Colour Theory: Let’s Talk About Red
Colours are a wondrous, beautiful thing. They brighten up the world, and work harmoniously together to create stunning variety in the things we see. But did you know that there’s actually a science behind the way our brains process them? That aside from our subjective preferences, there are objective meanings behind each colour? When used correctly, colours can be used to convey emotion, and even to evoke it!
Colours are on a spectrum, and there’s almost no limit to the combinations that can be dreamed up. But whilst there’s a huge range of specific hues and shades of colour, there are a limited number of main colours, so today, let’s investigate the colour red!
So, where to begin? Colour Theory encompasses a whole range of ideas, but the basic ones revolved around hue, saturation, brightness, and colour scheme. Let’s start with hue. Put simply, that’s whereabouts a colour falls on the colour spectrum. Red is the word applied to colours that have a wavelength approximately between 625 and 740 nanometres. In hex code, a true red (255R,0G,0B) would be #FF0000, but there are many variations on that which still full under the umbrella of red. Red sits between red-orange and red-purple on the colour wheel, and is at the edge of the visible light spectrum. Go too far to the right (increasing wavelength) and you get to infrared, which is invisible to the naked eye.
Saturation and Brightness
So, we’ve covered what constitutes as red, now we can start looking at the colours within the red umbrella. We all know what red looks like, but the red you’re picturing could be a different shade to the red someone else would picture, because there’s more than one red that can be created. One of the things you can do to red is to desaturate it.
Saturation is how rich and intense a colour is. Essentially, how red your red is. Desaturation involves muting the vibrancy of a colour, and the less saturated a colour is, the closer to grey it looks. As you can see in the example above, we start with a true red on the left, and then lower the saturation. This results in the colour looking less pure. The red in the middle looks dull, but is still recognisable as red. However, the red on the right is almost fully desaturated, and might appear to be grey at first glance, although if you look carefully you can see the red hue in the particles. If you were to continue desaturating the colour until you reached -100%, you would have a true grey.
Whilst saturation involves the vibrancy of a colour, brightness is different. The vibrancy and saturation of the colour will stay the same, because instead of tending towards grey, you add either black or white. If you add black to a colour, it becomes a shade, and if you add white to a colour, it becomes a tint. Red is an interesting colour because if you add enough white to it, it becomes pink, which we humans recognise as being a completely separate colour to red. Whereas if you do the same with a colour like blue, for example, we’d just refer to it as ‘light blue’, rather than perceiving it as a totally new colour.
In the example below, we have three different brightness levels of true red. On the left, we have +100% brightness, which as you can see has turned our red into pink. In the middle we have our true red, and on the right we have -100% brightness which looks almost brown. The saturation is still the same though, so both new colours are just as strong and vibrant as our original red. Now, you may be wondering why fully changing the brightness up and down doesn’t create white and black. This is because we only changed the brightness, not the contrast. Contrast is a more complex change that you can make to a colour, and involves the degree of difference in the tones of a colour. But essentially, if we were to set the contrast to -100% for both of our colour manipulations, then we would have white on the left, and black on the right. By leaving it at 0, it means we can create lighter and darker shades of red, whilst still having the red hue visible.
A fascinating thing about colours is that they objectively have meaning. There have been numerous studies that demonstrate people have certain feelings towards different colours. Red is considered a very intense colour, and its associations reflect this. In nature, it’s found in fire and blood, and so it’s unsurprising that the most common association for red is probably danger, hence why most ‘Danger’ signs will have a red border or background. It’s also associated with passion, and power. Red is a bold colour, and using it in any context will give off a vibe of strength. Red is also described as a ‘warm’ colour, which means people associate it with heat, and when used in art, it draws the eye towards it, whereas cool colours are rarely an initial focal point.
This is probably the part of colour theory that will be most relevant to those of you who are looking at using colour in your arts and crafts. It applies to what colours look good together. There are several different options to choose from, and they’re by no means exhaustive, but these are the most common colour palettes.
This means only using colours within the red colour group. So various brightness levels, contrasts, saturations, and hues, all within the red wavelength. These can be very effective when used correctly, and will look sleek and elegant. A great example of this are these lovely graphics that are part of the Red Backgrounds Bundle on the Creative Fabrica site. As you can see, the artist has used the colour red to create gorgeous patterns and variations that are very effective.
This applies to any three colours that sit next to each other on the colour wheel. Specifically, it applies to the 12 part colour wheel. For red, this is either:
– red, red-orange, orange
– red, red-purple, purple
– red-purple, red, red-orange
These colours will flow well together as they are next to each other on the colour wheel, so our eyes find it natural to see these colours together.
These are colours that sit opposite each other on the colour wheel. It’s interesting that these colours go together, and is the ultimate example of ‘opposites attract’. The contrast between the colours can be striking, and is especially useful when choosing which colour to make a font so that it stands out from the background behind it. The complementary colour for red is green, and so red stands out very well against green and vice versa. However, they’re two very vibrant colours, and so you may wish to use darker/ less saturated shades to make them easier to look at on the page together. In the example below, you can see how the green background allows the red font to truly stand out. The font used is the delightful Red Runner, which can be found here.
These are colours which form a triangle on a 12 point colour wheel. This is another three-part colour scheme, and unlike an analogous colour scheme, it’s designed to create some level of visual contrast on the page, rather than perfect harmony. It can make for very striking designs. The triadic colour scheme for red is red, blue-green, and yellow-green.
Using Your Knowledge
That’s the basics covered! Colour Theory is an excellent way to take your designs to the next level, and when used correctly can really enhance the quality of your creations. Don’t forget, the colour schemes are by no means exhaustive, and so feel free to try out different combinations when working on your art. However, it can be comforting to know that you have the above colour schemes to fall back on if you’re stuck for ideas. Hopefully you now feel more confident using the colour red, and have learned something interesting along the way!