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Color for Designers: Exploration, Theory, & Application

Lesson 6 of 20

Color Illusion in Practice


Color for Designers: Exploration, Theory, & Application

Lesson 6 of 20

Color Illusion in Practice


Lesson Info

Color Illusion in Practice

I talked a little bit about color illusion and Josef Albers a little bit earlier and of the relativity of color. And that's really what we're gonna be focusing on in this series of exercises this afternoon. And this is his book. Um, and we also have an IPAD app. There's a great of IPad version of the book that is available that we're gonna take a quick look at as well and maybe do some experimenting with. But this is also something that we're gonna be using cut paper for. Mainly there's the up. Okay, so this is an example of what his book looks like. And, um, it's gonna go back to this one. It's, you know, he has a lot of these experiments where we're trying to make one color. Looked like two or two colors look like one experiments with the illusion of transparency and then applications using these same kinds of color concepts in free studies with Albert's called free studies what we might just call collage or something like that. But where you're employing similar ideas of say, how to...

make yellow look different down here against the black. It has one kind of characteristic up there against the white. It has a very different kind of characteristic over there, with the different the dark sort of brownish purple and the blues again. Seeing these on different kinds of colors enables us to go back and say, Well, this is sort of a theoretical idea. Here's an actual in practice idea again. This great quote, uh, in visual perception of color is almost never seen as it really is as it physically is. Color the most relative medium in art. And that's kind of what we're here to prove this afternoon. Make one color look like to. So I showed you this before. We'll just kind of run through it again quickly. So you see the connection of the colors down below and the colors look dramatically different from one another. And there's a reciprocal relationship so that the X it's against the blue green. The dark blue green looks like the background on the pink side, and the X and the pink side looks like the background on the green side, and in fact they're the same color, and it's kind of a middle color and then make two different colors look alike. what we call subtraction of color. So those colors those two squares in the centre look very similar. They're not exact, but they're pretty close, actually did this last night. My computer. But we see that there actually two very different colors. So this is that, and that is that you see how different they look on these backgrounds. So essentially, what's happening is that the surrounding color is subtracting itself from the inside color. If you can conceptualize that, it's kind of difficult, you know, a lot of my suits. How do you subtract color? So you say Okay, light and dark, So a dark color you put that on top of it. It's attract itself, making a look later, the darkness is being subtracted from the color over here the opposite. So this color we put that on top. The lightness subtracts itself makes a look darker, so that's a very simple principle and something that you'll be experimenting with its once you are able to understand that or even conceptualize it even vaguely, it becomes a really interesting experimental tool and then eventually will go into this illusion of transparency. But we'll come to that back to that a little bit later. Um, so before we go to the interaction of color IPad, I thought I'd start just with some experiments here with paper. Yes, sure is there since there's the subtraction of colors. In addition, of course, that red plus yellow equals. Oh, so I don't think there is? No, it's, uh, it's also a little bit confusing because we can talk about additive color and subtracted color added a color being about light subtracted color being about pain. So those terms are there a little bit flexible? But there's no in this particular context. There's no addition of color, really is just this idea of color subtraction. Okay, okay. So just in terms of starting this idea and beginning to get a sense of it, um, and will do all do this experimental mainly. Together we can start with one que And since the oranges air right in front me, I'm just gonna start with that and I'm gonna start with a white board. White and black is going to give you very different effects. And what I'll do is I'll put down a dark version of dark variant of a color and a light variant of a color. Okay, maybe get this is more in the middle since and then using the square bunch. I'm just going to punch out some in between colors and place them on top again. I'm just being experimental here. I'm not really looking too hard at what I'm doing yet, cause I'm gonna be doing a lot and about trial and error. Okay. Very good. I would have a shadow there. So the idea is to try to use these colors in a way where again, this color starts to look like that, and that color starts to look like that. Is that working for anyone? You have to look at it for a little while so that inside square begins to look very different, even though it's the same color. So what I'd like you to do is choose a range of colors within a single hue and try this experiment so you'll have to backgrounds one dark and one light, and then choose an in between color that somewhere halfway in between and place it on top and see if you can get a very similar effect to what I'm doing here. You can start on a white board or a blackboard that's really up to you and always thinking about this idea that what you're doing is you're subtracting color, so the outside color is subtracting itself in the