What are Complex Colors?

There’s more to colors then shade, tint and hue. Leatrice Eiseman, executive director of the Pantone Color Institute, takes a look deeper look at color in The Complete Color Harmony, Pantone Edition.


Colors that display variation in texture or in the hue itself are referred to as complex. This also includes colors that change subtly under ambient light as in pearlescent or opalescent shadings. Beautiful fabrics such as silk shantung, dupioni, and taffeta, exhibit these chameleon qualities. The colors themselves are frequently described in more complex ways, often involving an “ish” word, for example: a cool, greenish blue or a subtle, mauveish purple.

Various metallic treatments have a changeable quality, especially as recent technologies, such as those developed in the futuristic techniques coming from the auto and electronics industry, have rendered even more special effects. This intriguing and visually appealing complexity is also frequently found in jewel tones, gemstones, and minerals. We all understand the endless quest for seashells on the shore, particularly when prying open a homely shell reveals delicate patterns of coloration. We’re in wonder at the display of a peacock, the markings of a butterfly or a mallard duck, and are fascinated by shimmering shades even while navigating a mundane oil slick on a grimy street.


On a cosmetic counter, a drugstore shelf, or in artfully crafted ads, the luminosity, glitter, and glam of nail polishes and eye shadows in striated finishes and colorations irresistibly transfix and tempt us to purchase even more than we already own. Social anthropologists tell us that the human eye is inevitably drawn to changing color patterns as they often undulate in the same way that a body of water moves and changes. The rationale is that because humans need water in order to survive they are also drawn to the fluctuating movement of changeable colors. Whether we’re thirsting for an object of beauty, or simply thirsty, we can’t deny that there is a fascination for complexity in color.

At the opposite extreme are the fluorescent colors. First developed by two American brothers, Bob and Joe Switzer, in the 1930s, the uses of Day-Glo, or fluorescents, really took off by helping in the war effort of the 40s. The colors were used on fabric panels to send signals from the ground that could be seen from the air. They were also used in lifeboat panels to gain attention for rescue as well as in buoys to show that mines had been cleared from an area. Crews clad in Day-Glo suits lit by ultraviolet lamps guided planes to night-time landings on aircraft carriers.


After the war, Day-Glo made its way into signs and soap boxes, traffic cones, dump trucks, golf balls, goalposts, hula hoops, and the cover of Popular Science magazine. The use of these color effects continued in fits and starts through neon lights and black light posters, not to mention punk hair color.

More current usage shows both a fashionable and practical side to the use of fluorescents. They are a natural for signposts and the vests of highway workers. They are being used in sports gear and sports clothing—a fashion statement all its own. In addition there is the safety factor of using or wearing these bursting brights. They are also a natural for toys, bikes, and other consumer goods that beg for attention.

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The Complete Color Harmony, Pantone EditionThe Complete Color Harmony: Pantone Edition is the latest in Rockport Publishers’ best-selling color series. Completely revised from start to finish this new edition, is written by Leatrice Eiseman, executive director of the Pantone Color Institute. And the color “moods” that she writes about in each chapter are based and matched with Pantone colors. The book expands on previous editions for the most comprehensive color reference to date.

This edition includes information on creating special effects, as well as an entirely new section devoted to the psychology of color. Eiseman helps readers determine their best color choices and suggests why some colors may inspire their creativity while others don’t. The book includes new color palette sections along with expanded and updated color trends.