Color Theory and What??

For those of us in New England, Spring 2011 seemed a long way off, even just a couple of weeks ago.

For anyone familiar with the Lyman Conservatory of the Smith College Botanic Garden at Smith College in Northampton, MA, it’s a great place to visit to help beat the winter doldrums. ( outside is lovely, too, but in the middle of winter, and even in early spring, you want what the interior has to offer…

How does Color Theory meet up with a Breath of Spring??

The Annual Spring Bulb show at the Lyman Conservatory ran from March 5 until today, March 20.  Seeing the vibrant colors took me back to my color theory class at Suffolk Univ/New England School of Art and Design, taught by Beverly, MA painter, Harry Bartnick.

So, before we get to more images from the Lyman Conservatory, a few basic pointers about color theory.  At the very least, if you read what’s below, you’ll have a few new terms for describing color and you’ll be able to wow your interior designer next time you talk with her/him….or go right to the bottom of this post, and just take a look at those exuberant colors!

In design school, we used a text edited and published in 1970 by Faber Birren, based on the writings by Johannes Itten.  Born in Switzerland, Itten was a member of the Bauhaus, and taught and wrote extensively on color.  The text is: Itten: The Elements of Color; A Treatise on the Color System of Johannes Itten Based on his Book The Art of Color.




In 1676, scientist Isaac Newton used a triangular prism that turned white sunlight into the spectrum of colors that we are all familiar with: red, orange, yellow, green, blue and violet. To quote from Itten, “Colors result from light waves, a particular kind of electromagnetic energy. The human eye can perceive light of of wave lengths between 400 and 700 millimicrons only.”

Itten’s construction of a color chart begins with the three primary colors in an equilateral triangle, as shown, and then each of the secondary colors mixed from two of the primaries, in an isosceles triangle above them.  Surrounding those, in a circle, are the primary, secondary and now tertiary colors (which result from the mixing of a primary with a secondary color).

From the web-site,, (which is a great source if you want to read more about color theory) here are some additional terms you might find helpful:

Hue: The color of color;  often used interchangeably with the word color.

Chroma: How pure a hue is in relation to gray.

Saturation: The degree of purity of a hue.

Intensity: The brightness or dullness of a hue. One may lower the intensity by adding white or black.

Luminance/Value: A measure of the amount of light reflected from a hue. Those hues with a high content of white have a higher luminance or value.

Shade and Tint: Terms that refer to a variation of a hue.  Shade is the hue produced with the addition of black.   Tint is the hue with the addition of white.  The red on the rectangle at left below is with the addition of black and on the right, with the addition of white.  The upper sections of both of the rectangles are most saturated and intense in hue, and become less so, as more black (left) and white (right) are added as you move your gaze to the bottom of the rectangles.


And finally, as you go through the photos from the conservatory, keep in mind  a few of the color “harmonies” that are possible (and there are more than the 4 shown below) in creating color schemes (the following charts and text are taken from

complementaryComplementary color scheme
Colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel are considered to be complementary colors (example: red and green).The high contrast of complementary colors creates a vibrant look especially when used at full saturation. This color scheme must be managed well so it is not jarring.

Complementary color schemes are tricky to use in large doses, but work well when you want something to stand out.


complementary scheme

analogousAnalogous color scheme
Analogous color schemes use colors that are next to each other on the color wheel. They usually match well and create serene and comfortable designs.Analogous color schemes are often found in nature and are harmonious and pleasing to the eye.

Make sure you have enough contrast when choosing an analogous color scheme.

Choose one color to dominate, a second to support. The third color is used (along with black, white or gray) as an accent.
analogous scheme

triadTriadic color scheme
A triadic color scheme uses colors that are evenly spaced around the color wheel.Triadic color schemes tend to be quite vibrant, even if you use pale or unsaturated versions of your hues.

To use a triadic harmony successfully, the colors should be carefully balanced – let one color dominate and use the two others for accent.

triadic scheme

split-complementarySplit-Complementary color scheme
The split-complementary color scheme is a variation of the complementary color scheme. In addition to the base color, it uses the two colors adjacent to its complement.This color scheme has the same strong visual contrast as the complementary color scheme, but has less tension.

The split-complimentary color scheme is often a good choice for beginners, because it is difficult to mess up.

split-complementary scheme

Now, the photos!!  Not only was it great to be in the midst of all the color, it was great to capture it!

Let’s start with one each of the above categories…then see how many you can identify on your own!




Complementary – comparing blossoms with the foliage:

The red becomes lighter (pink) as the amount of white in the red hue increases (tint), and the opposite hue on the color wheel is green.




Analagous – just looking at the blossoms:

The violet, blue and maroon hues are next to one another on the color wheel; (of course, always with a backdrop of green, as these are plants afterall).




Triadic – two photos were needed for this color combination – violet hyacinths and orange freesias and tulips against the green…

Split-Complementary – the foreground of red-orange and maroon blossoms against the’s more of a stretch but red is the opposite of green on the color wheel and orange and something of a maroon flank the primary color red, thus triadic.





And some more great color combinations in these photos…