Colour Design for Public Spaces: Colour Opposites

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What makes different public spaces have different characters? There may be many answers to this, order from different activities taking place there to different histories to different kinds of users to different styles of architecture, and many more. This series of posts looks at the role that the colour design of a public space can play. First up is a look at how the use of colour opposites can give a public space a more active character.

The Colour Wheel

In the cold world of physics, objects don’t have colours. Light contains all the colours of the spectrum; when light strikes a surface certain wavelengths are absorbed and some are bounced back, producing our experience of colour. Colour, then, is a product of how our eyes process light of different wavelengths. Isaac Newton sequentially arranged the wavelengths of the visible spectrum in a wheel. Since each colour takes up a different proportion of the spectrum, the area devoted to each colour differs. Here’s Newton’s wheel:

A curious relationship exists between colours that are roughly on opposite sides of this colour wheel. If, for example, you stare at a patch of red for at least half a minute and then immediately stare at a white piece of paper then upon the paper you will see the optical illusion of a patch of green, green being opposite red on the colour wheel. Staring at a patch of green will produce a red ‘afterimage’ on the paper.

The other pairs of opposites on the colour wheel are yellow and violet, and orange and blue. Staring at any of these colours will produce an afterimage of its colour opposite. Seemingly there is such a strong psychological need to see one of these colours with its opposite that where it does not find that opposite in the world the mind will create the opposite colour as an optical illusion.

Seeing these pairs of colour opposites in succession — seeing green after red, seeing violet after yellow or orange after blue — can therefore provide intense satisfaction. After all, at this very moment some people are getting up in the dark and making sometimes dangerous pilgrimages to special places in order to witness perhaps the most predictable and the most geographically universal event in the world: a sky, normally blue, turning orange.


Upon the basis of this after-imaging optical illusion the American theorist Albert Munsell developed a modified colour wheel that has enjoyed widespread acceptance, for example being adopted by the US Bureau of Standards. Staring at a patch of any colour on this wheel will produce an after-image the colour of the square directly opposite it.

The Munsell Colour Wheel

Opposite colours not only have a strong psychological effect when displayed in succession but also when juxtaposed. When the noted chemist Michel-Eugene Chevreul was working for a tapestry company he had to field many complaints about the colours of the company’s tapestry looking faded, complaints that baffled him as the relevant dyes used stable chemicals that ought not to fade. After long research he concluded that the problem was not chemical but optical: each colour was influencing the colours immediately beside it. In effect, each colour casts a ‘shadow’ of its complementary colour onto the area immediately adjacent to it, and this affects our perception of the colour of adjacent objects. For example, if you put a blue object beside a red one then the red object will look slightly orange and the blue object will look slightly green: this is because the red object casts a ‘shadow’ the colour of its complement, green, upon the surrounding area that influences our perception of the colour of objects in that area. Likewise, blue casts a ‘shadow’ of orange. In 1839 Chevreul published his findings in a book called De la loi du contraste simultanée des couleurs (On the Law of the Simultaneous Contrast of Colours) that had a tremendous influence on the development of French art movements such as Impressionism, and a particular influence on Pontillists such as Seurat.

This phenomenon of simultaneous contrast produces an important effect when opposite colours of equal intensity are juxtaposed. Because the actual colour is the same as the ‘colour shadow’ cast by the adjacent colour that colour is reinforced and intensified, producing a kind of visual vibration. Here, for example, is one of the most striking portraits ever made:

Reproduced for non-commercial critical commentary

Steve McCurry’s legendary portrait of Sharbat Gula in Afghanistan depends upon the colour opposites of red and green for much of its power. The red shawl contrasts strikingly with the green background and green underclothes, and frames the reddish skintones that in turn frame those staggering red-flecked green eyes. The photo’s reliance on colour for its full power can be demonstrated by comparing it with a black and white version:









The Application of Colour Opposites in Covent Garden, London

Covent Garden is one of London’s most successful examples of regeneration. In 1974, after centuries of service as a fruit and vegetable market the traders moved away to a new site more accessible to their lorries, and for the next six years much of the site lay fallow. Today, Covent Garden hosts a collection of arts and crafts stalls, small shops, cafes, restaurants and pubs and a near-constant stream of entertainers performing acts as varied as opera singing and tight-rope walking whilst juggling. Londoners and tourists visit in their droves, making Covent Garden a ‘must-see’ destination and a centre for many kinds of leisure activities.

© Andrew Havis @

In this photo of the Apple Market hall the lowest part of the pillars are painted red whilst the higher parts are painted an equally-muted green. This causes a subtle vibration whilst, due to the muted nature of the colours, not demanding to be the centre of attention. The colour design thus helps to make the market seem more active whilst not dragging attention away from the contents of the market.

Now, as recent visitors to Covent Garden may have noticed, the pillars have been repainted to be entirely green. The Apple Market hall continues to be the same old bustling place. Whilst noting that red continues to be the second most frequently used colour in this hall, we might conclude that in this respect the colour design of this hall is certainly not a determining factor in the high activity levels of the hall. Nevertheless, the phenomenon of colour opposites is real and can produce striking effects. I think it’s a useful tool to have.

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