Color Wisdom and Insights

An Interview with Corinne C. Cordoni, Design Director Sewgrand Patterns
Corinne mentioned something on color theory in an email to Judith that sparked our interest. We decided to bombard her with questions. She has been a great sport, not to mention a wealth of information!

Judith’s questions:

Explain the color theory that you learned in Fashion Design & Technology?
How is this color theory applicable in fabrics and garments?
How does the color theory differ from color by “Seasons”.
Do we all “see” color the same?
Are there any colors that are universally liked? Does this depend on regions or ethnicity? Are there any colors that are universally disliked? Does this depend on regions or ethnicity?
Why can I find colors I love one year but the next year cannot find these colors?

Jessie’s questions, who is an artist and has a BA in Studio Art.

What are the details of additive and subtractive color theories?
Why do my oil paintings look different in every light? (I paint in layers).
If there wasn’t additive colors, there wouldn’t be subtractive, right?
How does this apply to dying fabrics?
What about bleaching?
Why do certain colors ‘feel’ good to wear? Because of the pigment used?
Or, why does it feel better to be ‘in’ a certain light? (This one may be too much)
So a red book is all the colors except red and a red sky is only red?
So if I feel good wearing red, would I feel good being in any light but red?

What fun!

Corinne (unsuspecting bystander)’s responses:

Hi Judith and Jessie,

Boy, it didn’t take you guys very long to put some questions together! I’ll do my best. You probably will want to print this out –it’s a long one. (–what city do you two live in–I’m coming to *get* you!)

I learned Subtractive Color Theory in the Fashion Design & Technology program. The theory is simple and complicated at the same time. I took an extra course in it because I thought I didn’t understand it. It turned out I did–I just didn’t know it. So, in total, I had 26 weeks of instruction, and can’t hope to hit anything except the highlights here.

Here goes, and I am assuming you know the definitions. If any definition needs further clarification, I’d be happy to oblige.


1. is a fairly recent theory. In some design schools, elementary schools and secondary , they are still not teaching it. It is only one way of theorizing about how color works: this doesn’t mean that other ways are invalid.

2. is harder to learn when you need to unlearn all the stuff you learned in school. This happened to me, so the theory is harder for me to explain than to put into practice!

3. is the theory of color interrelationships of *pigment*. This means paint, dyes, inks, anything where color is applied to a *surface*. The color and reflectivity of the surface affect how a person perceives the color. e.g. if you apply a color to white paper it won’t look the same as when you apply it to slightly yellow paper. Or, if you apply the color to dull paper it won’t look the same as when you apply it to shiny paper or metal foil.

4. paints, dyes, inks & other colorants absorb some colors and reflect others . For *absorb* read “subtract”. You don’t see the ones that are absorbed, and you do see the ones that are reflected.

5. colors are absorbed by their complementary colors. 6. uses the primary colors yellow, magenta and cyan to mix all the other colors. A balanced mixture of all the primary colors will yield black. Printers and dyers use a pre-mixed black, since a really good black is hard to mix using theprimary colors. In theory, you can make black using the primaries, yet in practise you get a muddy black.

7. the human eye has receptor cells that perceive Red, Green and Blue (the primary colors of light). The eye makes up all the other visual sensations we have come to know as particular colors.

8. The eye is an “additive color machine”. The eye sees *additively*. When you are manipulating pigments, dyes, inks, you are doing it *subtractively*. So, when you are mixing colors subtractively, think about what you have before you that you don’t want, and ask yourself “What absorbs this color”. It will be the complementary color.


1. is what most of us were taught in school

2. is the theory of color interrelationships of light. TV and computer monitors, movies and light shows use this theory.

3. the primary colors of light are Red, Green and Blue (not to be confused with artists’ primary colors of Red, Yellow and Blue)

4. to mix colors using this theory, you *add* 2 or more colors together to get a third color. A balanced mix of all three primaries gives white.

5. Red plus Blue make Purple, right? Wrong! They make Mud. Why? Because we are mixing pigments here, not light, and because yellow sneaked in there in small amounts and muddied up the scene. I feel very strongly against teaching this system that doesn’t work, in schools, now that there is another theory that works more predictably. Is this what you learned too?


1. the additive primary colors are the subtractive secondary colors

2. the subtractive primary colors are the additive secondary colors


1. the manufacturers and fabric finishers/dyers use subtractive color theory when making fabrics & garments. Each fabric/yarn will dye differently, depending upon fiber content and the original color of the fiber. If you are doing home dyeing of a yarn/fabric/garment with so-called “natural” coloring, it usually has a yellowish cast. Do not expect to get the same results as if you were dyeing something white. Silk and rayon are more optically brilliant than wool, cotton or linen, and the same dye looks different on each.

