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By Prof. S. Balaram DJ Academy of Design, Coimbatore

COLOUR in a nut shell


Colour has been with us since the beginning of creation and in practically every culture of the world, this phenomena has been recognized with very interesting interpretations. In India, since the vedic age, Brahmanism recognized yellow as a sacred colour. As mentioned in Hindu epics, there exists definite colour combination scheme. Lord Krishna, having blue complexion is described wearing yellow dhoti and pink coloured garland. His brother Balarama is described as wearing blue dhoti as his complexion is fair.


Fig.1 Radha Krishna Dancing


Through many centuries, colour played an important role in curing diseases, in driving out evil powers etc; and much more in magic. The Hindu mother puts dabs of black on the fore head or on the eye lids of her baby to protect from evil powers. In any place of the world, black cat is generally accused of causing bad luck. The colour of Buddhist Lord is gold. During worship red powder and bougainvillea leaves are placed in crate for good luck. Fig.2 Black cat

Fig.3 Buddha Sculpture 2



Colour is defined as an aspect of visual experience; that may be referred to scales of hue, saturation and brightness; comprising a three dimensional complex, apart from the spatial and temporal aspects of visual experience.


Radiant energy is propagated through space in form of electro magnetic waves. The visible portion of this energy is seen as light. The differences in the wavelengths distribution of this visible light gives us different colours. Collimated light entering a prism is refracted according to wavelength, the shorter wavelengths being refracted more than longer wavelengths, resulting dispersion of light into a spectrum.







DARK Fig.4 Dimensions of Colour 3




The dimensions of colour : HUE HUE






GREY Fig.5 The classification of colour sensation: Value Triangle




The primary colours of colorants (colours of pigments, dyes, inks etc are red, blue and yellow. As a given colorant absorbs certain wavelengths of light that strikes on it, the mixture of these three primary colours produce black. Painting, Printing, Dyeing etc are based on this subtractive theory. Subtractive because the new colour is seen by subtracting all other wave lengths of light except one. 1. Primaries: Red, Blue, Yellow 2. Secondaries: Orange, Green, Violet 3. Intermediaries: RO, OY, YG,...........

Fig 6 Mixture of reflected pigment- Subtractive process




The primary colours of light are red- orange, blue- violet & green. When lights of different colours are put together, the resultant colour becomes additive. These three primary colours when added together produce white. Colour photography and colour television are based on this additive theory. Additive because the new colour is seen by adding the other wave length to the original. Secondaries: yellow, magenta & cyan Primaries: red-orange, blue-violet & green

Fig 7 Additive process 6



Fig 9 Cool colours: Blue & Green

Green and blue are considered as cool, receding colours. Light colours are active, deep colours are passive. Pure colours are likely to be severe.

Fig 8 Warm colours: Red, Yellow & Orange

As long wavelength energy produces a rise in sensation more quickly than the short wavelength energy, red, orange and yellow are considered as warm, advancing colours. 7



Fig 10 Red colour

The activities of muscular nature are better performed in bright light and bright surroundings. Exacting mental and visual tasks are better performed with softer and deeper colours in the environment.





Experiments prove that the equilibrium of human organism is disturbed far more by red, than is by green or blue.

Fig 11 Illusions 8

Fig 12 Concentric circles & squares

Since colour is experienced in the brain, it is related to all the senses-not vision alone. The stimulation of colour will produce reactions through out the human organism. The activity of one sense organ will influence the other because all parts of nervous system are connected together. When the ears are thudded with sound vibrations, the eyes have a hazier perception for the colours of long wavelengths; while an increased sensibility for the hues of shorter wavelengths. An ascendent current increases the cone sensibility to green, blue and decrease to red and orange. The reverse effect with descendent current.



DIET Taste, smell and diet can also effect the colour perception. A bitter taste may increase green sensation and decrease red sensation. The same with smell. A great preference for simple colours is observed with people having calcium deficiency depending on poor diet.

