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Color for Designers: Exploration, Theory, & Application

Lesson 14 of 20

Hands On: Leaf Composition


Color for Designers: Exploration, Theory, & Application

Lesson 14 of 20

Hands On: Leaf Composition


Lesson Info

Hands On: Leaf Composition

these photographs were sent to me by my friend Paul from New York on Thank you for those ball. Um, some photographs he shot, I think in Hiss Courtyard. A couple of leaves and we have piles of leaves that have come to us from New Hampshire, the home of the leaves, home of all good leaves and leave compositions again. We go back to Joseph Albers. He originated this idea, at least in in terms of how I think about leave compositions. They're so playful. And they are organic shapes. Right? So you've been dealing with geometric shapes, So now you start to deal with organic shapes. The same rules apply. You're gonna be thinking about figuring ground. You're going to be thinking about structure, movement, perhaps ideas based on abstract symbolism, expressions. That way you're working with colored grounds, perhaps black, perhaps white. But also, you can maybe pick up some of these pieces of color, integrate those into the composition as well. Another thing to think about is, um well, here we ha...

ve a pattern, a repeating form of very, very similar leaves in the background and then one leaf that stands out. It's like an anomaly so it really creates a sense of visual hierarchy. Your eye goes straight to that point because it's different. Here we have a grid. Something like this is not gonna be possible constructed A. So it's so precise and you guys aren't going to be gluing anything down again. You're kind of moving things around, but feel free to work with other kinds of shapes that you make out of paper. You might even integrate some of these geometric shapes into the composition, so you have a combination of geometric and organic, which is a beautiful kind of contrast. When we're talking about composition, you can take a leaf and shatter it, crumple it up and make a texture a little pile of leaves. Tauron paper edge very similar to the edge of a leaf. Right. So organic shapes here, real organic shapes. Now there's we talk about our gang shapes, but look at how kind of geometric that leaf is. What do we have here? A triangle, Another triangle here in here, similar to the 10 gram triangles. So we have a little bit of geometry and structure perfectly centered. These angles kind of go here and here, so various very structural. And then this beautiful wave form in the background. And this is, ah, work from my students at SV A. And thanks to them for providing these great examples contrast of texture something we haven't really talked about but very important. When we get into something like leave compositions because leaves have textures. So take a piece paper crumple it up, right. And then the background paper which is very smooth The composition, contrast, contrast of large and small contrast the size contrast of direction horizontal, vertical contrast of texture Feel free to cut the leaves up. You don't have to use them whole. You can also just use the leaves themselves to making composition on Lee leaves Put the leaves in some kind of interesting order. And they your thinking about the colors of the leaves and how they contrast each other. And I showed you this yesterday. I actually have the real thing with me right here. Well, this is good. Okay, good. I don't know if we can see this or not. If there's too much glare on it. Um, yes, I she let this all the way from New York. Here it is, Ah, and this leaf again. It looked very, very, very different when I made the composition, Uh, 10 years ago now, but look out, has changed. So again, if you're putting together leave compositions, you can glue them down just like you glue everything. Actually, thes pieces in here are not even glued in place there, pressed in place with the glass. So they're held in place just by pressure. And these leads will change over time. And it's super fun to watch them change. And the best treatment is on. It might, for those of you home if you don't have them, uh, the best idea is to take the leaves. Ultimately, if you're going to use him in a composition, is they want to last flatten them out in a book. It's like we're taught when your kids how to save leaves. You put them inside of book. Uh, you happen to have an old copy of Yellow Pages or something like that? I know that's not something we have a lot of around anymore, but a thick book Slip them inside. They won't damage the pages. It's funny. I go through books at home and I'll find leaves that put in books from years ago. Oh, that's a nice one. And the nice thing is that once they're inside a book, they're not exposed to light, and they're actually exposed to very little air, so they don't change very much. They'll lose a little bit of their color, but they stay very intact. The thing that tends to deplete leaves of their color is light. So if you have it in the bright light like this thing has been Saudi, sitting out on my desk for years and years has changed dramatically. But you can keep the leaves very stable in color by putting them in books. And then when you do, put them into your compositions again. If you want them to last, you can coat them with some kind of a sealant, like much bajaj or a varnish of some kind, and that will protect them, which you don't have to do that. Okay, so you all have piles of leaves in front of you. This is just a gray board. It's kind of a nice, more of a natural board, and I'm gonna take a piece of the cholerae that we happen to have here, and it's going to slip it behind. Look at that contrast that happens soon as I put this in back changed dramatically. If I take the contrast in color, we know know that blue is the complement of orange. It'll slip that and back. It's a little bit of transparency here with this leaf is well, everyone's going, Oh, no, don't cut it. Feel free to grab anything you want. Splitting the colors. Yeah, you has integrated. Yeah, like a little grainy in. So here you're working with organic shapes, very different from geometric shapes, So that's a great compositional exercise contrast of organic and geometric. Since leaves are generally red and orange at this time of year, there's a couple of green leaves out here is, Well, there's a complementary contrast of red and green that's possible. So maybe that's