inside color. A darker color on the outside is going to make the color look lighter. Lighter color is going to make later color on the outside is going to make that center color look darker. You're really trying to find that middle color kind of like this effect, except we're doing it with squares. Albert's gives us these examples in his book, basically the same thing. You're doing a single Hugh with a color on top where the reciprocal starts to happen. So this starts to look like that, and this starts to look like this. So keep working with the center color until you really find that match. So, um, like, this is definitely too dark for that. This is looking a lot like that, but you could probably find a different middle color, so you might find one color that works better than others like, so the call around one ground might look really good, but it doesn't quite reflect the other side and it also helps a squint your eyes a little bit to reduce the kind of the visual noise around things. It, uh, squinting your eyes reduces the amount of light that you're taken in. So you're not quite seen all the exactitude of these colors and what we're doing Years we're proving the relativity of color. That color is always dependent on its neighbors. In this particular case, it's background. This is pretty close now. You can also change the background color. So what? Albert's calls pushing the backgrounds to get the desired effect. So if your background color feels like it's too dark and there's no way that that middle color is going to reach it, then try like in this case, try lighting up this color just a bit. And this is really the key to doing these Albers exercises to not get two locked into any one thing. You keep experimenting, always thinking about this concept of subtraction, always looking. Sometimes you're going to get a perfect match on one side, but then the other side is in quite right, and if you find that your hue is not working because there isn't enough, there's not in a wide enough range for you to achieve the effect, then try a different you. So sometimes you get these really dramatic results. And that's really kind of what we're looking for. This initial exercise where you're just working with one Hugh is just the tip of the iceberg. When it comes to Albers a Z, we progress through this. Now we're going to start to change the backgrounds and change the foreground color. So we're not just dealing with one Hugh anymore. Wow. That's can you see this green one over here? This is pretty fantastic. Are those really the same colors? Well, that's amazing. That's really good. Look at how different they look. Beautiful. Really good example. What would you call this color? Sort of, I guess. Like a really great line. Bright line. Yellow, green, yellow green. Absolutely. And very vivid. Very vivid. You started out with this one, and that didn't work, so I searched. This is a really good one. Very beautiful. Nice job. So you can see the principle in action here Subtraction. The dark ground subtracted itself from that making a look later, Lake around subtracted itself from this making look darker So we know that this idea of subtraction works really well with light and dark. But that's one thing. It does. Yeah. That's pretty good. Yeah. So, actually, the longer I stare at this one, the better it gets. Really? You do have to stare these a while in order for the effect to to take place. Yeah, that's definitely I mean, they look so different from each other for sure. Are you done? I couldn't. You definitely have this going. So in order to make this look more like that background, you have to dark in this ground slightly. Now that's gonna change this a little bit, but that's what I would try. He made a slightly darker ground, and that's really what this is all about. It's about experimenting, working with colors, figuring out what you have to do in order to kind of solve the problem. How we doing on the home front? Good. We got some interesting questions coming in that a question from Sam Houston is just reiterating rather than question, but saying the effect of color subtraction is affected by ambient lighting. Is that correct? Absolutely. Yeah. Yeah. Lady makes a big difference. It's like looking at colors at night versus looking at them there in the day, looking at colors and shadow. So for this, it doesn't really matter what light you're looking at. A zoo Long is the latest clear and flat, um, and similar across so shadows tend to be problematic if they're only covering up half. But ideally, you're looking at, you know, with even light over the entire surface. Yeah, me of like that water experiment where you put your hand in cold water and hot water. And then you put both of those fingers in the warm one and they change temperatures. Well, the one that you put in the hot water feels like cold water and then code feel like reminding me that in fact, Albers refers to that in his book as an analogy for this. So it's actually good that you brought that up. Thank you. That's perfect. It's kind of like that. It's, um, you know, making one thing seemed like to all right. And it has to do with our the way we sense things in this case are visual senses and our color sense. Now does this. Does this exercise typically work better with colors that are less or more vivid, like like the one of here. There's a little more grey, it looks like in there. Yeah, that's center color. You know, once you get into two different grounds, like right now you're working with a monochromatic palette. All one Hugh. Soon as you get into two different grounds complementary grounds, then you're finding that center color still. But that center color is not going to be like the other colors. It's kind of going back to what is the mixture of these two colors in a little bit, what you were doing, right?

