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Color for Designers: Exploration, Theory, & Application

Lesson 9 of 20

Illusion of Transparency


Color for Designers: Exploration, Theory, & Application

Lesson 9 of 20

Illusion of Transparency


Lesson Info

Illusion of Transparency

So we're continuing. Along with Albers, exercises were moving away from a very difficult first exercise of trying to make one Colors like to try to make two colors look like one. And just for everyone who's at home don't get just to discourage because it takes a long time to assimilate that information. It takes a long time, a lot of practice to get it right. Just carry on with it. I think this next thing we're gonna do is a little bit more fun, Uh, immediate for me. Immediate fund. And it's the illusion of transparency. And, um, this is my book, by the way, a little plug for this playing with color. Um, so we see what's going on here and again. This is direct from Albers. He kind of invented this idea and what we're looking at, or two parent colors and an in between color. And it's all about illusion. There's no transparent colors here at all. It's not about this being a transparent ink on this being a transparent, even them. Somehow mixing is truly is seeing colors with your eyes clo...

sed, trying to find that middle color. Now you've already done that. You've tried to find the middle color, but here we're working with something else. It's more of a dimensional experience. So when we see these two colors together against a background, we're trying to create this illusion of transparency by finding a middle color that gives us that illusion. All right, from there, we're gonna move on. Yeah, to something a little bit different, Um, something where there's spacial illusion where we used the transparency effect to create the of the appearance of things emerging and receding. So, for example, when I look at this, I don't really get a sense of one color being in front of another. But they're intersecting somehow. They're just against this black background, kind of equally important. This is that and this being somewhat in the middle. Now I look at that and do you others agree that it kind of looks a Ziff? ITT's ambiguous as to what's in front and what's in back. Yeah, so one way you can when you're working with the illusion of transparency, you're trying to find this middle color. If you want to create that effect where the middle color doesn't create this a spatial delusion that is this being in front of this being a back or this being in front of this being a back then you look for equal contrast in these edges. That's really the key. Let's try to find equal contrast between these two colors and between these two colors. When we get to this effect is a little bit different here. We're actually going for colors that seem to emerge and colors that recede. So when you look at this, what part of the cube do you think is emerging blue, red and blue, Everyone agree, or the other way so you can actually shift your eyes, right? So is actually you could bounce back and forth, depending how you look at it, right? But the key is these two colors over here again. These are mixture colors. Right now, we all know that if you mix ready yellow, the other get orange. And if he makes these blue, green and blue together, you get something in between another very inter bluegreen. And to get to that point, we start with this and we're gonna be doing this will experiment with these ideas of just pushing colors in a way that creates a spacial illusion. It's kind of interesting that way. And then eventually you might actually get to this level of complexity where you've got several colors overlapping. I don't know if we'll get there today, because this is pretty complex. Actually call this transparency and visual narrative, because when you get with this many colors, when you have this many colors going, you actually create a little drama between the colors and you have to control every single color. So there's many, many, many variations and maybe variables in something like this. So today we'll probably be sticking to these things. So we're gonna be working on something like this, and this is really, um it's pretty much right out of Albers book. More or less, it's my own color scheme, but again, picking up on the same colors I've been using along to demonstrate these illusions. But I think we all agree that the top band is on top and that on the bottom it's a little bit more ambiguous. Although it looks like that pink band is going behind and then in the middle, we're not quite sure where it is. Maybe in front, maybe in back so That's what we're really talking about with spacial illusion. Yeah, and we can flip it now. The green on top. Banfi feels like it's front. The pig looks like from the back. And then as we move down to the bottom, the pink definitely emerges forward. The green goes to the background, and that's all accomplished by changing these colors. Right? That's what we'll be doing. And again, this is something you can do on the IPad with the elders up. It's poor with colored paper. We're just gonna be working with colored paper right now, though. Okay, so let's get this started. Um, I think initially we're going to try this experiment. So maybe Christine, why don't you sit there and you could just choose to Colors will call parent colors to contrast in colors. If you want, you can choose. Colors are very similar, but maybe something a little bit different. You guys can certainly try, man any time because this is gonna be a bit of a collaborative project up here. And you can work on a white ground or a background. I'd say work on a white ground. First, it's going to give you a little bit more effective transparency. So I'll try toe copy the colors that you have on the bus. Okay? Do they? Sure. Something similar. Okay, lighter green. But something that's really quite blue. Something blue. Let's go with something different. Let's go with Redd's about a red and a green, perhaps the screen right here. Okay. Okay. So when you guys see these colors, what do you think the middle color should be? What do you think? The mixture of those who way sort of have compliments there, Right, Complementary colors. So let's look for something that would resemble the middle color. So it's going to be some kind of a chromatic gray, something that's a mixture of those two colors. And if we just put these things at an angle like this and perhaps cut a corner and again, we're just gonna quickly do this, So that's the effect we want. But that's not the red color. So let's try to find another color. But basically we're just doing this. Another one. Let's give this a try. It literally is trial and error. I'm so scared of cutting. It's a lot of this has to do with the arrangement colors need to look at the two background colors. Need to look like they're intersecting. So now this middle color needs to be somewhere in between these two. So typically what's happening is that it's darker than one and lighter than the