The World of Colours

Let us take a look at colour theory, how colours work and how we classify them.

Our colourful world

We live in a world of light, that´s why colours are so important to us. Colours are everywhere around us.

  • Colours act upon us, have their influence on our mood, our decisions, our mind.
  • We alter colours, as we paint, mix and run experiments with them.
  • We act upon others, using colours. Our cars, our houses, hair, fingernails and clothing.
  • Colours have an influence on our appetite and sense of temperature.

Red | Blue | Green | Yellow
Orange | Pink | Violet | Brown
Black | White | Grey

How to classify colours

Now when we start to talk about classifying colours, we encounter our first problem already. You see, the transition from one colour to the next is fluent. We may see red as red and blue as blue and where they mingle, there be purple. But there is the more reddish purple and the more blueish purple, and while we give them names, such as bordeaux and indigo, how do we call the one in between indigo and blue? Indigo-blue? And between indigo and indigo-blue?

Colour theory was my very first project on the internet a long time ago. The website was quite popular (especially in German speaking countries since it was 90% in German) and it is a pity that I trashed it back then. Now, I understand that FoxTravels may not be the perfect dwelling for this topic, but I want all my stuff in one place and not scattered over 12 domains. So, here we go.

Hoi An is also called the Lantern TownHoi An is also called the Lantern Town | photo: (cc-by-sa) Frank Fox

You already see the problem we face here. Of course there is the hex code and the RGB (or CMYK) system where we have colours such as #e46034, which turns out to be a kinda darkened Peach. But what is with the colour between #e46034 and #e46134?

New Article: Grey
Grey is the colour of reliability, plain and boring. But also the hidden person behind the scene. Grey is unobtrusive, elegant and can be combined with any other colour.
Curious? Check out this article here: Grey


Colour Perception

At first we need to make it clear that colour actually doesn't exist. What we see is our brain's interpretation of light of different wavelength that hits the receptors in our eyes.

Nonetheless, probably all humans perceive colours in the same, or at least a similar way. There are cultural differences however. A Russian for example might tell you that there are more words for blue than just blue. And that makes me wonder: How much influence does our language, our culture and the environment we were brought up in - actually influence the way we perceive colour?
There are interesting studies on how our primary language influences the way we think and the way we handle a situation. Myself I am bilingual and I experience differences whether I tackle a problem with my mind set on English or on German. My daughter will be an even more interesting object of study in this case, since she is naturally multilingual. Another interesting point is my wife and me, who originate from two vastly different cultures, may end up arguing whether a certain colour is actually green or blue or what shade of teal.
So let us assume, that our language has an influence on how we actually experience colours around us. More of that at a later stage.

I dare to say that red is the most important colour in the history of mankind. Red is so deeply ingrained in our daily perception, I cannot imagine a world without the colour.
Purple has been the most sought-after colour of the ancient times, but the details are still foggy.
Brown is the colour of trustworthiness, like the fertile soil. It is also simple and uncomplicated. Warm and aromatic, like coffee or fresh brown bread. But also simplicity (negative) and dirty.
The colour rose is female, sensitive, tender and charming. But also young, soft and sometimes naive. On the other hand, there is pink, which is also female, but more aggressive, untamed and independent.
The brightness and warmth of the sun is yellow, golden wealth and prosperity, yellow is playful, vibrant, agile, nice. The colour yellow also symbolises optimism, kindness and cheerfulness.
Wild and frolic, orange is the jolly colour of happiness. It is creative, active, young and fresh. Orange is the colour of luck and cheerfulness, while in the Far East, it represents enlightenment.

New Article: White
White is proper, innocent and clean. The white dress stands for innocence and virginity, the white suit for extravagance. White is achromatic, but a mix of all colours in the additive colour scheme.
Curious? Check out this article here: White


Colour Families

In our current situation the most important factor is how we classify colours, or let's say colour families. Bordeaux and Crimson, both belong to the family of red for example.

Another way of managing colours is the difference between the additive colour scheme and the subtractive colour scheme. Additive means the colours of light which - all mixed together create white light. In contrast to the additive colour stands the subtractive colour that we experience in pigments and painted objects. If we mix all primary subtractive colours together, we end up with black. Here as well, I will talk about that later.

