Color Primer

Have you ever been talking with someone about a subject of mutual interest, and all of a sudden you discover that their knowledge, and vocabulary are completely different from yours? This happens frequently when I talk with others about color. To keep us on the same proverbial page, and make future conversations about color easier, I wanted to share some basics about color.

When I think about color, I see the intersection of science and art. Color is simply reflected light. White light can be split into its color components by a prism, or by drops of water, like in a rainbow! When an object is green, all the other wavelengths of light are absorbed, and the green is reflected, our eye catches it, and we see green. (If we have all the right cones in our eyes, that is.) White is the combination of all wavelengths of visible light, and black the absence. Black absorbs all the light. That’s why a black car gets hotter than a white car in the sun.

The name of any particular color is what we refer to as its Hue. These are the primary colors on the outside of the color wheel: Red, Yellow, Blue, and all the combinations in between them, also known as the secondary and tertiary colors. The secondary colors are Orange, Green, and Violet. The tertiary colors are Blue-Violet, Red-Violet, Red-Orange, Yellow-Orange, Yellow-Green, and Blue-Green. I think you can still find all of these in the 64 Crayola crayon box. (Now I’ll have to buy a new box and check!)

When I talk to clients about color in a wardrobe, we often run into trouble because when I use the word color, I am talking about the colors of the rainbow, or the color wheel. If I am talking about neutrals, I try to refer to them as such. Neutrals are the “colors” not on the the color wheel: white, black, grey, brown, tan, taupe, and other combinations that read as neutral.


Value is the first property of color we usually notice after hue. Is the color light or deep? The achromatic value scale runs from 1 (black) to 10 (white) with shades of gray in between. Imagine a color photo edited to black and white; this can give you a better idea of the value of a color. This property is first in mind when selecting clothing, and makeup for a client. Is her (or his) overall coloring more light, or more deep? In general, hair is the main marker for whether a person’s coloring is dark, medium, or light.


Intensity is the second of the three color properties. This property, like value, is usually fairly easy to distinguish. Is the color bright or saturated (high intensity) or softer, more muted, smoky, or toasted (lower intensity)? Pure hues from the outer edge of the color wheel are high intensity.


Undertone is the third property of color. Is the color warm (yellow based) or cool (blue based)? This one gets tricky, because we often associate colors with temperature, and temperature has nothing to do with undertone! There are warm and cool greens, reds, and purples. As a matter of fact the only color that doesn’t have warms and cools is orange; it is always warm!

Color Combining

Combining colors is easier when you take the properties into account. High intensity colors will often look best (“match”) other high intensity colors. More smoky colors blend together well, and colors with the same undertone will combine more harmoniously than colors with dramatically different undertones. If you find something in your closet that doesn’t play well with others, it may be that its properties are out of sync with the pieces you are trying to match it to!

I love warm-undertoned colors, but they do not love me! Are there particular properties of color that draw you? Let me know in the comments below!


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