I Dream in Color


When I first started going to school here, I thought color theory classes were going to be boring as all get out. I mean, really. Let’s all sit around and talk about why these colors look pretty next to each other. Excuse me while I take a nap. I figured that if I wasn’t going into interior design, what the heck was I going to do with this stuff? Kind of the same way I sat through math. Like, yeah, OK, I can figure out the square footage I would need to buy if I had to put up my own chain link fence. Why should I care?

But color theory is actually very cool. You probably already know the basic idea that all colors stem from only three colors: red, blue, and yellow. They are primary because you can’t mix any other colors together and create those three colors. However, by mixing any combination of those three, you can make just about any color you can think of. You can imagine how helpful the study of color theory can be to a future tattoo artist, can’t you?

For example, there is such a thing as color harmony. That means that the colors you choose all look like they go together. The colors are all pleasing to the eye instead of warring with each other for visual attention. You have a few choices on how to accomplish this, and none of it involves how you “feel”. Colors next to each other on the color wheel work well together because they are analogous colors.  This is why yellows and greens are appealing together. Then there are colors on opposite side of the wheel from one another; these complement each other. Think purple and green. Then there are combinations you already see in nature, like the orange and white of a koi fish or the black and yellow of a bumblebee. These are color combinations that we recognize, so we like them too. Just because a tattoo is a drawing, whether it is an artist depiction of a real thing or something entirely made up, it still has to apply the idea of color harmony or it isn’t going to look good.

Another problem is that just because two colors work together on a color wheel that does not mean that they will work together well in a tattoo. You have to factor in the color of the person’s skin and how it will affect the hue of the ink. You also have to look at the color context, too. Just because orange and red are next to each other on the color wheel doesn’t necessarily mean they will look good together on someone. They may muddy each other and make your art look ill-defined. You might need something in a bigger contrast in order to make each color stand out depending on what you’re trying to do.

So it turns out color theory is actually both interesting and useful. That was a pleasant surprise. I don’t even sleep through class anymore.