How Can Colour Attributes Be Related to The Perception of Harmonies?


Westland et al. (2007) described colour harmony as a pleasing effect brought about by two or more colours seen in neighboring areas. A more generic definition is characterized by a sense of an aesthetic appeal that is a result of neighboring colour combinations. Despite having this definition, the question as to which colour combinations results in this pleasing/aesthetic appeal has been the main concern of many scholars in the field of chromatics. The aspect of culture has also been one that has weighed heavily into this discussion. Cultures in the past had been reported to have followed distinctive colouration that presumptively were considered pleasing in their contexts (Westland et al., 2007). In cultures, colours have special relationships, hence the harmony effect is not necessarily due to the artistic context, but rather, the underlying meaning particular colours tend to portray. This hence led to a new definition of colour harmony whereby Granville noted that colour harmony is simply the usage of colour that pleases people (Westland et al., 2007). Even though aspects of universal colour harmony might exist as believed by some scholars, one thing for sure is that colour harmony is perceived differently by different groups of people. Regardless of this, do the colour attributes have any influence in the perception of colour harmony? Based on this background, this context thus discussed colour attributes with a specific interest of understanding how they can be related to the perception of harmonies.

Colour Attributes and The Perception of Harmonies

Based on the provided background and literature, colour harmony is presented as a phenomenon that is very complex. Take for instance, a study conducted by Helson seeking to rate the pleasantness of one hundred and twenty-five colours placed on twenty-five coloured backgrounds with various sources of illumination gave broad results of colour harmony. In this study for instance, pleasantness was highly perceived in situations whereby there was a high lightness and chromatic difference between the colour and its background (Helson & Lansford, 1970). Additionally, hue and saturation contrasts examined in these settings were depicted as the least decisive factors that resulted in a judgment of pleasantness. Other than providing some sense of direction with regards to future research, Heslon was unable to show how individual colour attributes such as hue, brightness, and saturation influence colour harmony. Helson’s conclusions on contrasting levels of saturation and brightness were later dismissed taking into account that the size of the coloured chips/stimuli relative to the background was quite small.  How then are the colour attributes related to colour harmony perception?

Polzella (1993) conducted a study whereby fifty-six undergraduate participants were recruited as observers. Gender distribution was such that twenty-four were males, while thirty-two were females. Large rectangular colour patches displayed against a light neutral density background on and display unit were utilized in this study. Before the experiment began, observers were divided into two groups. Observers in the first group saw a random sequence of what can be termed as colour pairs that were one hundred and forty in total. Nonetheless, after being presented with each pair, observers were required to fill a rating response that ranged from harmonizing to clashing on a scale of one to seven (Polzella, 1993). The second group undertook a similar exercise nonetheless in their case, rather than rating a colour pair, they rated each colour patch single handedly. It is important to note that the hue, chroma and lightness values of each colour pair had already been established before the experiment began. The ratings were then analyzed using a multidimensional scaling technique before results were presented.

The results of this study indicated that out of the three colour attributes, the most important attribute that influenced colour harmony judgments was hue (Polzella, 1993). With the exceptions of brown and yellow, the most harmonious combinations that were rated by the observers had colour pairs with closely related hues.  The other colour attribute that also evidently influenced colour judgments was value. More harmonious combinations also tended to involve colours that had closes or similar value (Polzella, 1993).

Despite noting the results, can the perception of colour harmony be explicitly dedicated to the only the above attributes without taking into considerations other aspects as well? Striving to explain why certain colour combinations were perceived pleasing, Goethe and Chevreul related colour harmony to specific colours and their arising combinations, taking note of their complementary relationships (Westland et al., 2007). Wong on the other hand acknowledged the individual differences as affected by an individual’s age, sex, race, education and cultural backgrounds. He stated that it would be extremely difficult to create absolute rules for colour combinations related to colour harmony perception, since the ideas of colour harmony keep on changing over time across different cultures (Westland et al., 2007).

