Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Color Theory In Your Closet: Color Characteristics

Basic Color Wheel

Okay ladies, this is it: color theory in your closet! It's been wet, gloomy, and rainy here. I've been in the house working on projects, then going out for walks and having to hang up all my clothes and shoes to dry. In short, i've been presentable and pulled together but it's nothing to write home about. I've been wanting to explain color theory from the wardrobe angle for a long time now, this weather is giving me the perfect excuse!

Why would you be interested in learning about color theory? Here's some reasons. If you can grasp a few concepts about color theory you will have powerful tools for understanding what colors you like, why you like them, and how to find or create them. You will have much more confidence in choosing which colors to wear, as well as in combining colors in outfits.  You will understand how to add new colors to your wardrobe so that they harmonize with what you already have. You will be able to find great, wearable colors to buy in years when your 'regulars' just aren't in stock. You will have the ability to analyze color in outfits you find inspirational so that you can duplicate the effect or, better yet, adapt the color scheme to use your own most flattering colors.

Using color theory this way is a skill. You acquire this skill through study and practice. My goal is to give you straightforward examples and explanations of the basic color theory you can apply to getting dressed, so that you can analyze future outfits, pictures, interior designs, whatever inspires you in order to hone your skills.

Color Characteristics:
These are the terms we use to describe qualities of a particular color. They are:

This is what you're talking about when you ask, "What color is it?" Lime green, yellow, aqua, tumeric, baby blue - these are all hues.

How much of the hue is contained in the color you're looking at. Think about dyeing Easter eggs. The longer you leave an egg in the dye, the more pigment it takes up and the more saturated the color becomes. This is not the same thing as a light or dark color. Below, the lime green looks lighter than the indigo because of the qualities of the individual hues, but they are both very saturated or 'full strength'.

Lime & Indigo both fully saturated
The color wheel below has had the saturation decreased to about 50%. Compare this to the color wheel at the top of this post to get an idea of what saturation means. Less saturated colors tend to feel delicate and ethereal, while fully saturated colors come across as bold and strong.

De-Saturated Color Wheel Looks Drained Of Color

Saturation has a number of applications in the wardrobe. Some people look much better in really saturated hues, while others look better in hues that aren't much saturated at all. With most people, though, how you look in various saturations depends on the hue and other characteristics. Paying attention to this color variable can help you hone in on your most flattering and preferred looks. Varying the levels of saturation in an outfit can also add a lot of interest to a look, just as varying textures does.

Color Temperature
"Warmth" or "warm" refers to any color that has a lot of yellow (or, rarely, red) in it.

Color Wheel Drenched in Yellow is Warm

"Cool" refers to any color that has a lot of blue in it.

Color Wheel Dipped in Blue is Cool

Notice i said 'any color'. In these pictures i've taken my original color wheel and altered the entire photo. In the first one i added yellow, in the second i added cyan. This affects the various colors to different degrees, but you can see that indeed every color is altered. Yellow in the cool color wheel is cool, no longer warm. You can see this cool yellow in many flowers, especially daffodils and tulips. You can also see it in lemons which haven't yet ripened fully, which have a green cast.

The blues in the hot color wheel become warm with the addition of yellow. More people are aware of this, due to the popularity of aqua and turquoise (both warm blues). Most of the purples i see are cool, but you can see that the purple of The UFO Experience in the hot color wheel is very warm.

This is vital information for your wardrobe. The bulk of people look much better in either warm or cool toned colors. First, educating your eye to spot the difference will help you when you're picking out clothing. Secondly, you now know that you don't need to stay away from all blues if you're better in warm tones, or all yellows if you prefer cool tones. If you want to wear those colors you just need to find (or create) those colors with the undertone you prefer. Cultivating your ability to spot warm and cool tones will also help you in creating a cohesive color scheme.

Let's say you love reds so you decide to acquire a number of red pieces for your wardrobe. They'll all be red so they'll all 'go', and you can mix and match as you like. However, warm reds and cool reds generally look awkward next to each other.  If you can't spot warm vs. cool, or worse if you don't even know about warm vs. cool, you could easily end up with both temperatures in your closet. You'll end up frustrated, because your plan doesn't work - you've been diligent about only buying reds but they still don't 'jive'. Learning about these color characteristics and taking them into consideration when you're planning and when you're shopping is crucial to developing a truly easy to use wardrobe.

The last three color characteristics refer to ways you can alter a hue.
Tint: lightening a pure hue by adding white. This is how pastels are created, by adding white to a pure cool hue. But tints are more popular in painting than in fabrics - it makes more sense to just use less pigment on a bleached fabric to achieve a 'tint'.

Shade: Darkening a pure hue by adding black.

Tone: Altering a pure hue by adding grey.

