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Hands On: Tangrams

Lesson 13 from: Color for Designers: Exploration, Theory, & Application

Richard Mehl

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Lesson Info

13. 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?

Lesson Info

Hands On: Tangrams

for the people at home who are watching this. Um, again, if you do a Google search, you will see patterns for template our template patterns for 10 grams, and what you can do is print them out and trace them onto the back of a piece of paper and cut them out. And if you're cutting out Tang Graham shapes, you can use the scissors. You can use an Exacto knife. I like to draw on the back of the paper that I'm planning to use so that the lines that I'm using to draw with aren't you going to show up on the front? So you don't even really have to think about whether you're designing a a structural composition or a composition of movement or, ah, symbolic composition. It's kind of let it go on and see what you get. You might start off with the idea of structure, and it ends up being symbolic. Or you might start off with the idea of symbolic and ends up being about movement. It might end up being about both things. I like to stand up so you can see and stand over the top of things. So Christin...

e What do you just starting out with here? You've got red, yellow and blue. Yeah. And how would you describe that blue? It's more with you. Um, a green blue, blue, blue green way. We were talking about this yesterday. You were saying? Yeah, you know, how do you describe a color? And, uh and I told you, uh, it Johanna sit ins technique was to always use the name of the primary first and the secondary second. So if we're talking about and in between color a tertiary color, uh, so would be blue violet or blue Green. In this case, that would be sort of a blue green believe. Agree? No. Now we associated with teal um. Or perhaps there are other words that people might use to associate with that color, but ultimately, it's somewhere in between blue and green. Yeah. So the primary color name First blue. Secondary color name, Second green. Yeah, and that's true for all of the tertiary colors. Yeah, I was saying I remember the names of colors based on the box of 72 Crayola crayons I had as a kid. And it was like past me the orange, yellow or yellow orange like those were two different colors. And so I was asking, Richard, how do you like tell which one's the yellow are I mean, so we he was saying, Yeah, like the primary. But actually, that's a that's actually a good system, to, you know, to say, yellow, orange or orange Yellow implies two very different kinds of yellow orange. Yeah, so it's not the basic idea of using the primary name first in the secondary name. Second, But in some ways it's actually clearer. You know, a yellow orange is closer to yellow and orange. Yellow is close it orange a little bit more specific for our purposes. You know, if you just keep the colors named very simply, then we can think about the color wheel, which has 12 colors, as opposed to, say, 24. Your color is very dark. Yeah, very low contrast, and that's okay, too. We don't have to have high contrast. Contrast is not always extreme. That's something that maybe we didn't really talk that much about yesterday, but we did, in contrast of light and dark, So contrast can be a lot or little, so you can use colors that are very close in value. Very little contrast or contrast sieve a lot, right? So here we have kind of a low contrast composition going. You can still see the shapes, the plenty of contrast against the black, but that color is a darker color. It's a muted color. It's a dull color. Look at that beautiful triangle is you have going there. Well, that's beautiful. Very symmetrical, very structured. And what shape do you have left the triangle on medium one medium sized triangle? Look at the figure ground. So you framed that diamond shape with white, and then you have the V shaped is coming off. This idea of reading both the figure in the ground is very important. You guys familiar with It's a very popular example of a great use of figure ground in commercial practice, the FedEx logo, the arrow that exists between the D and the and once you see that you won't ever see anything else. It's a Ford driving facing arrow as part of the logo part of the design really beautiful, and it really gets you thinking about the relationship of figure and ground in graphic design, and here you have it look at how powerful the white is and how dominant a rule that plays in the competition. The ground spaces define who we are, you know, think about ourselves. Shapes were defined not just by our bodies, but spaces around us and our relationships with each other or defined by the spaces in between us. If I'm standing over there, we have a different relationship than if I am standing right next to you. So that's a religion that's an example of figure ground as well and how powerful a force that is in our lives. It stands out so much more on a white background. So it really does. Yeah, so these shapes now look at the white does of that. The shapes almost become like a dark raid. Weight has a tendency of reducing the power of a color, just the distinction between the black ground and the white ground. You can see how, uh, white reacts on how white responds to the colors of the how the colors respond to white versus black. So light colors like yellow really stand out against black, uh, light colors don't really stand out against white, but dark colors do stand out against white and white also tends to make the darker colors look a little bit different. And so here, Actually, if we take one of these