Originally published in STIR®

The human eye can discriminate millions of colors. Today's consumers of color are increasingly looking for options that have a fresher, cleaner appearance. They are also seeking a broader range of the spectrum to enjoy color in more interesting ways.

The designer's challenge is bringing order to the myriad colors available through an understanding of the psychological and physical ways to manipulate colors intelligently. Working with a color organization system makes this task much easier.

The Munsell color wheel

The most well-known and widely used color organization system was developed by Albert Henry Munsell, an American artist. Munsell's color wheel incorporates three dimensions of color: hue, value and chroma.

Hue refers to the various individual colors in the color spectrum. Munsell's system is based on five principal hues and five intermediate hues – red, yellow-red, yellow, green-yellow, green, blue-green, blue, purple-blue, purple and red-purple – all arranged equally spaced in a clockwise manner. Value indicates the lightness or darkness of a hue, as it compares with a neutral gray scale. Chroma indicates the saturation, or brightness, of a color.

Conventional color wheels, like those often used in art class in grade school, typically have three primary colors – red, yellow and blue – and three intermediary colors – orange, green and purple. So, on conventional color wheels the primary colors are located at the corners of an equilateral triangle. On the Munsell color wheel they are located on the corners of an isosceles triangle. Whereas conventional color wheels may be easier to use, the Munsell system accurately reflects the visible color spectrum.

The Munsell system also allows color to be visualized in three-dimensional space, because it uses three dimensions for identification. And Munsell's use of numbered scales to evaluate hue, value and chroma means that individual colors are precisely identified, eliminating the confusion of names, such as sky blue or lime green.

Color wheel color basics

While many color wheels sport bright colors – colors, perhaps, less likely to be specified by a designer – don't dismiss them. They are valuable tools of the trade. The color wheel nicely illustrates several color characteristics to share with clients.

Colors of similar visual temperatures lay adjacent to each other on the color wheel. Because of this arrangement, it is easy to contrast the differences: the warm colors – the reds, oranges and yellows – appear opposite the cool colors – greens, blues and purples.

Color wheels also make it easier to apply classic color theories to a design project. Monochromatic, analogous, triadic and complementary color schemes are used most often. Monochromatic schemes utilize one hue. Analogous schemes use two hues that are adjacent to each other on the color wheel. Triads use three hues that are equidistant from each other on the wheel. Tetrads are four hues evenly spaced on the color wheel.

Color systems like Munsell's are particularly helpful in monochromatic and analogous schemes, where value and saturation variables provide variety and contrast, rather than multiple hues.

Complementary colors are located across from each other on the color wheel. These color combinations offer warm and cool colors and provide the best contrast. Other complementary schemes include: split-complementary, where a hue is combined with the two colors adjacent to its complement; analogous-complementary, where two adjacent colors and the complement of one of those two are combined; and double-complementary, which combines two hues and both complements.

Color wheels provide solutions to potential color difficulties, too. For example, monochromatic color schemes may cause a problem with successive contrast, also called after-image phenomenon. Say a room is all in greens – a very relaxing color, indeed – but when you leave the room, your eyes automatically see red, which can make a light blue hallway look violet. This effect occurs because the receptors in the eye become fatigued when they are exposed to the same color for a period of time. If after-image is an undesirable result, a color wheel will easily help identify complementary colors, which will help eliminate the after-image effect.

Evaluating color systems

Even with a color wheel in hand, in the every day design world, specifiers are bombarded with color names and various color organization systems. Paint manufacturers routinely name their colors and have their own color tools. What's a serious designer to do? Find a color organization system that works well, and use it consistently. Be sure the system has a good balance and representation of the color spectrum, from red to violet.

Ensure that the system incorporates various values of the hues represented. From light tints to medium shades to dark accents, having value steps at the ready will be – invaluable.

Evaluate the levels of color saturation represented – there should be at least four. At the lower end of the saturation scale you need a range of subtle colors with a neutral quality, such as tans, gray-greens and gray-mauves. The next step up you should see more color, yet not intense hues. These colors represent rich, elegant color options. Moving upwards in saturation, there should be the vibrant colors. Finally, a full range of bright highly saturated colors should be represented – from clear pastels to intense accent colors.

Finally, the system should also have a good selection of neutrals – blacks, whites and grays. These non-colors aren't found on a color wheel, but they are important because they provide visual relief in a color scheme without changing the relationships the colors have with each other. Like true hues, these neutrals also can vary in value, from light to dark.

Saturation... or family?

Designers who are immersed in the creative process find color fan decks and color files to be useful tools when it comes to exploring color concepts for a project. Both organization systems – by saturation and by color family – are used today, with the ideal system being primarily a matter of personal preference.

When colors are organized by saturation level, they build from subdued to bright tones. Most spaces and projects end up with either a sophisticated, low-key look or make a very bold statement. By being able to see the palette develop from neutral to bright, color organized by saturation helps the designer narrow the color direction or theme for the project.

Sometimes a designer is interested only in a specific selection of colors that are all similar in hue. Perhaps the fabrics, floor coverings and furnishings have already been selected, and the designer is interested in rounding out the project with paint colors that blend well. In this situation, using a color selection tool – whether that's a fan deck, color file or color library – that's organized by color family works very well. Instead of being organized by hue saturation, this system calls for colors to be organized by category – for instance, all the greens will be together. This allows the designer to hone right to a specific collection.

If you are using several hues, you can link them in your color scheme by using similar values of those hues. Too much contrast tends to make the eye jump from color to color. Similar intensities also can be used to unify a scheme composed of several hues. But be careful of monotony. Overall, variations in hue, value and saturation achieve the most pleasing results.

As in nature, all colors go together. Knowing how to combine them for successful results is simple with the basics of color theory and the right tools.

Try these Sherwin-William's color tools:

The language of color

Hue - The name of a specific color family, such as blue or yellow.

Value - The lightness or darkness of a color, as compared to a neutral gray scale.

Chroma - Indicates the saturation, or brightness, of a color.

Primary colors - Hues that cannot be made by mixing other colors together - red, yellow and blue.

Secondary colors - Hues made by combining two primary colors - orange, green and purple.

Adjacent colors - Colors that appear next to each other on the color wheel, such as yellow and green-yellow or blue and purple-blue.

Monochromatic - A color scheme that uses various values and chromas of one hue.

Analogous - A color scheme that uses various values and chromas of two hues that are next to each other on the color wheel.

Diad - A color scheme that uses two hues that are located two colors apart on the color wheel, such as yellow and red or blue and purple.

Triad - A color scheme that uses three hues that are equidistant on the color wheel, such as red, yellow and blue.

Tetrad - A color scheme that uses four hues that are equally spaced on the color wheel.

Complementary colors - Hues that appear opposite each other on the color wheel.

Split-complementary - A color scheme that combines a hue and the two colors adjacent to its complement.

Analogous-complementary - A color scheme that combines two adjacent colors and the complement of one of those two hues.

Double-complementary - A color scheme that combines two hues and both of their complements.