In contrast to the above cultural analogy, Ou & Luo (2006) investigated the combination of 1,432 colour pairs in attempts to devise a quantitative model related to a harmony of a two – colour combination. In this study, Ou & Luo (2006) hypothesized that not only was there a strong relationship between colour harmony and pleasantness, but also the existence of a general pattern of colour harmony that could be quantified in the aspects of colour attributes for each colour constituent. The design of this study was closely related to that of Polzella discussed in the above sections. The 1,431 colour pair were displayed as square colour patches positioned side to side. These consisted all of two colour combinations that could be generated by 54 colours. The total number of observers that participated in this study were seventeen, where six were females while eleven were male. All participants were naïve and had no prior experience of the study design.

In the procedure, participants were presented with the above named colour pair patches using a monitor, and were required to rate them using a scale of 1 to 5 from ‘just perceptibly’ to extremely. Two scales, i.e., harmonious, and disharmonious were used rather than one. Taking into consideration the massive number of stimuli involved, this experiment had to be divided into six sessions, where two hundred and thirty-nine colour pairs were observed per session (Ou & Luo 2006).

Preliminary results of this study reported that hue difference between constituent colours, highly influenced colour harmony scores (Ou & Luo 2006). The less the hue difference was between the constituent colours, the more likelihood the pair would have high colour harmony scores. This was termed as the hue effect. This trend was likewise also depicted by the chroma difference between constituent colours, nonetheless the proportional effect to colour harmony scores was smaller (Ou & Luo 2006). Further analysis however identified other factors of colour harmony other than the individual colour attributes and these were chromatic difference, and the lightness effect. Chromatic deference as explained in this study was a mixture of the chroma difference and the hue difference (Ou & Luo 2006). The study revealed that colour harmony decreases when the chromatic difference defined above increased between two constituent colours. Prior to in-depth analysis, preliminary results had indicated that colour harmony reduced as constitute colours closely shared same lightness. This was however not the case after in-depth analysis was undertaken. This is because lightness difference did not depict any significant influence on colour harmony as the chromatic difference. The final model developed in study combined a number of factors discussed in this section that contributed with varying proportions to the influence of colour harmony. This rather than examining them one by one where the others were assumed constants, the colour harmony model took all three factors into consideration equating colour harmony to the sum of the chromatic effect, lightness effect and the hue effect (Ou & Luo 2006). This model was later tested in a subsequent experiment that involved twelve observers and the result suggested that the model could be used to predict a two colour harmony with satisfactory performance.

Even though the above study shows a relationship between colour attributes to the perception of colour harmony, one question that arises questions how this model would perform when adopted in a different setting where colour samples, light sources, and observers’ cultural backgrounds were different. Additionally, this model was restricted to only a two-colour combination, and in reality, multiple combinations are also capable of creating the colour harmony effect as well. One of the key things that this study did differently when compared to other previous studies was the fact that it acknowledged the contribution of all three-colour attributes as a whole, rather than examining their relationship with colour harmony as single entities. Hu et al. (2013) had similarly highlighted that attributes of harmonious colour schemes can be considered as interrelations of hue, saturation, and lightness variables. Holtzschue, (2006) had also highlighted the importance of the hue effect, nonetheless emphasized that the contrast of lightness, and chroma also needed to be considered. Even though the above model has shown that each factor contributes to the colour harmony in varying degrees, when adopted, this model would attempt to create a universal rule for the perception of colour harmony for a two colour combination regardless of culture and other associative factors.

Despite putting forth a model that shows the interrelations of all the colour attributed to the perception of colour harmony, other scholars would disagree. Take for instance (Kuehni, 2003) noted that perceptions of beauty and harmony are strongly influenced by nurture and culture. Hard & Sivik (2001) on the other hand noted that colour combinations should be evaluated in different context and in different times. Even though a model puts forth a universal form of colour harmony that scholars of science have been since interested in, it is also essential to remember that colour harmony is a positive aesthetic response that is dependent upon a wide range of factors (O’Connor, 2010). Factors that also include the individual characteristics of the observer such as age, gender, personality and cultural affiliations.

