Screen Printing: 101

Color Theory

In screen printing we like to use a collection of principles called the "Color Theory" to logically structure color on both a visual and a psychological level. When we are choosing a t-shirt we use the color theory to determine which color shirt will best compliment the ink colors in your artwork. This allows us to create an aesthetically pleasing experience, every time someone looks at your design. Color theory encapsulates a multitude of definitions, concepts and design applications. However, there are three basic categories of color theory that are logical and useful; The color wheel, color harmony, and the context of how colors are used.


The Color Wheel



A color wheel, based on red, yellow and blue, is traditional in the field of art. In screen printing we use a version of the color wheel called a Pantone book. This allows us to proportionately mix ink colors in order to get a new desired color.  Sir Isaac Newton is responsible for our modern understanding of color. He was the first to understand the rainbow. Through extensive experimentation during the mid 1600's he created the first color wheel. Since then, scientists and artists have studied and designed numerous variations of this concept. Differences of opinion about the credibility of one version over another continue to provoke debate. In reality, any color wheel which presents a logically arranged sequence of pure hues, gets the job done.

Primary Colors - ( Red, Yellow, Blue ) Primary colors are the 3 pigment colors that cannot be mixed or formed by any combination of other colors. All other colors are derived from these 3 hues. 

Secondary Colors - ( Green, Orange, Purple ) These are the colors formed by mixing the primary colors.

Tertiary Colors - ( Yellow-orange, red-orange, red-purple, blue-purple, blue-green, yellow-green ) These are the colors formed by mixing a primary and a secondary color.

Color Harmony

In visual art, harmony is something that is pleasing to the eye. It engages the viewer and it creates an aesthetically pleasing visual experience. In screen printing we use a variety of colors that work in harmony to give your artwork maximum impact and recognition. When something is not harmonious, it's either boring or chaotic. At one extreme is a visual experience that is so bland that the viewer is not engaged. The human brain will reject under-stimulating information. At the other extreme is a visual experience that is so overdone, so chaotic that the viewer can't stand to look at it. The human brain rejects what it cannot organize, or understand. A pleasant visual experience requires that we present a logical structure. Color harmony delivers visual interest and a sense of order.

Color Context

How colors behave in relation to other colors is one of the most complex areas of color theory. Two colors, side by side, interact with one another and change our perception accordingly. The effect of this interaction is called simultaneous contrast. Since we rarely see colors in isolation, simultaneous contrast affects our sense of the color that we see. Simultaneous contrast is most intense when the two colors are complementary colors. These are colors directly opposite to each other in the color spectrum, such as red and green or blue and orange.





If your computer has sufficient color stability you will see in example 1 that the purple rectangle on the left appears to have a red-purple tinge when compared to the purple rectangle on the right. However they are both the same color. This demonstrates how three colors can be perceived as four colors.

By far the most distinguished example of simultaneous contrast is the apparent shift in lightness of identical squares, when percieved on a darker or lighter background. If the background color is darker, the central square appears lighter; if the background color is lighter, the central square appears darker. In example 2 you can see as the background becomes lighter the square in the center appears to be darker. 

Till next time, 

Stay inky my friends!

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