NMSU: Color and You
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Color and You

Guide C-301

Susan Wright, Extension Clothing Specialist

College of Agriculture, Consumer and Environmental Sciences New Mexico State University. (Print Friendly PDF)

This publication is scheduled to be updated and reissued 5/06.

You learn about color by experimenting with it. As you learn more about color, you will select clothing and cosmetic colors that will be harmonious with your own personal coloring, figure type, and personality type.

How are colors created? A widely accepted theory of color is based on the idea that all colors are derived from the three primary colors-red, yellow, and blue. All other colors come from mixtures of these three primary colors. Thinking about colors around you and where they might be placed on a color wheel will help you see color relationships.

Primary colors: red, yellow, and blue

Secondary colors: green, orange, purple

Intermediate colors: yellow-orange, red-orange, red- purple, blue-purple, blue-green, yellow-green

Gray: combination of all pigments

Further mixing of neighboring colors produces many other colors and color gradations. ( "Mixed" colors, then, can be considered as relatives, since they have common ancestors.) You will note that any mixed color fits into the color wheel according to the amount of yellow, red, or blue that it contains.

Since fashion designers delight in giving each color a new name each year, you need to learn to identify the true color, or hue, you ar seeking. Hue is the term used for the name of a color.

Within any family of colors there can be both light and dark, as well as bright and dull colors. For example, brown and beige can be closely related to the same orange or yellow-red family, with the brown a dark, dull orange and the beige a light, dull orange.

Warm or Cool Colors

Colors are considered warm if they contain enough yellow or yellow-red. They are considered cool if they contain a noticeable quantity of blue.

Note that there are warm  and cool versions in each color family. Purple-red or bluish-red is the cool version of red. Aqua is an example of a warm version of a cool color because some yellow had to be mixed with the predominately blue color.


Value, the second dimension of color, describes the lightness or darkness of a color.

You have a choice within each color family from light to dark colors.

Colors follow a natural order. In a rainbow, warm yellow is the lightest color. Yellow-red or orange is somewhat darker. The cool blues and purples are darkest of all. We can say that warm colors are lighter than cool colors in their natural order from light to dark.

There are two neutrals; black and white are not colors. Black results from the absence of color or light. White is a combination of all colors in light.


The third characteristic of color is intensity. Intensity is the dimension of color that tells the brightness or dullness- its strength or it's weakness. It is the property that describes the distance of the color from gray on the color wheel.

The colors in the outer circle of the color chart are full intensity because they are as bright as each color can be. As colors go down in their brightness and toward neutral gray, or no color, they are said to be dulled or low intensity.

It is easy to see the differences between vivid red and dull maroon or between a bright orange and a dull brown or beige. It is sometimes more difficult to recognize that a dusty pink is duller than a clear, fresh pink.

Tips for Combining Hues, Values, and Intensities

In summary, the three qualities of color are hue, value, and intensity. We must remember that there can be both light and dark colors in a bright or vivid group of colors and light and dark colors in a dull or subdued group of colors.

Combine Warm and Cool Color's

Contrasting colors make each other seem more intense when used together. Warm colors make cool ones seem cooler, and cool colors make warm ones seem warmer.

The duller a color becomes, however, the less power it has to make its complement look brighter. A dull color is more likely to emphasize, through repetition, other colors related to it. For example, a caramel coat (orange hue) would emphasize blond hair and creamy skin more than it would blue eyes (complementary color).

Usually unequal amounts of warm and cool colors are most pleasing because the color combination will have a unified idea of either warmness or coolness.

Combine Light and Dark Colors

Some contrast of light and dark in a color scheme is needed. Try combinations using only light colors, then try combinations rising only dark colors. Some variation in value is needed for interest.

Strong light and dark contrasts are the most striking. For example, light cream with dark brown is more striking than dark tan with medium brown.

You can make pleasing combinations by keeping the natural color in mind and combining a lighter warm color with a darker cool color.

Combine Bright and Dull Colors

Colors go together well when the quality of brightness is nearly the same. Brighter color combinations look gay, and duller ones soft and restful. Some of the very dull color combinations may appear even somber or drab.

A small amount of bright color used with subdued color can improve a color a color scheme. Combine a bright accent color with a dull colored costume. If too much bright color is used, dull colors look even duller.

New Mexico State University is an equal opportunity/affirmative action employer and educator. NMSU and the U.S. Department of Agriculture cooperating.

Reprinted May 2001
Electronic Distribution August 2001