shapes and we put this on the black ground and reads a little bit differently, doesn't it? We put it back on the weight ground, and it has a very different feel. Is it subtracting the color? It probably is. Yeah, it's making it look darker. Is taking the whiteness out? Thank you for bringing that out color subtraction in play. So the computer allows you to make variations very quickly. Yeah, I can't take the entire thing. So we said that this this template is going to be available. Um, but if you need to make your own template an illustrator again, it's It probably took me about 20 minutes to construct this one. It's not very hard. You can get a diagram of a template. Bring that in. You know, maybe find that on Google images. Bring it in as a template, image and illustrator, and then trace those shapes on top. Keep them each shape on its own layer an illustrator, and then you can move them around very easily. So you see how the green changes this so dramatically. Now there isn't that fight going on between the two yellows, right? The yellow is its own thing, the greenest, his own thing. And the blue is in between, and the white shapes are contributing to the sense of movement, this idea of watery. So it's a little bit of symbolism there based on color association. It's kind of interesting, right? So continuing to explore this very symmetrical design very stable symmetry usually provides that sense of stability. You know, it's usually has a very centralized point like this and access things playing off of it and every reflective way. Many, many symbols, many icons, air very symmetrical. And they they kind of give us a sense of security because they are so absolute in their composition. Soon as you move a little bit something off the symmetrical access, then we have a little bit of instability. So that idea is very expressive. Ah, you're using again some dull colors along with a very bright color over here. Yeah, kind of. I'm having trouble finding other ways other than a bright yellow to draw I first. Um, what are some other ways. You could accomplish that. Create that visual heart Cherokee of living using a really bright color like yellow. Well, perhaps, since you already have a dull pink, a dull red, maybe one of the brighter pinks up there instead of the yellow just to keep the color is very simple. They're using two colors Now. There's a sense of more of a sense of harmony in the composition. Now, we make a relationship between now, if he did the same thing with the greens, perhaps one green shapes a little bit darker than the others do not. This is nice. Definitely a just changing colors. Yeah, yeah, yeah. And that yellow piece of the side Tell us about that. Uh, honestly, I built my personal Hurston, left for base and decided This is kind of like a son over here, huh? So you need to find something some kind of a rule for that play, Right? Exactly. So the human form is is very clear. Um, some kind of has two arms, two legs, a body ahead in that one element. And this is often the case with the tan Graham to, and that's the way it's kind of a special idea and really interesting exercises. You're gonna end up with extra pieces that don't quite play a clear role in your composition. So you have to invent something for them to do, right? That's nice, Tony. I have two different greens fibre and green, vivid green and a dull green. Same thing with the magenta is a vibrant magenta and a very dull magenta. A light magenta contrast of light and dark contrast. A vivid and dull. Do you have a preference for working on a white or a black background? I don't think it depends on the on the situation. Um, now your an app designer. Yeah, right. So when you're designing for this screen, do you think about the bathroom? Color is being important. It depends on what you're doing if we're gonna be doing a lot of reading than a light background, and a bright or dark print is usually just easier to read. If you're doing other effects or things like that, like you're showing data or showing a summary, or if it's like a game or something, then you can kind of get into what's the feeling that you want people to be ableto feel that that moment comes like if you're showing a graph or something that you might do a darker background toe kind of. Let the data are things kind of pop out, but also be more visually interesting than just like normal print. And so you, depending on what kind of what's going on and the kinds of things you want to do, you might think about about the background. So I guess I'm kind of bringing that into here with with this one. I wanted this to have a little more conflict or danger, and so that led me more towards the darker background like that. This is a chase happening at night or something like that. And this one, maybe, is, uh, maybe it's someone exploring or wandering or something like that, but it's not necessarily good or bad. It's just it's just a little more more of a calm scene. So that's kind of why I picked this one. Yeah, the white is a very different kind of response, with the colors in the black right here, but I like the idea of it. Also thinking of the background color is part of the expression. So background colors are very important. Yeah. Do you black or white? Subtract out. Come from colors in the way for shades or tense. Same thing yesterday. The white is going to take out its brightness from the color. Right? So it's gonna make the colors look darker. Could the difference between these are the same colors? Right, Right. No difference is there. That square on against the white looks so much darker. And those triangles against black. Wow. Good contrast. One of my favorite combinations is like a very, very dark blue with black. And