something to playoff contrast of light and dark, with dark variants of leaves, late leaves even leaves that have variations, as Christine was saying, Variations within the leaf. But what you just did, What is it really kind of interesting. So a leaf has two sides right there has a vivid side and dull side. We have contrasts of saturation, vivid and dull. So feel free to play with that. This leaf I cut up here when this has I don't know if this has much variety between the front and the back. Oh, yes, it does a little bit. Oh, this is it Really has a lot. Are you? Use this now. I couldn't go ahead. Sure. Yes. So, yeah. You see the front in the back of leaf contrast of light and dark. Contrast or saturation. Vivid. Very rich color vs Very, very dull color. Yes. So you're thinking about the different kinds of contrasts. So, like dark, vivid adult, Do you Are there any rules around how many different contrasts you want to have in one composition before it starts? Look chaotic. Do you want to just focus on one pick one contrast or can you have a whole bunch of them? You can have multiple contrasts. Of course, the more limited you are, the more your decisions they're going to be, I guess also limited. So the fewer decisions you have, the more precise those decisions have to be right. So if you only have three elements in a competition as opposed to 20 If you have 20 elements in a composition, maybe one or two things can be off. It's not really gonna matter very much if you have three elements, the position and the arrangement has to be perfect and so you have to be very precise about it. So I'm always into this idea of reduction and there's a philosophy of design that's totally rooted in this. Right? So you add an ad, an ad until you're satisfied that you've added enough. And then you take away and you take away and you take away until you can't take anything more away. You've taken away as much as you can and then you've lost. If you take away too much, you lose. Thean trist, you lose the energy of the peace. So that's a good idea to employ when you're thinking about contrast. A lot of contrast tons and tons and tons of contrast, kind of yield, you know, contrast it all. You don't even see the contrast anymore. You limit the known number of contrasts and elements and you start to really see that contrast so it comes alive so you can use that to your advantage. If you want to hide the idea of contrast. You can put in a lot, which seems kind of backwards, right? Like you're adding contrast to actually deactivate the effective it with lots and lots and lots of contrasts. But if you have just two elements right, light and dark, large and small, vivid and dull, you're really going to see those contrast dramatically. Even if they're very subtle contrast, you'll see it. That's beautiful. Look at the contrast here from here to here. Very nice. A lot of contrast. Gorgeous color. Feel free to overlap the leaves. Use the front of leaf. Used the back of leaf. Don't get too hung up on the formal. Always be thinking about the figure in the ground. Integrate the grounded of this experience as well and feel free to use colored paper. In addition believes and you're doing that flipping. So you have dark on top late on the bottom, late in the bottom, dark on the top and look at that beautiful space there, right. Once you clue into this idea of figure and ground in destructive design, those spaces it changes the way you think about composition, and you'll see this when you go to museums and galleries. You'll see artists. They're always aware of these ideas. They're not just thinking about the shapes in the forms. They're always thinking about the ground and how the two things work together. Yes, some of the leaves are very dramatic in terms of their contrast. That is one of the small little things of life that you miss being on the West Coast. We don't get this kind of really mileage where we do, but not to the same degree in any stretch. You know, autumn or fall is very, very quick, and most of the trees here are evergreens, so we don't get this wonderful color. I've had students who, uh, who, for whatever reason, they don't get a chance to go to the woods. They don't have access the leaves there, too lazy to go to Central Park. Whatever they will use dried up parts of cut flowers. You can do the same exact thing. Um, you can press those pedals from a rose and two pages in a book and no flat, no very nicely leaves from cut flowers, various parts of things. So it's all organic materials. You can use all of these things are all part of that. Students always at the experiment with different kinds of glues to. So if you're gluing leaves down, obviously a glue stick is not gonna be great because you probably end up crushing the leaf. So you want a a liquid glue something you can pace a, uh, brush on, perhaps like rubber cement works really well, just for gluing things down. Maybe. Ah, fabric glue like Sobel Glue or J glue. That's a bookbinders glue. I will work also, Elmer's glue will work just fine, but some kind of a liquid glue that's not going to destroy the leaf in the process of actually gluing it. Now, what are the natural materials? Do you like working with other natural materials? Definitely. Would. Uh huh. Yeah, this summer, my wife and I were spent a couple weeks on north end of the north shore of Long Island, and there I was looking for pieces of wood on the beach. You know that I could bring home nice pieces of weathered wood. I love that stuff. Uh, my wife collect shells, cockle shells. We have big jars of these things around the house and They're beautiful. That warrants. I love that. Just looking at these cockle shells and charges. Lovely. Um, I would, but it shells are beautiful shells. A beautiful discover so many wonderful shapes. Absolutely color. If you have the means to take, ever take like a papermaking workshop You can integrate a lot of these materials natural materials into the papers you make, which is kind of a nice experience because you end up with something that is very tangible as, ah, element in a collage, a piece of paper. It has natural materials embedded into it. I also like more natural kinds of paper. Now, where some of the students are using chipboard, which is just kind of an unfinished paper. It hasn't been bleached. It hasn't been colored. It's been cleaned up a little bit. Uh, cardboard is great, you know? Just pieces of cardboard that you might get in. A package has been