Fig 13

As vision is not instantaneous retinal process, immediate action of any colour stimulation is followed in time by reverse effect. This is the cause or after images. After looking intensely at a green image if one looks at a neutral grey; one would see the same in red(greens complimentary); for a moment image. 9

Fig 14 Subtle food colour



Colour preference will also change according to age. The fluids in the human eye grow yellowish with age. The lens of the eye of a child absorbs 10 % of blue light, while that of an old man absorbs 85 %.Hence, with the increase o age, the preference for blue increases.

Childs colour preference













Colour preference is also influenced by the climate and season. People of the sunny region prefer warm and vivid hues, where as the people of cooler region prefer cooler and softer hues. Thus people of arid, hot Rajasthan in India wear bright primary colour dress while people of cold Europe prefer subtle intermediaries and grays. The effect of season is

Elders colour preference

Fig 16 Colour preferences in Rajasthan,India 7


Fig 15 Colour preferences 10

Fig 17 Colour preferences in Europe

ASSOCIATIONS Always the sense of colour struggles actively within the body of man working itself outward to influence the things he sees. Colours convey impressions of warm-cool, tastes, odors and sounds etc due to the strong associations fixed in the mind.

General appearance

Mental association

Direct association


spatial, darkness

night, emptiness



spatial, light

cool, snow

cleanliness, peace


wet, transparent

cold, sky, water



Object impression

Subjective impression


funeral, deadly, negation of spirit, signs of controls where negative depressing reflections needed death pure, frank, brightness of spirit perfectly balanced do youthful normality sober, subduing

gloom, fearful

caution signal

in rest places


sunny, radiant



cheerful, vital

high spirit, health


use in tints in spiritual places


brilliant, dry, opaque

hot, fire, blood

danger, war

exciting, active, passionate


danger, war

to command attention


clear, moist

cool, natural


refreshing, peaceful

disease, guilty


sedimentary task areas


bright, luminous

warm, metallic

jovial, energetic


thanks giving

jovial, energetic

for interior in tints


deep, soft

cool, moist, mist


dignified, mystic

lonely, desperate


aesthetic appeal

Fig 18 Colour associations table 11


I N F L U E N C E on T I M E, S I Z E &WEIGHT Because the focus of human eye is not same for all hues, the colours of the spectrum will appear near or far, large or small. The appearant sizes under the influence of colours are: Time



Warm and light colours

Over estimated good for living rooms, restaurants

Things seem longer and bigger under warm light

Things look lighter applications in containers etc

Cool and deep colours

Under estimated best for offices, factories etc

Things seem shorter and smaller under cool light

Things look heavier application in machinery etc

Fig 19 Time, Length & Weight table

Colour Schemes: 1. Achromatic: No colour. Grey-White composition 2. Monochromatic: Single colour with shades, tints, tones

Light yellow

Dark blue

3. Polychromatic: Many colours A. Analogous( neighbors on colour wheel)

Fig 20 Time, Length & Weight table 12

B. Complimentary(opposites on colour wheel-makes each other more intense by simultaneous contrast-but avoid competing with each other)

ENVIRONMENT Colour & Environment: Coloured light changes the environment because human beings are not sensitive to colour alone but to the appeal of the environment under which it is displayed. Colour effects the metabolism of the body directly and also through the brain and eye.

COLOUR&SOUND Colour & Sound : The two vocabularies of colour and music freely exchange the terms like one, pitch, intensity, volume etc. Experiments found that slow music reminds us of blue colour and fast music of red. High notes resemble light colours and deep notes dark colours. Colour is more fundamentally emotional than music and requires less mental effort to enjoy.

Fig 22 Fast Music

Fig 21 Red tomatoes 13

Fig 23 Slow Music

C O L O U R & O D O R, F O O D S Colour and Odor: Pink, Lavender, Pale Yellow and Green, because of their association with foliage, are perhaps the best smelling colours. Grey, Black, and Deep shades are poor examples.

