Joen Wolfrom’s Playing with Color: When is Yellow Mellow?Joen Wolfrom | October 6, 2011
Today let’s celebrate the beauty of yellow, the strongest, brightest color in the universe. Not only is yellow the most brilliant color, it’s the lightest of all pure colors.Because of its visual strength, yellow is a very emotional color. This spirited color exudes a sense of warmth, happiness, and optimism. Yellow also brings hope, beckons friendly encounters, and evokes a feeling of confidence.
Situated at the top of the color wheel, yellow is one of the three primary colors in the subtractive color wheel (yellow, magenta, cyan/turquoise blue). Its closely-related neighbors are golden-yellow and chartreuse.
The yellow in this image (below) can almost knock your socks off—-it’s so strong. It’s definitely not yellow mellow! No other color matches yellow’s visual strength and positive vibes. Its pure form is impossible to ignore when present. It’s not surprising that strong yellow is the most difficult color for our eyes to absorb. Consequently, thoughtful use of brilliant yellow is essential in art, quilts, homes, and other interiors.
Looking at this image (above), you can well imagine that pure yellow is psychologically stimulating. Nor should it be surprising that bright yellow increases metabolism. Yellow’s visual strength can be overwhelming when presented in large doses. It is difficult for most of us to be surrounded by yellow for any length of time. Interestingly, research shows tempers flare more often in yellow rooms than in rooms of any other color. Perhaps it’s difficult to be patient or reasonable in a room that shouts with intense, brilliant, stimulating color.
Because of yellow’s visual strength, it’s well worth thinking about how to capture its great qualities while minimizing its possible distractions.
It’s no wonder brilliant yellow is considered an extrovert’s color. It’s definitely a hey look at me color. For example, this rose stands out in the garden because of its strongly-colored hue. It attracts attention even from a far distance—-Now pause to think about how small this rose is and how far away it attracts attention—This color is powerful!
Each day nature shows us how to use bright yellow judiciously in our art and in our interior spaces. When we compare the spaciousness of the sky to the size of the sun in the sky, it’s understandable why sunlight may be powerful, but never overwhelming. It’s small in area compared to the sky. It’s when we choose to let yellow take over a large part of a design surface (or a room) that we get into yellow trouble. If you love yellow and want to include it in your art, consider how best to let it work for you. One of the best hints is this: the more pure the yellow, the less amount of yellow; the more muted or diluted the yellow, the more yellow can be increased.
If you plan to use yellow as a dominant color in a room, it’s really important to soften its intensity. Softening can be done by whitening and/or toning. When yellow is softened with white, it keeps its warm and cheerful spirit intact—and it becomes visually inviting rather than visually overwhelming. It can be buttery, creamy, or something in between. This is mellow yellow. .An example of a quiet mellow yellow can be seen in the rose blossom below. It’s much calmer in coloring than the strong yellows in the previous images.
Also, you can calm pure yellow by blackening it. It may surprise you to know that when yellow is blackened, beautiful shades of olive or olive green are created. In the image below, you can see a variety of olive green hues. Some are only blackened while a few are both blackened and toned.
The olive green moss on this tree bark is another example of yellow being diluted by blackening it. Notice how strong it is. There are innumerable variations of olive green in the world. The olive green in this moss is quite vibrant. That’s because it has only been blackened—not additionally muted by gray.
Compare the olive greens in the moss with those in the water reflection. The olives in the reflection are examples of yellows that have been both blackened and toned. (The most beautiful way to tone a color is to mix it with its complement.) There are many different variations of olive in this water reflection. Some of these are quite dark; others are very toned. This reflection is an excellent example of how a variety of olives (blackened and/or toned) play together beautifully. Besides many olive greens in this reflection, you will see variations of toned yellow-greens.
Pure yellow and whitened yellows can have gray added to them too. When toned, these hues become softened light olive greens. Some are very delicate. At the moment I cannot find a photo image that shows an example of this coloring, but if you have a copy of my Color Play book, you can see a sampling of these hues on page 37.
On another note…….
Although there is only one primary pure yellow, there are other pure yellows. They either lean toward golden-yellow or chartreuse. For instance, once a tiny drop of turquoise blue/cyan is mixed into pure primary yellow, the yellow changes to a yellow with a slight greenish cast. You can see a greenish cast on the flower blossom below. As more turquoise blue/cyan is added, the yellow looks as if it has a bit of chartreuse in its makeup. The yellow color is leaning toward chartreuse.
Conversely, when a tiny drop of magenta is added to pure primary yellow, it begins to have a golden cast to it. As more magenta is added, these pure yellow colors lean toward golden-yellow. You can see this gold-cast in the yellow rose below.
If you are a person who has avoided yellow in your designs, consider using it in a future project. Perhaps instead of using the purest yellow, you can choose one of its diluted variations. Start paying attention to how yellow is used in the landscape, in paintings, in quilts, and in other artwork. Notice what is successful and what doesn’t work. Just remember, yellow is a wonderful color with great visual qualities, but It needs your guidance to make it work beautifully.
If you have painted swatches of pure colors from yellow to turquoise/cyan and from turquoise/cyan to magenta, it’s now time to paint swatches of the colors from yellow to magenta. Work in the same manner as you did between yellow and turquoise blue/cyan. In case you need step by step instructions for this exercise, I’ll post them on the blog in the next day or so. If you subscribe to the Playing with Color blog, you will be sent notification automatically.
Text and photography copyright © Joen Wolfrom
Joen is a color enthusiast who teaches and lectures on color. She has written three color books: Color Play, Visual Coloring, and The Magical Effects of Color. Her Studio Color Wheel is used to illustrate color concepts in many of these blog posts. She is also the designer of the 3-in-1 Color Tool. Her new book Adventures in Designis now available. Joen’s newest design tool, the Magic Design-Ratio Tool has just been released. All books and products are published by C & T Publishing.