Class Description


  • Effectively select and apply color to enhance your design projects
  • Utilize color theory language to justify your design decisions
  • Expand beyond preconceptions and your comfort zone in working with color


Our response to color comes from the place in our brain where trust, loyalty, behavior, and decision occur – every successful project relies on a designer making smart choices about color.

In Color for Designers: Exploration, Theory, & Application, Richard Mehl will give you a foundational understanding of color theory principles and demonstrate how to apply them. Richard has studied alongside design legends Paul Rand, Bradbury Thompson and Herbert Matter; in this class he’ll share insights gleaned from 12 years of teaching and writing about color in design.

Richard takes an accessible approach to the serious study of color theory for designers. You’ll be exposed to a relevant series of ideas and skills by exploring a range of analog and digital projects.

  • Color terminology and meaning
  • How to view color in context
  • Contrast grids and color illusion
  • Tips for creating a harmonious color palette

In Color for Designers: Exploration, Theory, & Application you’ll develop a new awareness and sensitivity to color that will bolster your confidence in your personal and professional design work.


This class is for designers and color aficionados of all levels working across various media, ranging from floral design to user experience design. It is also an appropriate refresher in color theory for experienced designers.


Richard Mehl has taught two-dimensional design, color theory and typography at the School of Visual Arts for over 12 years. His students have gone on to become successful, award-winning designers and art directors for prestigious design studios, including Bloomberg, New York Magazine, Pentagram, The Guardian, The New York Times and Sagmeister & Walsh. Mehl received an MFA in graphic design from Yale School of Art, where he studied with graphic design legends Paul Rand, Bradbury Thompson and Herbert Matter, design educators Alvin Eisenman and Inge Druckrey, type designer Matthew Carter, and information design expert Edward Tufte. He is the author of Playing with Color: 50 Graphic Experiments for Exploring Color Design Principles (©2013 Rockport Publishers). Mehl lives with his family – wife Alicia and Sheldon the Pug – and carries on a graphic design practice in Chelsea, New York.


  1. Why Study Color?

    Most designers have an intuitive understanding of color drawing from cultural associations, experimentation, and experience; why study color specifically when intuition alone can guide your color choices? Why is color the most relative medium in art and what consequences does this have for design? What is the role of trial and error in working with color? Richard addresses the implications of studying basic color theory.

  2. Natural Awareness of Color & Playing

    We all associate certain colors with specific ideas or objects; this is the foundation of color symbolism. How do you move beyond day-to-day awareness and a basic understanding of what looks “good” together? How do you develop a well-trained “eye” for color? Richard introduces the concept of learning through play and exploring geometric composition.

  3. Colors and Their Relationships

    How did we arrive at the modern day color wheel? Richard reviews the evolution of traditional color theory, from cave paintings to Sir Isaac Newton to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Expand your vocabulary beyond primary colors and secondary colors, as Richard touches on concepts he will expand upon in following lessons.

  4. Color Contrast of the Color Wheel

    What types of contrast can we explore through color? Richard introduces a color grid activity and discusses the properties of different colors. He demonstrates how to create color harmony through the use of “color chords” and pairing complementary and split complementary colors.

  5. Hands On Color Grids

    Watch as live students experiment, assembling their color grids highlighting various contrasts. Richard clarifies common confusions and dives deeper into color theory. How do you use relationships of proportion to create balance, stability, and order in your work? Why do we see certain color combinations in branding? How are designers like hunters and farmers?

  6. Color Illusion in Practice

    Richard introduces the concept of color illusion, demonstrating how colors interact based on their surroundings. How can you trick the eye? What consideration should you give to a background when working with different hues?

  7. Interaction of Color Practice - Part 1

    How do you make one color look like two? Join Richard’s students in manipulating the eye and experimenting with color subtraction. Richard gives tips for working with complementary colors.

  8. Interaction of Color Practice - Part 2

    How do you make two different colors look alike? Learn how to guide your audience’s perception with informed color choices. Richard discusses the implications of color illusion in graphic design.