Shades and tones are very popular in clothing. Designers love to do this because altering a group of disparate fabrics, all in the same way, will help to tie the end result together visually. It's kind of a short cut - but it works! And you can use this technique, too. I will often 'tea dye' any whites that look too glaring or cool for my warm coloring. I'll give the same treatment to prints with a lot of too-white white. I use orange pekoe, the kind Lipton uses, as it adds warm tones of yellow, orange, and grey-brown. Other teas (for example Earl Grey) will yield a grey tone, as will RIT dye's Pearl Grey. This particular grey imparts a cool grey tone, quiteuseful for ladies who prefer cooler colors. You can add a little yellow or blue to your dye bath to intensify the warm or cool effect, respectively. I can't tell you how often i've used this trick to make whites wearable!

L to R: Original prints, Tea-Dyed Prints (Warm), Pearl Grey Dyed Prints (Cool)
 Here i've taken a couple of prints and tea dyed one pair, then dyed another pair with RIT Pearl Grey. I've included the original un-dyed prints so you can observe the way this process changes the various colors and the overall feel of the prints.

Admittedly, this part of color theory is not all that scintillating. But you do need to have a grasp of these basic concepts in order to excel at and understand our next post's topic: creating and manipulating color schemes. In other words, how do you use this info to create great, flattering outfits and choose colors for your wardrobe with confidence.

As always, please ask about anything that seems confusing or that you'd like more info about. Thank you for reading!


  1. This is good. Very good. I am looking forward to the rest of the series.

    I also now know that I mostly gravitate to cool colours, although I'd never really given it much thought before.

  2. We must be thinking about the same things I commented on my blog about this month's IN Style color issue. I really like your explanation. So clear and very useful information. One of the things I recently treated myself to was a color analysis. It was worth every penny and I also have found that by analyzing what I buy most of the things in my wardrobe go with each other because I am buying warm versions of colors with the correct saturation for my personal coloring. Thanks for taking the time to write this out for us I know I will keep referring back to it.

  3. Oh, I like the idea of tea-dying and I've never thought to do that with clothing. I must remember this trick. I think when I had my colors done last I was a "winter," which means I think that jewel tones work best for me.

  4. Very informative! Sometimes I feel like I am lodged in some odd spot in color space where I'm TOO flexible about what colors I can wear, which is actually not helpful (option paralysis, ya know?) I can do some warms and some cools although I'm probably more leaning toward the cool side. About the only colors that I have to completely avoid are lavenders, light rose, ecru and warm greys that don't provide enough contrast with my skin.

  5. Thank you Ana! i've been lucky enough to have taken college-level art history and practice courses, and i find that i'm using color theory all the time in 'the closet'. There's a lot of info out there, but not much just to help with clothing. I'm really glad to hear you're learning good stuff!!!

    Hi Adrienne! thank you for the positive feedback :) "I also have found that by analyzing what I buy most of the things in my wardrobe go with each other because I am buying warm versions of colors with the correct saturation for my personal coloring." You make a great point here, and it's one of the benefits of getting a hold of a palette for your wardrobe, one way or the other!

    Hello Terri! tea dyeing is cheap and easy, i love it! if you're drawn more towards cool tone (winter's favor cool, saturated colors) then get a packet of the pearl grey. it's two or three bucks and you use such a small amount it'll last quite a while. most of the cheaper teas are orange pekoe, which is warm, but the earl greys are cool. Have fun!

    Hi Cynthia! i'm glad you like this, with your gorgeous colorful closet the more you know about color the more fun you'll have ;) yeah, "option paralysis" is a good way to put it. You are really lucky to have that uber-flexible coloring since you will be able to find flattering colors no matter what's on the market! But it takes a lot more conscious discipline since you have to restrict yourself. i don't have any brilliant ideas, but will keep watching you to find out what you come up with!!

    Happy Day, steph

  6. Hello Steph. I made a cup of tea (!) to take a few moments to read and absorb this. The tea-dying info and the examples are eye-opening. I'm a little confused though about the concept of "warming" or "cooling" any color. I've always had the idea that half of the color wheel was inherently cool and the other half warm. Not so? Hmm.... Elle

  7. Hi Elle! Yes, 'half and half' warm and cool is one way you can make a color wheel. BUT in real life every hue can become a color that is warm or cool. Because in real life, most of the colors we see are made from pigments or chemicals. Let's take yellows. Certain yellows, like the yellow of sulphur, are very warm. But other yellows have cool or neutral undertones. And, on top of this, many colors you see are made of a mix of pigments/chemicals all of which have their own 'temperature'.

    But look for yourself. In magazines, stores, the garden start looking at all the colors and see if you can tell if they're warm or cool. I'll see if i can come up with more examples of cool yellows (they are rarer than warm blues, which you see a bunch of). Hope this helps! stpeh