit of the background color to the copy.

The use of many unrelated colors (particularly of a similar value) is confusing to look at and will appear jumbled. Using process green, magenta and lemon yellow on the same sign may get attention for the wrong reasons.

Understand how color works

Some colors have come to carry some cultural traits, such as red meaning passion or black symbolizing power. While I don’t totally disregard these ideas, they rarely come into consideration when I make color decisions.

Most projects arrive with one or two colors predetermined. Colored vehicles will guide you to the colors you may consider, using the principles of value and temperature contrast. When working on a white vehicle, I may consider the interior color before choosing my palette.

Signs that deal with architecture of any kind need to consider existing colors. Incorporating the building or trim colors promotes color unity and will make the sign look like it belongs with the property.

I am a firm believer in dark or midtone backgrounds. Most of the text we are exposed to daily comes in the form you are seeing right now—dark letters on a light background. A dark background offers the opportunity to use the rich and vibrant colors that will make your work stand out.

Midtone backgrounds offer their own challenges. Dark colors on midtone backgrounds tend to get lost, and light colors may need to be enhanced by a dark outline or panel area to obtain enough contrast. Natural wood signs fall into the midtone category. Stained wood signs will appear warm in temperature. Left to age without treatment, most wood will acquire a light gray color in a year or two. This long-term color change will need to be considered in terms of value contrast.

The study of color relationships needs to be grounded in an understanding of how they work in life. No artist relies on a mechanical method to determine color choice, but using the principles of value and temperature contrast, a flexible system can be developed by use and observation.

Tim Peterson’s shop, Flat Earth Art Co. in Spearfish, South Dakota.

This article appeared in the July/August 2002 issue of SignCraft.

To see the value of each color, make a black-and-white copy of the color chart you use most often.

Warm colors come forward; cool colors recede. When they touch, they appear to vibrate.

The combination of warm colors of copy on a warm background is a high-energy mixture, as the whole design wants to project forward given the nature of warm colors.

Warm colors of copy on a cool background is a more stable mix, as the receding background pushes the copy forward, automatically prioritizing your message.

Most projects arrive with one or two colors predetermined. Vehicle color, for example, will guide you to the colors you may consider, using the principles of value and temperature contrast.

Placing a cool color on a warm background can be difficult to pull off, as the effect of the cool message receding and the warm background advancing creates a conflict. This dynamic can be a great source of energy, but one of the colors must be used sparingly. Contrast in values is critical in any of these combinations.

A dark background offers the opportunity to use the rich and vibrant colors that will make your work stand out.

Signs that deal with architecture of any kind need to consider existing colors. Incorporating the building or trim colors promotes color unity and will make the sign look like it belongs with the property.

The background of natural wood signs fall into the midtone category.

Midtone backgrounds offer their own challenges. Dark colors on midtone backgrounds tend to get lost, and light colors may need to be enhanced by a dark outline or panel area to obtain enough contrast.