we're talking about clashing colors yesterday, and I think that Is that a fashion rule? Do you guys about wearing dark blue with black like that? Something you shouldn't do. But I do it all the time because I love that combination. I love that very low contrast of dark black against the blue. I signed this problem, this project to government problems, but a project Teoh some of my continuing studies students recently and of one of the women in the class said that she went home that night and, uh, decided since this was something I had talked about it as a kids game that she would play with her kid here, her little girl and she found a nap online to do 10 grams and they played all night and she brought in her child's designs and they were just a beautiful Is anything that you guys air creating anything I've ever seen created? No, there's, Ah, there's a kind of a universality to these designs. Anyone can do them right and you can be very, very young or very old. Still get a lot out of it. Still learn a lot about figure ground, relationships and composition and various kinds of color contrasts. And you could just have fun. So by all means, you know, if your if you're a parent and you have kids, the Tang Graham is a great game to play together. This is great to see. Look at that black square that is in between all the colored shapes talking about this area right in here. So that's using the ground to create mawr shapes, actually creating shapes out of the ground. Such an important part of design. I was like the contrast of the space around the cluster of shape, so you have a lot of space on one side and then less space on the other. So contrast of size when we're talking about composition, contrast, the size is very important. Big and small creates a sense of visual hierarchy. It also creates a more of a sense of dynamic energy to the composition, as if it's in movement to try bringing in one more color over here. She's one of those shapes and maybe flip it out with for one other color and see what happens. This is nice. So how would you describe these colors? It's more monochromatic. I wanted to make a fish there sort of a fish. You see it so the hue is blue. Yeah, and we have cool blues and warm blues. So over here we have this like a blue violet and then a blue green. And then the real blue, the sky blue that's in between. And then a light variant of that as well. It's a really nice variety of blues, and you know, when I think about any color, if I'm thinking about it as a hue that just automatically opens up the possibility that I have light and dark, warm and cool vivid and dull, and they're all part of the same hue. And it's an instant way of making color harmony, right? So if you're working with a limited palette for some reason, say you're working with a brand and the brand of the hero color is blue. You have these options, perhaps, of working with these variants. Light and dark, warm and cool, bright and dull. Yeah, so within this is really interesting because so it's all blue. It's all the same huge you were saying, but the tents and the shades air different. Are there different ways to think about or to take steps in between? Okay, within this composition, all of the tents are, you know, at this level or this level, but they're not in between or because one thing that I find is a lot of times all change things around. I'll add some shade, or I'll add some tents. And in something like Illustrator, you know, there's millions of variations, and then it just kind of ends up looking muddled. Is there any way toe think about our structure, how much contrast or the steps of contrasts you want to do within a color? It's generally considered a good idea to limit the number of steps. So typically, when we make a grayscale, we're thinking of 12 steps, including the the end pieces so white being the first and black mean the last. If you're just thinking about a grayscale and then 10 steps in between and the people who have really thought about this a lot have decided that if you go beyond that, you just end up with a lot of sort of blandness in the center right, so you can see the extremes very easily. But then, when you get to those middle tints and shades right around the center point, you know, UH, 50% gray, 60% gray, 40% gray it's really hard for us to distinguish those. That's what we kind of break it down. So perhaps limiting your tents and shades to maybe four or five arians with extremes is a good idea. If you want to create good contrast, you're really looking for low contrast. And why not play that middle zone where you're just dealing with very small amounts of contrasts in between one element in another? And when I talk about a gray scale We can instantly apply that to a monochromatic palette. Something like this. We're dealing with one Hugh variance of light and dark, warm and cool, vivid Indal. But it creates this idea of progressions, of values from light to dark, and we see contrast. I love the use of warm and cool within one Hugh. I think it's really a great alternative to light and dark light and dark always works, too, and sometimes that's all we have to work with. But being able to inject warm and cool into it just adds so much vitality and so much expression.

Class Materials

bonus material with purchase

Playing With Color - Color Design Glossary
Playing With Color - Color Wheels
Playing With Color - Leaf Collage
Playing With Color - Patterns
Color Grid Template
Tangram Template
Playing With Color - Wallpaper - 1280x800
Playing With Color - Wallpaper - 1200x900
Playing With Color - Wallpaper iPad
Playing With Color - Wallpaper iPhone

Ratings and Reviews


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.

Student Work