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Colours as the language of emotions: colour harmonies, colour contrasts and the choice of colour palettes

In addition to the scientific definition of colour, there are two other aspects of colors that we rely on every day: the psychological and the communicative aspects, i.e. how colours can touch our soul and how we thereby express our emotions by choosing certain colour harmonies, colour contrasts or colour palettes.

In this post I will briefly explain both aspects and take a look at how to choose color palettes based on the colour wheel.

The colour psychology

The colour psychology refers to the way colours are able to influence our behaviour or our perception of the reality. Since our childhood we are instinctively brought to associate a colour to a particular concept. For examples yellow is the colour of the sun, of warmth or summer, red is the colour of love, fire, anger, blue the one of sky, sea, water, coldness, green of nature and peacefulness, etc. But why is it this way? Because every colour in our mind is unconsciously associate to a particular emotional state that sometimes is connected to our good or bad life experiences related to colours.

Strictly related to this aspect is the communicative strenght of the colours: colours are like a code that, once decripted, opens a new way to communicate to the soul by simply put together two or more hue, tints, shades on a surface. And the best part of it is that it is elementary, immediate and natural.

The communicative aspect: Colours as the letters of the art language

As I wrote in my first post about the meaning of art I think that art is a language and colours are the letters that, combined in colour schemes (harmonies and contrasts), are used by creative people to express what they can’t explain in words. It is not a case that artists use particular colour combinations in their paintings in order to communicate a particular emotional state. Through the colours the artist can convey his message, showing us aspects of his soul or of the environment we are living in that otherwise would be hidden.

This communication power of the colours is largely used in many sectors of our everyday life: from the marketing (by choosing a particular colour for packaging or a company logo), to psychology, fashion, interior design (by the choice of a particular colour palette to recreate a particular atmosphere in a room), etc. Often even our everyday personal choice of the colour we want to wear in a particular occasion mirrors our state of mind.

Basics of Colour Palettes: Colour Harmonies and Colour Contrasts

As a musician uses the seven notes in a particular combination to create an harmony, so the artist uses the seven colours to paint on the canvas his own colour harmony to give voice to his emotions and view of the reality he is living in.

The colour palette, similar to a song, becomes the main instrument the artist has to touch the heart and mind of his observer, talk to him or catch his attention: Wants the artist to give the observer a sense of warmth, then he would probably choose a palette with warm colours such as yellows, reds, oranges; wants the artist on the contrary to convey a sense of freshness, he will prefer blue or cold tones.


How can an artist choose a colour palette?

Starting point to create a colour palette is the colour wheel. After choosing a base colour (primary, secondary, tertiary) and keeping in mind the concepts of colour temperature, colour saturation and colour value, he can choose for his colour palette between colour harmonies and colour contrasts according to his main artistic purpose.

For example, if he wants to convey a sense of drama, a strong effect or drawing attention, colour contrasts with high level of saturation will be better than colour harmonies that are more appropriate to give an idea of coherence, consistency, harmony.

Colour Harmonies

Under the expression "Colour Harmonies" are meant colour combinations that look good together aesthetically. Often colour harmonies are the starting point to create a colour palette.

There are seven possible colour harmonies based on the colour wheel:

Monochromatic Harmony

Under the expression "monochromatic harmony" it is meant the use of a single colour hue and its more or less desaturated light and dark tones. In this case the focus is in the chosen colour and its meaning.

Monotonous Harmony

Under the expression "monotonous harmony" it is meant the use of a neutral colour such as black or white with all their different tones. The resulting image will have an elegant and classic athmosphere.

Analogous Colours

Analogues colours are colours that are next to each other on the colour wheel. For example blue-violet, blue, cyan or yellow-green, green and cyan. Due to the fact that the colours are next to each other the resulting image will convey a sense of harmony, consistency and coherence.

Analogous Colours

Complementary Colours

Two colours are complementary when they are opposite on the colour wheel. For example yellow and violett, blue and orange, red and green. This is the strongest of the colour harmonies. These colours reinforce each other and if used in different quatities in an image they can lead the observer to concentrate on a particular detail of an image.

Complementary Colours

Split-Complementary Colours

Similar to complementaries but with the difference that one of the two colours is replaced by the two analogues on the colour wheel. For example green, orange and purple. In this case the main colour will be highlighted by the other two in a more soft and harmonious way.


Triadic Harmony

Three colours are in a triadic harmony when a triangle relationship can be created between them on the colour wheel. For example orange, green and red-violett.

Triadic Colours

Square Harmony

Four colours are in a quadratic harmony when a square relationship can be created between them on the colour wheel. For example yellow-orange, red, blue-violett, green.

Square Colours

Rectangle (or tetradic) Harmony

Four colours are in a tetradic harmony when a rectangle relationship can be created between them on the colour wheel. For example yellow, red, violett, green.

Tetradic Colours

Colour contrasts

Finally, and in addition to the colour harmony, we should look at the colour contrasts to give expressiveness to our works.

What is a colour contrast?

A colour contrast is the result of the interplay of two or more colours. According to the way each contrast is used, it can reveal different messages. Based on the colour wheel, there are seven colour contrasts:

The colour-in-itself contrast

This contrast is created when 2 or more pure colours (hue at the highest saturation degree) are used together. The strongest contrast is the one created by primary colours or black and white.

The light-dark contrast

This contrast is created by the interplay of dark and light colours, from different hues, so that the colours become stronger in the end. A typical example is the use of white, grey and black.

The cold-warm contrast

This contrast is the main instrument of colour perspective and refers to how we perceive colours based on the colour temperature. As already written, colours have both warm and cold tones and this difference in temperature can be used to paint contrasts or represent distances in landscape paintings: cold tones are often intended for distant backgrounds; warm tones, on the other hand, are intended for foregrounds.

The qualitative contrast

The quality contrast is achieved by the simultaneous use of a strong and pure colour tone and its tint, shade or version mixed with brown. Examples of this are combinations of red, pink (red+white), dark red (red+black) or blue, pastel blue (blue+white), dark blue (blue+black).

Examples for qualitative contrasts

The quantitative contrast

The quantity contrast refers to the size of the colour areas that are placed against each other. Giving that each colour has its own brightness and that one colour can be more or less luminous than another, we can have different effects depending on the amount of each colour used and put next to the other.

Examples for quantitative contrasts

The complementary contrast

This is a selected contrast consisting basically of the interaction of primary and secondary colours or primary colours with the respective complementary colour (yellow+violet, red+green, blue+orange). When two complementary colours are put together, you can achieve the strongest contrast and the resulting image conveys a sense of balance, solidity and staticity, due to the fact that complementary colours contain all the colours of the colour wheel.

Examples for complementary contrasts

The simultaneous contrast

In the simultaneous contrast, a harmonious and lively play of colours is achieved by combining pairs of non-complementary colours. In this case our eyes will tend to search for the complementary of each colour in the image, changing the way we perceive the image in its entirety and increasing its communicative strenght.

Examples for simultaneous contrasts

Other instruments to create a colour palette

Today, in the digital world, there are also different ways to get inspired by the creation of own colour palette:

Final words

As we have seen, the concept of colour is not just a scientific fact. Furthermore, a colour is an elementary part of a language that can convey to us more than we could express with words: through the right selection of colour contrasts, colour harmonies and colour palettes, the deepest and unknown parts of our soul are touched.

I hope you will find more inspiration for your future creative works through this post.

Thank you for reading. If you like the post, leave a like, a comment and don't forget to follow my blog, my Instagram and my threads and share the content on your social media.

I wish you a creative and great day.



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