For now let us stick with the most prominent colour families, their meanings, effects, properties and history.


Red is the dynamic colour, that symbolises passion, love and lust, but also blood, war and anger.


Blue is the colour of the far away, dreams and wanderlust.


Green is the colour of thriving nature and all the fresh, new things.


Yellow is the colour of the sun, golden, bright and prosperous.


Orange is the colour of happiness, freedom and joy, as well as enlightenment.


Pink is the colour of the young love, sensitive and tender. The more intense it gets, the more... intense it gets.


Brown is the colour of trustworthiness, like the fertile soil. It is also simple and uncomplicated.


Purple is the colour of creativity and extravagance - and it´s got a mystic touch.


Black is the colour of the hidden, the unknown, death and sorrow. But it's also powerful and solid.


White is the colour of innocence, untouched and clean.


Grey is the color of reliability, plain and boring. But also the hidden one behind the scenes.

New Article: Black
Black is the colour of the hidden, the unknown, death and sorrow. But it is also powerful and solid, a colour to trust and rely on.
Curious? Check out this article here: Black


Let's talk about colours!

There are many fun stories about how many colour names women usually know, and how many are known to men. Champaign for example is a region and a drink from that region, not a colour (I would say if I wasn't the colour nerd here). Well, this is not what I mean. If we talk about colours in a technical or scientific way as web developers, as designers, as desktop publishers, printers, physicists and so on, we need proper names for colours. More than we can even handle without long and complex lists.

Every fashion victim may go and hide in the closet between the fuchsia dress, and the anthracite suit, because the colour names we use here are something like #11a56c.

Colour schemes

When we start diving into this endless sea of different colours, we need to understand that there are two schemes of colour: The additive scheme and the subtractive scheme.

The additive colour scheme

The additive colour scheme means the colour of light. Quite like everything you see on the screen right now. If you take a look at the image for example, you see some yellow flowers. The problem is, there are no yellow flowers. The colour the screen emits is in the additive scheme RGB, so there is only Red, Green and Blue.

EchinaceaEchinacea | photo: (cc-by-sa) Frank Fox

In nature, the wave length of yellow light lies between red and green, but our eyes can't actually see yellow, for we have only receptors for red, green and blue. Yellow light tickles both, red and green receptors a little, so the brain says "Uhm, that is not really red, it's not really green and there is no blue at all... that must be yellow!"

So what our screen does, it produces a little red and a little green light at the position where the yellow flowers are, et voilá, we see them yellow.

We can say, that the additive colour scheme is the process of mixing 3 different colours of light. Everybody knows this graphic here, which depicts 3 circles of coloured light. Red, green and blue. Where red and blue mix, it gets purple. Mix blue with green light, it gets teal and mix green with red, you get the above mentioned yellow. Mix all three colours and get the maximum intensity, and the light turns white. You can test that for yourself. Get three flashlights, three coloured foils (r, g, b) and let the light circles emitted from the flashlights intersect each other. On a white wall preferably.

RGB Additive ColoursRGB Additive Colours | photo: (cc-by-sa) Frank Fox

So if we talk about the primary colours of RGB, they are red, green and blue.

The subtractive colour scheme

Now this is a little different. We can say it starts with a painted surface, that does not emit any light. Depending on the micro structure of the surface, it absorbs and reflects light instead. So, to use the example of the yellow flowers again. They are... well, you know they are just a photo on the screen and therefore in RGB. But the original flowers I saw at home when I took the photo were not yellow either. They actually had no colour at all, but their surface structure on a very fine level... absorbed almost all of the blue light, and parts of the red and the green (sunlight is composed of light of all colours). What the surface of the flower reflected into my eyes, therefore was a mix of red and green again, and my brain said "Uhm" again, "That must be yellow."

There is no such thing as colour

Since additive colours are just a mix of lightwaves that get interpreted by our brain as colours, and on the subtractive level it's also nothing but surface structure that shapes the mix of lightwaves we receive, we can say that there is no such thing as colour. But nonetheless, let's pretend there is, so we have something to write and read about.