other. Yeah, Somewhere in between, this is still not quite doing it. This is actually pretty good. And we could start changing this background color tudo. Maybe try to suit that. Yeah, very close down. But it might get us in the right direction, so it's like this just made it. Do you think of that? You think this is believable? Yeah. Can you see that, everyone squint? Yeah, sort of believable because that's what we're doing Trying to create the illusion of transparency by finding that middle color again. This is all about developing your awareness of color, trial and error. So for this one for the that's great, really nice for the shade. Are you Actually, Are you actually trying to find the lighter darkness is in between the two colors? Or are you trying to find something that's actually darker than both? Like their transparent and stacked on top of each other? Kind of like that Yeah, um, you're trying to find the middle color as if they're stacked on top of each other, right? The illusion of transparency. We should also try that on a white time. It's gonna walk over here and get one of these whiteboards. Let's try putting that on white. That's pretty good. Yeah, it's beautiful. It's really well done. And that was to very good. Okay, so let's use these two. That's good. And we know that the mixture is going to be somewhere in this range. So just go ahead and hack away, literally do this place, that little thing over one of these trips, maybe like that in a corner. And then you're just trying to find that middle. Yeah, actually, we're not. Not that it's getting closer now. This is obviously clearly a great exercise to do with paper. Yes, because because you imagine you could do this online with some tool. But then it would be rather your your I wouldn't be doing the work the software will be doing the work from. Not exactly when I've thought about that. Yeah, When I've done this in Illustrator, for example, I still have to make variations of that center color and use three pieces, right? You're still doing the same exact thing you'd be doing with a cut paper adjusting that middle color until it looks transparent. But there you, Justin with sliders, as opposed to going through paper like this and cutting pieces out in trial and error. You just basically doing slider so it eliminates the cutting part of it. But you still have to make a decision on this thing. Is helping your training your eye on understanding how the colors work together? This is probably to maybe something like that, maybe something that has a little bit more of, Ah, orange to it could be like that again if we just cut a sliver off with this, that it's not bad. That's a really good Richard, one of the basic approaches you would take to choosing your color scheme here. I think I want you coming from four people online. Start with complementary colors, UM, two variants of compliments. Orange and blue, red and green, purple and yellow. I think that's a good place to start. Can also work with a monochromatic palette like this, and that's a little bit going back to you the very first Albers exercise we did when you tried to find that center color. This is nice. Actually. This is good. Right? So here we know that yellow and blue combined together make screen. But what? Green? We're actually finding something very nice here. That's beautiful. So, what would you say in this one? Do you think one color is on top and ones below feel the green is on? You think the greens on top? Yeah. Oh, yeah. In the shadow throws us off a little bit, but we definitely see it happening otherwise, But actually, that's a really good example. Lookout Transparent. Oh, no, it's perfect. It looks as if you're working with film. Yeah, but you're not. So you're working with your own sensory experience of seeing color trying to find that middle color. How can you cheat and use tissue paper where you really can see through that? That's actually not a good idea. We've done that too. And you You could do that if you want to get the effects of. But that's not helping you trying you again. It's not really cheating. It's just a different thing. Okay? Yeah, but you can see results that way. For sure, Sam is asking Richard, How would the color subtraction appear with a graduated tint, like a single Hugh background with the foreground? Solid color appear graduated. We have to try it. I think that with a great Asian color, ah, color that changes. The effect is going to change as it moves across the gradation. It's it adds complexity. When you're using a variety of, uh, changes within the background colors, it's it's significantly more complex and more difficult. But I think it's another experiment that's worthwhile trying. Thank you. So as you can see what's happening here, there's a clear distinction as to what's in front and what's in back. And that's the next thing. I'd like you to do Mr to two sets using the same color but changing the middle color so that the spatial relationship changes. Yeah, so in one case, the red looks like it's in front. In the other case, the blue looks like it's in front, and all you're doing is changing the middle color to achieve that effect. But just as a model for the composition, essentially, you could look at the bottom part of this and just try to do this effect. Transparency effects have been used for a long time. Uh, painters have always used transparent glazes to achieve certain color effects. Certain colors and in classical painting were achieved by putting a transparent glaze over something else. Actually, one of our students was talking about You're talking about address, right? That you modified with color. Um, uh, I was using a white silk shirt moose, which is a very like lightweight fabric. Um, so it has a transparency to it. Naturally, on the woman I was making the dress for the white was too harsh for her skin tone. So I put a hot pink fabric underneath it, which made the white just enough warmer that she could wear the dress. So it's a great application of transparency in that particular context. Getting back to your question, um, you want to sit in for sure? Um, Oakley, another bajos teacher, did some really interesting things with transparency. So when you're doing this spacial illusion exercise, you really have to think about creating that effect of one color, being dramatically in front of one color mean dramatically and back. Yeah, it's pretty good. That's a different Sure about this one like this? Definitely. To me. It looks like the yellows on top. So I'm trying to get the purple look like it's on top on the same. But, you know, one of the problems with this is that the black background is really influencing how we read those colors. So you might want to change to a white ground. Take one of these sports, so, you know, you could try that on black. Go ahead. And it's too. That's looking good. You're getting something going here? Yeah. Once you get a little, you know, bored with this particular thing, think about more of a free study experience.

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.