  9. Illusion of Transparency

    Learn how to create the illusion of color transparency through the manipulation of analogous colors. Practice playing with warm colors and cool colors in a trial and error process to enhance your color awareness.

  10. Hands On Free Study Experiment

    Apply your color theory learnings thus far in a free study experiment, combining color concepts and focussing on the process of exploration. Richard’s students in the CreativeLive studio share how color theory applies to their roles and design experiences.

  11. Color in Action: Designer Pablo Delcan

    Meet Pablo Delcan, independent graphic design studio owner, and learn how he has applied color theory knowledge to his work across various media, including book covers, illustrations, and animations. Pablo shares his approach and thought process behind design decisions, as well as advice on designing for clients.

  1. Color in Design: Tangrams

    Less is more: the simplicity of tangrams offer endless exploration of color and its expressions. Richard shares examples of tangram compositions exploring stability, balance, movement, symbolism, and visual contrast.

  2. Hands On: Tangrams

    Join Richard’s live students and explore with tangrams; work to create multiple contrasts and experiment with a limited color scheme. Richard discusses the figure and ground relationship and gives advice on working with tints and shades. He clarifies the vocabulary of tertiary colors: is it blue-green or green-blue?

  3. Hands On: Leaf Composition

    Explore color relationships with organic shapes in this lesson, as Richard leads you in an activity creating compositions with pressed leaves. Students explore creating visual hierarchy with high contrast and Richard gives tips for working with leaves.

  4. Expression of Color & Opposites - Part 1

    How can you use form and color to express ideas? In this lesson, Richard introduces the next activity: expressing opposing concepts as a diptych, or two compositions working as one. Bring theory to practice and explore the true expressive power of color.

  5. Expression of Color & Opposites - Part 2

    Part of developing a trained “eye” for color is repeated play - creating without the pressure of a message or deadline. Watch as live students’ original ideas shift and they justify the decisions they’ve made while creating their diptychs. Richard shares this starting point with his work: does he start with form or color in design?

  6. Learning from the Masters

    Delve into what Matisse called “drawing with scissors” as Richard prefaces the next activity exploring expressions of color. Richard shares his students’ past work investigating the relationship between figure and ground with paper cut-outs. How do you work with a limited or monochromatic color scheme? What is the distinction between graphic design and advertising?

  7. Hands On: Cut Paper Illusion

    Watch as Richard’s students work in real-time applying color theory concepts, their pieces evolving with feedback. Richard gives invaluable tips for sourcing ideas, best practices, working with cliches, and moving beyond predictable compositions.

  8. Everyday Found Color 2

    In this lesson, Richard’s live class dives into a collaborative color wheel piece. Where can we find color in everyday objects and even in what we eat? Richard pushes you to embrace and think beyond traditional color associations. He introduces the model of the “color sphere” to expand our understanding of hues, tints, and shades, and discusses color systems, additive color, and subtractive color.

  9. Colors in Nature with Rachel Gregg

    Look at floral design in a completely new way, as Richard invites Rachel Gregg, floral designer and CreativeLive team member to share how color theory concepts apply to creating floral arrangements. Rachel shares designs based on palettes and her experience designing for varied clientele. Richard closes the session with takeaways.



The course was great. Richard was a very good teacher, appreciating the students’ work and helping them expand and improve on it. I learned from that alone. I feel more confident in choosing colors, and hope to bring a greater sense of fun to my design work. Thanks again.


How wonderful to have such an experienced, thoughtful teacher, who takes educating others so seriously. The depth and breadth of his teaching skill is matched by his knowledge of the subject. I studied art in school, own some of the color books he recommends, and learned far more than I thought possible. And he does it all in such a kind, affirming, supportive way. What a calm guide. How lucky are we to have access to a class with him!

Joe Loffredo

I was concerned that I wouldn't like watching everyone work, but I found that it was the best part! It allowed you to see Richard's lessons being put into action by the various students, each of which is talented in their own right. And Richard is great. Knowledgeable, intelligent, and supportive, he's got the attributes a great teacher should have. I'm a painter, not a designer, but the class really helped me a lot. When I go back to the canvas, it will be with a much deeper understanding of color, and how colors interact with each other.