Why I Care About Color

First in a series of blog entries about color theory, with live help fromĀ  ColorTheory (Step 1) .  Next_post

This seris of posts started as an attempt to answer some very basic questions…

How can we choose harmonious colors? Colors that look good together, but also are distinct from each other?

I started with the goal of experimenting with programming web applications. But no matter what framework I started with, the first thing I always had to do was use HTML and CSS to format something that looks good. And that always devolved into issues about colors, or be happy with gray.

My initial design approach seemed straight-forward- choose a nice picture (which can be re-used in the blog banner) with good color harmony, and choose colors from the picture. You can see the results…

You can see the results in this blog and in the ColorTheory (Step 1) . The results were workable, but muddy. Picking colors that looked nice on their own and not just in the context of the picture was difficult. For example, my attempt to get a good yellow from the rear wheel in the figure only resulted in a creamy taupe without much distinction.

There are lots and lots of colors. All of them have virtue. How do we find them, especially the subtle ones, the ones that aren’t called “red”, or “blue”, or “yellow”? How do we find ones that are harmonious, yet distinguishable from each other?

Books on color theory such as James Gurney’s “Color and Light” explain from a painter’s viewpoint how to choose colors to match realistic scenes with varied lighting and shadows. But in web design, we are not interested in matching reality, but in using color to organize and contrast information.

There are tutorials on harmonious design, such as Color Harmonies . But the discussions about different schemes all depend on understanding which colors are primary or secondary, and which colors are complementary. And that varies, depending on which color wheel the particular writer uses. So the answer turns out to be “it depends”.

So I’m looking for answers in the science and engineering of color theory. It doesn’t hurt that there are lots of math and even statistics involved, and that lots of it can be computer generated and displayed. And there also appear to still be lots of different opinions, differences that maybe can be resolved through evidence and experiments that can be done simply through computer programs that even an amateur can do.

I started with a simple “look at the different color wheels”. It almost immediately spread beyond that, the current version of which is the ColorTheory application.

Next time we’ll start actually running the application. But if you want to anticipate all the best punch lines, the following are some references into the wide world of web resources on color theory, by people who understand it very, very well…

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