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Cinereous, Cochineal, Cerulean: 10 Things You Probably Don't Know About Color Theory

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What jumps into your mind on reading this author's first name? Rose Gonnella, co-author of Design Fundamentals: Notes on Color Theory, says that many of your synapses would have sparked at seeing the color name 'rose.' Whether your mental image leans more toward blushing pink or velvety red, color is constantly affecting you and the world around you. See it in a new light.

1: Color Physically Surrounds Us

Microscopic, minute, or massive, every animal, vegetable, or mineral that we can see has color. Recognizing the enveloping quality of color is the first step in attempting to wield color for visual communication purposes in art and design.

2: Color Occupies Our Conscious and Subconscious Minds

When we see colors (plural—we rarely see just one color at a time), our brains are at work processing the information: What is the color? What is our memory of the color? What associations does the color have for us? How is the color "felt" by the observer?

3: Color Saturates Our Senses

We see color, but we also associate color with sound, such as associating red with the clanking loud sound of a fire engine. Color also connects to our sense of smell—what color is the bright, crisp scent of citrus? Do the colors orange and lemon yellow tingle your nose? Pink is soft. Blue is cold. Red-glowing metal is actually too hot to touch.

4: Color Ignites Us Emotionally

Green with envy? Black depresses. In some cultures, black is the color of mourning. White is a color of mourning for the Hindu, but it's also the color of enlightenment—joy. Yellow is cowardly? Yellow is happy and bright.

Red is sexy. Black is sexier? Brown is serious. Orange is silly? Emotional reactions to color are private and individual as well as informed collective-cultural experiences. There are no absolutes or formulas for designing to elicit a controlled emotional response. But occasionally we rely on cultural commonalities.

5: Color Encompasses the Sciences

Color studies and recognition begin with the physics of light. The electromagnetic rays of the sun beam to Earth wavelengths of visible light: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. At an atomic level, light equals color. Chemistry also has a role to play: The manufacture of coloring agents—pigments and dyes—yield thousands of hues for fabrics, metals, plastics, ink, paint, cosmetics.

6: Color Is Integral to the Humanities

We might think science has uncovered all the mysteries of color and established all possible systems for its use. Yet writers, artists, designers, composers, lyricists, actors, singers, and poets know that color is a language, one that touches and jostles minds, hearts, and the human spirit.

7: Color Has a Diverse History

Through thousands of generations of human civilizations and cultures, color has been a vehicle for visualization of images and communication of sounds and ideas. Color has caused wars, inspired scientists and explorers, frustrated artists, and delighted audiences.

8: Color Is Iconographic

Religions, governments, charities, sports teams, and other organizations use simple color relationships or even single colors for identification and communication of the most complex and important beliefs, ideas, and philosophies.

9: Color Compels Commerce

Natural pigments such as the luscious red made from the insect cochineal or the infinitely deep and clear blues of lapis lazuli have been prized and traded for ungodly sums of money. The dyestuffs of commerce across the globe create riches in their colorful wake. Pigments are readily accessible in these contemporary times, but specific colors still assist in generating riches. Many highly successful brands vigorously protect and copyright their colors, preventing others from using their custom color in commerce. Only Tiffany can have that shade of blue.

10: Color Is a Complex Physical Element of Design

Red shapes on a computer screen or red dots of paint on a canvas both interact with the colors that surround them, creating a pleasing or disturbing composition. Establishing a sense of balance or a hierarchical structure within the arrangements of shapes, dots, or complex forms is a matter of recognizing and manipulating their visual weight and the push-and-pull effects of interacting colors.

An Expansive and Ever-Changing Language

Look to naming conventions as a guide to the struggle and never-ending efforts we expend to describe, define, and elucidate color. We start with the colors of visible light, but the language just keeps expanding:

Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet, lemon yellow, sunny, Air Force blue, acid green, alloy orange, holly, pinky-pink, amber, fuzzy-wuzzy, sage green, amethyst, lamp black, bright copper, cornflower, brass, ruby, emerald, turquoise, bronze, chartreuse, antique white, pretty apricot, mahogany, jet black, sea green, aquamarine, apple red, apple green, cherry, grape, pale yellow, Army green, marine green, frost, arsenic, ash white, ash grey, cedar, celadon, cerise, cerulean, chamois, African violet, charcoal, gold, Charleston green, cherry blossom pink, corn silk, cosmic latté, coyote brown, cinereous, lipstick red, cotton candy, cream/crème, crimson red, crimson glory, cyan, azure, cobalt blue, cyber grape, Big Blue, lovelorn, daffodil, amplified crème, violetta, dandelion, electric blue, ebony, Dutch white, earth yellow, ecru, Egyptian blue, flame, fire engine red, titanium white, lead white, burnt umber, coffee, deep jungle, fern green, brick, champagne, fuchsia, vanilla, sienna, terracotta, mauve, beige, raspberry, yellow ochre, pewter, puce, cinnabar, asparagus, blizzard, almond, sepia, apricot, tangerine, wild strawberry, tumbleweed, screaming green, purple pizzazz, inchworm, hot magenta, lavender, Columbia blue, macaroni & cheese, mint, maroon, olive green, neon carrot, wisteria, wild blue yonder, ultramarine, phthalo blue, cadmium red, rose madder, deep green, periwinkle, watermelon, banana, goldenrod, grey/gray, coral pink, razzle-dazzle rose....

Are any names, associations, emotions, references, metaphors, and allusions not listed above? Of course! I've included only a few of the likely 7,000,000,000 (and counting).

Color will never be fully known, and its learning never ends.

Color on.

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