TOUCH Colour & Tactile sense : In association with the sense of touch, colours will appear warm or cool, dry or wet, rough or smooth.

Fig 24 Smell

Colour and Foods: Among pure hues, vermilion red seems most appealing since it is the rich colour of apple. Towards orange the appeal is high, at yellow it begins to fall and reaches lowest at yellowgreen. Brown associated with bread. Tints of violet and pink are decidedly sweet.

Fig 25 Foods 14

Fig 26 Texture & Finish



Colour and Form: Colour is found more dominant than the form. Children, in whom the associations are very less, match hues better than forms. In the abstract sense, colour can be related to forms- red to square, because of its strong attraction and sharp focus, orange to rectangle, because of its clear focus & lending to details; yellow to triangle, because of its pointedness & high visibility; blue to circle, because it creates blurred image, and similarly green to hexagon and purple to oval.

Fig 27 Colour & Forms 15

Colour & Personality : Here are personality types, experiments show that colour preference is some clue to peoples personalities.

Athletic Extrovert Vigorous Aggressive

Civilized Social Educated

Convivial Good natured Cheerful

Intellectual Introvert Executive

Spiritual Philosophical High minded Control Temper

Disciplined Artistic

Fig 28 Colour & Personality

INTERIORS In general, most persons prefer light colours over dark ones, pure colours over greyish, and primary colours over intermediate ones. The public attitude with colour is more emotional and many a time feeling dominates the reason.

MIXING MIND Colour perception is essentially psychological, than visual. There is a strong cultural conditioning. Unlike sounds to the ear, the eye sees one result only and the light rays are mixed in the mind.

Style of decoration will also affect the colour choice. Those who revere tradition may prefer refined tones of rose, green, blue, gold etc much. Modern people go for trend of the time.

Fig 29 Interiors 16

Fig 30 Pixilated image

I N T E R A C T I O N of C O L O U R


When one colour or line is put nearer the other, they interact on each other and create illusions.

Dr. Gale, in his experiments, found that yellow is popular in combination with red, violet or blue.

White looks whiter on black than on grey. Black an white will give maximum contrast if isolated, and look grey when mixed. Thus striking effects be achieved with contrast colours.

Gulford’s test shows that-very large differences in hue give more pleasing results than do the medium ones and this tendency is stronger in women. The single colour variation is found best to represent clear out expressions.

Fig 32 Colour in architecture

Fig 31 Colour in interiors 17

A red with a touch of black in it may seem dirty. But when enough black is added to it to shift the form to deep shade of maroon, beauty may again be evident.



In the combination of light and dark variations of different hues, the appearance is best, when the light variation is derived from a full colour that is normally light and the dark variation from a full colour that is normally dark.

Visibility is an important factor in human engineering. The clearest seeing, also the greatest speed, power to sustain etc are given by the wavelengths in the mid region of he spectrumthe yellow, orange yellow and greenish yellow.

A pale green may look better with dark blue, than a pale blue with dark green.

Yellowish light is excellent, create clear out images and aesthetically pleasing. The colours least desirable in a light source are green and blue. They focus normally at point behind the retina.

Fig 34 the human eye Fig 33 Colour in exteriors


Yellow is the colour of highest visibility not only in light sources, but also in surface paints.



The visibility combinations in order are: Black on yellow, green on white, red on white, white on black and black on white.

The speed of discrimination is higher for black letter on white ground. In strong light white objects on black background seem most favorable and the vice versa. Though white makes a good background, it lacks in attention value.





all bromide papers are obsolete...

MEXICO 1968 3 19

Fig 35 Visibility level in colour

Fig 36 Visibility level of typography

D A Y and N I G H T


Red and Yellow are the best attention getters in white day light. But yellow, because it normally mix with the background, is not easily be seen from far. Red is best signaling colour. It is easily produced, instantly recognized, and clearly visible at low intensities. Green, Yellow and White will com next in order.