2. it explains why fabric things don’t look the same when you get them home, as they did when they were in the store. Many stores have incandescent light, which has a yellow cast. Others have halogen lights, which has a blue cast. Colored lights in fashion shows can enhance a garment or make it look ghastly.

3. light technicians (as in fashion shows) use additive color theory.


1. it might depend on who “we” is. Animals perceive color in ways that enable them to survive. Humans eat fruit, (evolutionarily speaking). Therefore, red and yellow are important to us in identifying food. Blue isn’t so important. I read an article published in a Vancouver newpaper about people wanting to eat less food if it was served on blue plates. Hmmmmm. Snakes see infra-red –the better to see the little mouse dinners. Fish don’t see color. Black and white is important to them, as is the movement and shadow of potential dinner or potential danger.

2. some of us are color blind–our genetic heritage has deprived us of some colors

3. for people who aren’t color blind, I couldn’t tell you. I suspect not, since color is a sensation, and the eye creates the sensation that we perceive as color. I suspect this sensation can be affected by heredity or environment.


I think this one comes under the heading of the psychology of color, which you probably know, varies with culture, history, or areas of use(for the latter, I might like to wear magenta clothing if it was in fashion, but probably wouldn’t want magenta draperies ever.) Light and rainbows, however, have spiritual significance in many cultures.


It’s a conspiracy. :) Visit www.colormarketing.org. to find out more.


The goal of color by “seasons”, to the best of my knowledge, is to assist a person to find her most flattering, wearable colors. Usually the most flattering colors are ones that enhance her natural hair and skin color.

Correct me if I’m wrong–this most often means colors that blend or “tone in” rather than “fight” with the her natural coloring. I’m not sure where to go with this one, as it applies to color theory–except– what if a person with golden skin tones wore something purple-blue? Since purple-blue(aka Mid-Blue) and yellow are complementary colors, would simultaneous contrast be triggered if the viewer looked at the purple-blue outfit and the yellowish skin, and the person’s appearance would be brightened ? I am thinking of how redheads are advised to wear green. If this is so, then maybe wearing the “wrong” colors would give a person a drained appearance. I’m thinking as I type, here, and who knows, maybe I’m contradicting myself!


There are so many variables going on, that this is a difficult question to answer. I was lucky enough to attend a color conference in Vancouver in 1996, sponsored by Simon Fraser University. The conference was titled “Colour Perception: Philosophical, Psychological, Artistic and Computational Aspects”. I’ve got my notes, and here is what one of the color researchers was saying back then: Michael Brill, David Sarnoff Research Center, Princeton University talked about “Understanding Color Matches – What are we Taking for Granted?” and he says

-color matches are related to the spectral sensitivities of the eye,
-color matching may not be as simple as we imagined
-different color media degrade differently
-viewing duration is important,
-eye movement and pupil dilation is important

And I wonder if the time of day has something to do with things–I’ve looked at flowers in the garden, and they look different in the morning than the afternoon. I don’t know if the sky being blue or clouds covering the sun, or the angle of the light has anything to do with it.

Fun isn’t it?


I haven’t done any discharge dyeing, so I’m not sure where to go with this one.


In my humble opinion :) :) :)……mixing pigments using the theory of mixing light=mud, in many cases. This undoubtedly caused a search for something more useful and predictable. Subtractive color theory works, for right now. I hope I live long enough to see what comes next!


You know, I love questions like this. I don’t know, and I love to think about it. Probably the answer lies in any one or more of personal preference, cultural customs, historical time frame, or what your “significant other ” thinks you look ravishing in. I have noticed that MacDonald’s restaurants have it all figured out. Someone told me the average time stay in a MacDonald’s restaurant is 18 minutes. I can’t help thinking it has something to do with their orange & yellow interior color scheme.

Let me know what you think about all this. I hope this answered some of your questions. I really appreciate the opportunity for input into your project. .



Corinne C. Cordoni, Design Director
Sewgrand Patterns – Specialists in Fit for Sizes 12 to 26


Here’s a good book for the serious enthusiast of color. It’s in dictionary format, with color pictures, of course. What I like about it –you can look up a definition, term, theory etc alphabetically, & the topic is addressed in “bite sized” portions that are relatively easy to digest mentally.

The Color Compendium, Hope and Walch, 1990, Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York.
Library of Congress Catalog # 88-34339

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