Developing An Eye For Color Through Exercise

While I can’t proclaim to have read through dozens of books about color, the few I have read, all mention different exercises you can do to practice working with color and develop a better eye for it.

In my own foolishness I’ve generally ignored the advice and the exercises. For some reason they feel like homework, which I was never too excited to do. However I’m coming to realize how important they are if I want to improve my ability to work with color.

Example from a color exercise making a single color look like 2 different colors
A single color (#80c5c9) looks like two colors based on different backgrounds (#998fa7 left and #50d8d8 right)

Theory, Practice, and Directed Exercises

This is something I want talk about more later in the week, but let me offer some brief thoughts about theory, practice, and directed exercises.

  • Theory — Teaches based on the experience of others and shows the big picture.
  • Practice — Teaches based on your experience and leads to deeper understanding while training you physically to do.
  • Directed exercise — Uses the experience of others to direct your experience. It’s a bridge between theory and practice and aims to give you benefits of both.

At times I’ve been good about following the exercises offered in books on a particular subject. For example typing out all the code in development books. Color has not been one of those subjects.

However, something clicked with my recent reading and I’m now realizing the benefits of performing different exercises to apply theory and gain personal experience at the same time.

Interactions of Color

Josef Albers is a name you’ve possibly heard before. He was an artist and teacher who explored color relationships. Interactions of Color is his famous work and I happen to own an abridged version from a number of years ago.

Albers believed a person’s ability to work with color could be improved through practice and exercise and naturally designed many color exerices to helps his students work more effectively with color.

A couple of years ago I read through my copy of Interatcions of Color. Unfortunately I read it more as a way to increase my theoretical knowledge of color instead of what it was intended for and so didn’t get from it what I should have. It’s something I’m looking to change in the near future.

One thing that’s held me back in working through exercises in books like this one is they look at subtractive color systems where color is produced by the reflection of light not absorbed. That’s by no means a fault of the books. That’s the color system they were dealing with. However, on the web we work with an additive system where we see the color based on the light produced and not reflected.

I know I’m more likely to follow the exercises if they can be made to work with the tools I’m more likely to have and use.

Impetus for a Color Tool

When I showed you the simple color tool I developed a couple weeks ago there was something I didn’t tell you. I didn’t really share what inspired me to build it in the first place. The impetus was to help with a color exercise I’d read about.

The exercise has two parts. First is to collect anything you think uses interesting color combinations and keep it in some kind of sketchbook. Take photographs, clip magazine images, capture screenshots of websites. The idea is this will help train yourself to observe color and recognize color relationships that work well.

The second part of the exercises involves creating color palettes based on what you’ve collected. However, instead of using a tool to find the exact colors in the images you’ve collected, you create them independently.

Using colored pencils, pantone swatches, colored paper samples, or parts of other images you try to recreate the palettes from the collected color combinations. While you do, make notes about why you think the palette is successful and how it might be used to solve a design problem.

If you maintain your sketchbook and allow it to be a work always in progress, it should become your own personal reference guide to color relationships.

Since, I’m not the type to carry around color swatches or tear images out of magazines I thought why not develop a tool that would allow me to work this exercise digitally. I wanted something simple that used HSL to set colors. Next thing I knew I was working on a tool to help with this particular exercise.

At the moment I’m grabbing screenshots of the palette I create and later comparing it to the actual colors in the image I’m trying to match. Down the road I think it would be great if the tool could store both image and palette, allow for notes, and make it easy to come back to everything.

Color Exercises

In an effort to improve my skills with color I think some time should be devoted each week to different color exercises and exploration.

My original intention for this post was to share a some of the color exercises with you, but I’m still searching for which exercises I want to add to my routine. That’s what I get for trying to do too much during a busy week or two.

Because I haven’t had a chance to choose the exercises and work them into my routine, I’ll have to save that talk for another time. I can however provide you a couple links where you’ll find lots of different color exercises to try.

If you search using the words color and exercise(s) and you’ll find plenty more.

Summary

It’s taken more time than it should, but I’m finally realizing that improving my color skills will require more critical observation of color relationships along with practical exercises designed to help in those observations.

I plan on incorporating some exercises into my weekly routine, though I haven’t yet had the time to figure out which exercises. I’m talking about it here in order to make a commitment and hopefully to convince you doing something similar is a worthwhile pursuit assuming you’d also like to improve your color skills.

While this post has specifically focused on color, the realization I had evolved into something more general. Later in the week I’ll share some thoughts about the value of learning through directed exercises. It’s something I think has often been a missing ingredient in my self education.

Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.

4 comments

  1. My mom trained as a graphic and interior designer in the 80s. I was young and didn’t pay a lot of attention to what she was doing, but I remember she did a lot of the types of exercises you’re describing. I was lucky that some of it sunk it and that she was more than happy to give me advice when I hit design walls. I just want to thank you for giving me that memory and reminding me to thank Mom for teaching me the importance of color.

    • Don’t you wish you had paid attention to all those things you never paid attention to growing up? :) I look back all the time and think why wasn’t I listening more.

      Pretty cool that your mom trained as a designer and can offer help and advice now.

  2. Having an eye for the best color combination is a talent I think. However, we all have the opportunity to enhance this. As a designer, we also learn from other designer. We have an eye for the best color scheme, when you learned to appreciate your co designer’s work.

    • I agree. I think working with color comes natural for some people, but it’s a skill we can all improve through observation and practice. I’m still learning and practicing and hopefully improving my skills with color.

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