Nemcsics (2008), noted that the span of intervals between saturations and brightness of constituent colours have an impact on the extent people perceive the composition of colour as harmonious. In his publication, studies conducted were mainly geared to establish a correlation between what was termed as the span of intervals of brightness and saturation in colour pairs and the harmony of colour perceived. Unlike previous studied that defined saturation and brightness intervals based on the Munsell system, studies in this publication were based on the Colouroid system (Nemcsics 2008).

In the design of the study, observers/participants were exposed to stimuli consisting of colour pairs that had same hues and saturations, but different brightness. This was followed by those with same hues and brightness but then with varying saturations. Observers then made comparisons of which pair was more harmonious. Taking into consideration that this study had been conducted for a span of five years where about 544,000 elementary observations were recorded, its results reflected the opinion of a larger magnitude population (Nemcsics 2008).

Results and conclusion of this study indicated that the variation of harmony content could be described as a function of brightness and saturation intervals. It was also established that the variation of harmony content based on saturation intervals was fundamentally influenced by the hues of the colours that make up the colour pair composition (Nemcsics 2008).

Since Nemcsics featured in vast experimental studies, in the third series of his publications, Nemcsics attempted to establish the laws of colour harmony by looking at the harmony content of different hue pairs (Nemcsics 2009a). This was based on literature that revealed the harmony content of different hue pairs tends to highly vary. Forty-eight hues were used to form eight hundred and fifty-two hue compositions. Based on the fact that the harmony content of hue pairs could be depicted using their relative angle of their hue plains in the Colouroid colour space the following conclusions were noted (Nemcsics 2009a). It was established that colour pairs whose hue planes were less than 10o, between 130o and 140o, or near 180o to each other had the most harmony content (Nemcsics 2009a). Additionally, colour pairs that had hue planes were between seventy degrees and ninety degrees to each other revealed the least harmony content (Nemcsics 2009a). Even though this above depicted the use of a colour order system to represent the relationship between colours in contemporary colour harmony, this approach was only centered around the hue (Westladn et al. 2007).

The complexity of colour harmony was depicted in Nemcsics’s subsequent studies, where he acknowledged that people’s relationship to colour carry an influence on their judgment when it comes to colour harmony (Nemcsics 2009b). Take for instance, how a young adult and an older adult perceives colour harmony is different. If this is the case, how then can colour harmony models that tend to bring universality on how colour harmony is perceived be adopted? In the fourth series of his publications, Nemcsics investigated the difference in colour preferences for different age groups in their evaluations of colour harmony in various compositions. The results of this particular study highlighted that colour harmony perception had a strong relationship to how individual observers relate to colours and their colour preferences (Nemcsics 2009b). Since these preferences further vary with aspects such as gender and age, the perception of colour harmony hence equally tends to be influenced by these factors as well.

Since colour harmony is depend on colour preferences within a given group of people at a given time, will it be correct to state that a universal rule of colour harmony perception exists? Arnkil (2008) further noted that colour harmony is not an abstract concept but arises from the dynamic interface between the subject and object. It also takes into account the experience dependent on the cultural consequence of the human vison ecology and evolution.


Most studies except one centered on hue highlighting a need to move towards an approach that is centered around other colour attributes as well. Even though colour harmony was related to all three colour attributes, other essential Gestalt principles such as balance, order and similarity are also instrumental. Finally, colour harmony rules have been perceived as universal and static in some studies, even so they must be evaluated from the cultural lens and other associative factors. This because literature indicates a strong relationship between what is considered harmonious and the subjective element of both experience and preference.


To sum this discussion, studies point to a strong relationship between the hue effect and colour harmony. Even so, research also revealed existing interrelationships between chromatic effect, lightness effect, the hue effect and perceived colour harmony. These above take into account all the three attributes i.e., hue, chroma and value. This shows that all the three colour attributes contribute with varying proportions to the perception of colour harmony. In the considerations of colour preference judgments, cultural context, and individual characteristics such as age and gender further are valid. Nonetheless, they depict the perception of colour harmony as a complex phenomenon. This shows that even though efforts to find a universal rule of colour harmony have been undertaken, they cannot neglect the influence of colour preference as influenced by the cultural contexts and individual characteristics such as age and gender.


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