The Colour Real

02 Mar

Learning to see color

By Sylvia O'Brien

It is debated that the average human eye can perceive up to ten million colours or more. To see colour... I mean actually see it, means that we have to learn to look, decipher and categorize it. Is it the colour of fresh lavendar, or dried lavendar? Is it an orange red, or a red orange? Chartreuse or lime? Snow or snow at dusk? In the work I do with colour I'm always looking for the colour within. It's a lot like an exercise I was given as an art student years ago – the assignment was to take a photo of what interests you, print it, turn it upside down and draw it. This was a way of removing all preconceived notions you have about the subject of the photo. In this same way I look at coloured objects and planes and isolate the colour.


The photo above is an example of what I'm talking about. The concrete ceilings were a much desired aspect of this interior. I looked past the concrete as a material and drew out the strong green/blue influence it's 'greyness' had. That helped direct the palette for the rest of the space. Predominantly pale greenish yellow (we're all sick of white walls by now) with hits of pomegranate red, clay and caramel completed the colour palette with a good balance of warm and cool colour.


Another example - working on an exterior colour palette for a local home, I wanted to paint the solid wood front door that clashed horribly with the peach brick siding. The door was red oak stained with amber varnish, giving it a strong 'orange' read. I kept referring to it as 'orange' to which the homeowner, miffed, said "it's not orange – it's wood colour..." OK, so what colour is 'wood colour'? You have to forget that it's wood and decipher the actual colour.

So, ten million colours? What each of us call a colour can vary a great deal, but overall the language of colour is something that we can all learn to speak.


This article was contributed by Sylvia O'Brien, Creative Director of Colour Theory, a Toronto (Canada) based commercial colour & design firm.

Her motto is "Colour...get it right the first time ".

She can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or through

Photo credit: 2kGrafx

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Color Objects encourages you to get a better eye and appreciation for colors and characters. To get a special selection of pics and info for you, we find designers and artists that make colorful work from all over the world. There's a lot of character in colors, and having a closer look will change your view of the world and people around you. So we share a host of pics and info from design, art, cultures and the natural world. All about colors.

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