Visual Literacy: Colours

Image:Boutet 1708 color circles.jpg

Boutet’s 7-color and 12-color color circles from 1708


We are surrounded by colours, but do we stay still long enough to appreciate the way colours play around with each other?

Why is the sky pleasant looking when it has white fluffy clouds with a cyan sky? Why does the same sky look so dull with grey monotone clouds? And why is it so beautiful with red dusky streaks at dusk?

dawn 190208 widescreen


Three different photos from my Bishan living room window, previously posted on this blog. Notice how the colour schemes lend a different mood – from slightly divine, to dark/moody to peaceful (from top to bottom)


That’s where colour theory comes in. For the long explanation, read the article at Wikipedia. There are also many differing colour theories, each with their own merits and tastes.

For the short explanation, read on.

Obviously, some colours go well together, some don’t.

Often, it really depends on your cultural outlook when it comes to choosing colours. Some ethnic groups like the dull green/brown/red (like some Peranakans) scheme, others like Technicolor combinations (like some sari-wearing Indians).

BUT one thing is common, is that no matter the palette of colours used, it’s useful to mix colors opposite each other on the above wheels (complementary colors), or colours next to each other if you want to accentuate a certain colour family, or even colours that alternate on the wheel.

Then again, why am I writing all this – I don’t even bother with the theory. I go by sheer gut feel and trial-error methods.

I believe that good colour theory is innate. You just got to keep trying different combinations to figure out what works and what doesn’t. For example, you don’t wear a maroon shirt with bright blue pants because of the clashing tones, and the "warm/cold" conflict. It’s better to look dull with a warm brown pants, than suffer to look like a clown.

color combis

Many Singaporeans, because they find it too much of a hassle to do so, or don’t realise the importance of colour theory, just go for safe and INCREDIBLY boring combis like black/black, black/white, black/grey, white/white…. you know lah. Boring and very serf-like. Unfortunately, the same principle applies to their choice of car colours (yawn).

Colours also need to be balanced against each other. 

When I take photographs, I do some quick mental calculations at the back of mind with regards to having the right colour mix and balance of tones. For eg, in the picture here of Isaac at the beach….

isaac the pirate

…I took into account the blue, the green and the sandy colour tones, then let Isaac be the foreground subject with his higher contrast colours (white clothing and tan skin). Composition of the photo’s elements not only take into account the relative size of the objects, but also their colour weightage in the photo.

So yeah, it’s a simple photo, but you can see how the careful balance of colours doesn’t let the background overwhelm the subject.

Using colors is an infinitely interesting thing to do, and it’s important to keep looking at beautiful pictures like the ones below because that’s where you also learn different palettes and how to apply them in your home decor or daily dressing.

Image:Mona Lisa.jpeg

Notice how Leonardo Da Vinci uses different palettes (Color combis) to create different effects. Mona Lisa exhibits a muted, duller palette to convey sophistication and mystery, while The Madonna Of The Carnation (below) uses more vibrant tones to achieve a mythical, divine scenario.

Image:Madonna of the carnation EUR.jpg


Color should also affect your choice of purchases. For example, Dell’s great XPS 1530 laptop originally came in three shades – deep red, blue and black. With the silver accents, blue just doesn’t look that good. Then you’re really down to choosing just the red or black versions.

XPS M1530 is available in Tuxedo Black, Crimson Red & Midnight Blue

XPS M1530 Tuxedo Black

Then it had to come out with this new colour combi : Pink and Silver.

XPS M1330 in PINK

The press release says:

Identified by Pantone as one of the Top 10 Fashion Colors for Spring 2008, pink is one of the new shades for the season. It was all over the 2008 Fashion Week runway shows and is expected to be a shade that women and celebrities will be draping themselves in all year.

Well, I’m not a fan of pink and silver (a bit Pink Panther, you think?), and I think the XPS (which is one laptop you should really buy if you want a powerful bang for the buck) needs more aggressive colours like red, maroon, purple etc to highlight its strengths as a machine.

Colours, needless to say, convey a whole bunch of meanings. If you can’t co-ordinate your colours for nuts, it may just indicate that you are sending out mixed or wrong signals to others.

3 Replies to “Visual Literacy: Colours”

  1. I like the pictures you took of the sky.

    Oh, and your Paint picture of the pants and shirts really helped me out a lot (I really am not color literate).

    Anyways, I just thought I’d comment since I hate it when people don’t comment.

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