Brightness will attract attention in an outward way. Softness of colour minimizes the environment and attracts the eye to the details in it. Brightness of colour leads to mental reactions. Low brightness contrast is always desirable. Needles contrast or brightness lead to fatigue and discomfort. Glare and monotony should always be avoided.

Though yellow is the most visible colour in daylight, bluegreen and violet are most visible at nights.

DAY 20

Fig 37 Day and Night colours

NIGHT Fig 38 Psychodelic

ENVIRONMENT Since the eye sees best in yellowish light, sunglasses are best when tinted with yellow or yellowish green. Ordinary incandescent bulbs and fluorescent tubes of 3500 degrees colour temperature are comfortable to see. In purely casual spaces(wash, rest rooms) lighter and cleaner hues are preferred. Blue is preferred for facilities devoted to men and rose is to women.

Fig 40 Pink interiors

Soft variations of green, grey and blue are best where the optical seeing tasks are performed. Large vaulty spaces maybe enlivened with ivory or cream colour overall the walls or yellow over end-walls. Medium grey is preferred for unimportant elements such as bins, racks, shelves etc. Fig 39 Blue interiors 21

Fig 41 Medium grey interiors

CINEMA In movies, where dramatic and highly emotional effects are wanted from colour sequences, dep blue cut abruptly into bright red gives maximum excitation. For melancholy moods, blue colour should be faded and dissolved into soft hues. Red provides fast tempo while blue or green provide slow tempo.


Fig 42 Cinema & Colour

INDUSTRY For industry purposes, soft, delicately greyish hues are th best. They lack in aggression, less distracting, and they most effectively conceal dust and soiling. It is logical to use the cool colours where working conditions are in high temperatures. Light and bright colours are used where the natural light is less. White is best in storing areas. Grey machinery, high lighted with buff on important parts prove effective.


Fig 43 Industry & Colour

MOODS Colour can change the moods. Red excites and activates. Blue makes one peaceful, restful and yellow saffron colours induce spiritual mood.

Fig 45 Blue colours

Fig 44 Red colour 24

Fig 46 Yellow saffron colours

PRODUCTS Colour can make order of chaos. It can help the onlooker to distinguish important area from unimportant. Different human reactions are observed to different colours. Depending on the physical and emotional effect needed, suitable colour should be used in designs. Usually bright, rich chroma are avoided except for small attention seeking components like knobs, press buttons, handles etc. Subtle variations of greyish colours are used for overall product. Some designers stick to matt blacks and greys.

Fig 47 Colour for products 25

A B O U T the A U T H O R

Prof. S. Balaram is one of the distinguished designers in India with an international reputation. He is not only design professional but design educator and writer as well.He is one of the founder faculties of the National Institute of Design(NID),Ahmedabad.Indias first and most known design institute. Prof Balaram did his advanced studies and research in Design at the Royal College of Art, London. After the Post Graduation at the National of Institute of Design in 1969 he joined NID as a faculty and taught core design courses and served there holding senior positions such as Chairman of Professional Education, Chairman of Extension Programmes and Chairman of Extension programmes and Chairman of knowledge management centre. He also holds a diploma in engineering and had years of work experience as engineer as well as commerical artist.

Prof S. Balaram

He had designed more than 40 products, packaging and graphics some of which have won international awards from apex organizations such as ICSID (International Council of Societies of Industrial Designers).He has to his credit four patents on bicycle design. He was awarded honorary fellowship by the society of Industrial Designers of India for his contribution to improve quality of life ,the national meritorious invention award and the Hellen Keller award for his design contribution for the people with disabilities.In December 2004 the United States honoured him by conferring the international Ron Mace award for Universal Design.He is the only Indian to win this prestigious award. Prof Balaram is presently Dean at D J Academy of Design, Coimbatore. He is married to Textile Designer Padmini and they have two sons.

Colour in a Nut shell  

Written for the students of DJ Academy of Design, Coimbatore.

Colour in a Nut shell  

Written for the students of DJ Academy of Design, Coimbatore.