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Open Access Publications from the University of California

The Aesthetics of Color Combinations

  • Author(s): Schloss, Karen B.
  • Advisor(s): Palmer, Stephen E.
  • et al.

The experiments described here were aimed at characterizing people's aesthetic responses to color pairs, both in terms of which colors people prefer in combination and how the spatial organization of the component colors influences pair preference. Previous studies of preference for and harmony of color combinations have produced conflicting results. For example, some claim that harmony increases with hue similarity, whereas others claim that it decreases. In the first set of experiments, we argue that such conflicting results are resolved by distinguishing among three types of judgments about color pairs: (a) preference for the pair as a whole, (b) harmony of the pair as a whole, and (c) preference for its figural color when viewed against its colored background. Empirical support for this distinction shows that pair preference and harmony both increase as hue similarity increases, but preference relies more strongly on component color preference and lightness contrast. Although pairs with highly contrastive hues are generally judged to be neither preferable nor harmonious, figural color preference ratings increase as hue contrast with the background increases. The present results thus refine and clarify some of the best-known and most contentious claims of color theorists. In the second set of experiments, we investigated how spatial organization influences color-pair preference asymmetries: differential preference for one color pair over another when the pairs contain the same colors in opposite spatial configurations. We found robust preference asymmetries, in which participants strongly preferred pairs with yellower, lighter figures on bluer, darker grounds. We also investigated which spatial factors influence these preference asymmetries. Relative area of the two component regions is clearly important, and relative surface-based area (i.e., after amodal figure-ground completion) is more influential than relative image-based area. Surroundedness is not required, because yellowness-blueness effects were comparable for figure-ground pairs in which the figure was surrounded by the ground and for mosaic arrangements in which the regions were adjacent and separated by a gap). Lightness-darkness effects, however, were in the opposite direction for figure-ground versus mosaic organizations: people prefer figure-ground organizations in which the smaller regions are lighter, but prefer mosaic organizations in which the smaller regions are darker. We provide possible phenomenological and ecological explanations for the reported results.

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