Birren Color Theory

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Color is as much about light and perception as it is about a paintbox with labels. Color theorists have tried to break colors down and re-create them according to formulas for centuries, with mixed success.

An American 20th-century colorist, Faber Birren, spent his entire career studying, explaining and recommending uses for colors. He analyzed how master artists used color to invent special effects and mimic the infinite gradations of hues in nature. He looked at how different colors make people feel and what colors smell and sound like. Birren died in 1988, but his discoveries about color are very much alive and influential in graphic arts, manufacturing, fine art and interior design.

Pure Color, Tints and Shades

The Birren triangle is a system for changing pure color -- red, yellow and blue -- to various tints and shades. One side of the triangle is the gray scale, from white to black. The other two sides are the tints and the shades. Pure color goes at the apex of the tints and shades lines, and there is a line running from pure color to the exact middle of the gray scale line. By mixing pure color with white, you move the color into a tint, all the way from pure to white. The 50/50 midpoint of any white plus color mix is a clean tint. By mixing pure color with black you get a shade -- the midpoint of the line between pure color and black is called a clean shade. A 50/50 split between pure color and gray -- the same amount of gray as color -- is called a mellow tone.

  • Every time you add white to a color, you get a tint. 
  • Every time you add black, you get a shade. 
  • Every time you add gray, you get a tone.  

Preferences and Perception

In Birren's theory, harmony is all about the tints, tones and shades -- not bold bright colors. He asserted that artwork with those gradations was easier on the eye, and pointed to Leonardo da Vinci's painting as an example of visual harmony. Da Vinci used a combination of tint, tone and shade to color his work to create chiaroscuro, the contrast of light and shadow. Birren believed that Rembrandt's brand of chiaroscuro -- color, shade, and black -- had the same harmonious effect, as did the Impressionists' use of color, tint and white.

Warm colors, Birren wrote, are more attractive to observers than cool colors. He insisted that the color wheel give equal distance to red, yellow and blue because the two warm colors -- red and yellow -- are favored by most people and used more often by artists. In addition, Birren turned up one gender-based preferential difference in color: Women prefer yellow over orange, and men prefer orange over yellow.

Violet Oboes and Tasty Vermilion

Synesthesia is a phenomenon in which sensory input triggers more than one sense perception. Synesthetes may taste, smell, hear and feel color. But even without synesthesia, colors produce a strong reaction in people -- warm colors are welcoming and reassuring; hot colors are energetic; cool colors are calming, expanding and can make you feel cooler.

Birren conducted research into reactions to specific colors, finding that

  • Pink, orchid, lilac, aqua blue and cool greens smell good. 
  • Vermilion, orange, warm yellow, pale cool green and tan taste good, but purple, green-gray and lime-yellow do not. 
  • Violin tones are delicate as tints; red blares as loudly as a trumpet; oboe notes are violet, percussion orange and bass notes brown. 

Attention to the subtle and subconscious effects of color can make the difference between a room that is comfortable and one that feels somehow "off."

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