delivered to you rather than recycling it, cut out the flat panels. You might use them in a composition someday. I'm very interested to ask Christine his our teaching system today. Christine, Yesterday when we were working with the squares, you were very, very precise. and you'd like things very neat. And you, Elsie, you're very familiar with illustrates. How does working a less structured medium work for you? Well, it's I was telling Richard I love how uneven the color is like It's so it's so nice to look at. But of course I'm still lining everything. Now you got taking symmetrical these background colors perfectly split down the middle. And I have to find the leaf that was a similar size like cut in half. And so so you could still be dedicated to structure. Yeah, and kind of a disciplined response to design. Yeah, but bringing these elements into it and you're dealing with contrast, organic and geometric. Yeah, The unpredictability of the shapes is fun. There's kind of ah natural order to these leaves. To you, they are pretty symmetrical. I mean, there's slight variations to them, but you see, they have a center access their kind of try and gather the figure Ground relationships are very, very clear, So using them in a symmetrical composition like this is almost like a natural response. So when you terribly, if it actually looks like a leaf like another leave. Yeah. Do you ever do that thing when you're making a composition and you'll use your hand or your thumb to cover up parts? Yeah, you do this and you can do that right? So you have. You can put something down and then covered up with your thumb and immediately you don't integrate it into the competition anymore, and you can kind of see without disrupting what you've done, what it would look like without it. And then you go in and teacher. So one of the directives that Albert's gives us when he's thinking about leaves is not just settle for the leaf itself, but also maybe manipulations of the leaf so you could paint the surface and press it onto a piece of paper and get an impression of a leaf. I put a little bit of ink on it, or maybe just some house paint. You can also paint the leaf itself and use that in a composition. So look at these spaces. Perhaps you can think about that arrangement in those shapes on the inside, relating in some way to the shapes of the leads. I love the complementary relationship of these two so yellow, green and red violet are natural. Complements which other? And that's kind of what you have expressed right there. As long as the leaves don't change, that's what they're gonna look like. She's gonna nice. Then contrasts a vivid and dull so very, very vivid colors here, del close here with the backs of the leaves and then the stems of the leaves. Look at how that actually brings in a line element something we really haven't talked about this concept of ah, point line in claim. So many compositions, many drawings, photographs, uh, things that we see in everyday life are composed of points, which is really just a dot a line, which is some people will say, I think was Paul Klee, who originally I mediated this idea of, um, original, while also the director of my program at SV. I always talks about this Is that, um a line is a dot that went for a walk. I like that idea, right? This like this and then a plane which is basically a a surface that is bounded by lines. So if we think of our compositions as being about that idea of points and lines and planes that really gives us a lot of things to work with. A lot of things that think about and those stems on the lease act as natural lines. So we have planes. We have lines we might even have points within. A point is not honestly a. This adopt a small dot appoint can also be a big dot the singular element that attracts our attention. So when I talk about this, we we can think of playing with color. Yes, we're definitely playing with color. But World's playing with form, playing with form and color, which is most often the case when we're making designs. So you're actually developing complimentary relationships? Yeah, so purple and yellow, red and green, orange and blue. It's a nice idea using, uh, those complementary contrast to create your composition. Dude, have Dr the concept of strategy of your composition. Do you like the geometric shapes in the background? Yeah, that's amazing. That's one leaf, right? Right. Wow. So sometimes a leaf itself is just so good and that itself it's just all by itself. But I love what you've done with it to the interplay of green and green and magenta and purple, and then these ground spaces in between. Very beautiful. So as an app designer, I keep going back to this. I mean, use it. You know, we think about computers, and I've talked about how the precision is so possible. And, uh, no, that idea of imprecision is something you really have to try hard on the computer to get. Do you think there's room for that in computer design and app designed to bring in organic shapes? Yeah, well, it's interesting. There's There's definitely both kinds of styles. I think recently in the past couple years has been pushed towards mawr. Simple shaves, simple, simple shades and things like especially on mobile, specifically. But then so you see a lot of like, if you take one area, it's a specific example, like icons. Just that I come that you tapping open something, this kind of two main families that I could think of. One is just the very simple colors. Maybe it'll be two or three colors, and it's just looks very flat, and it's kind of all the same tent, and that's just kind of the icon for. But then there's others that are overly stylized, overly organic. It almost looks like they you want to kind of make it look like some other kind of objects, like you want it to look like a little like a like a baseball field that's been turned into an icon or like a safer a vault or something that's been that's very painted in lots of colors and looks like he took some kind of were real world objects and shoved it into a little shape. So you definitely do kind of see both of those. I like that idea. You think about like a mobile phone, um, an IPhone or something like that. So you have your hand, which is an organic shape, and the rectangle the sitting on top of it. And then what's on the screen is another, perhaps an organic shapes. So you go from organic to geometric, back to organic, kind of interesting.

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.