Monday, 27 March 2017

Clashing Colours

Fun Fact:  According to Wikipedia many languages make little or no distinction between what in English we call blue and green.

I had not heard the expression 'blue and green must never be seen' until quite recently and it baffled me.  The idea behind it is that the colours clash so it's not a good pairing but I find this rather astonishing.  To my eye blue and green are a perfect pairing so clearly this must be a matter of taste and I would be inclined to guess that popular tastes change over time and give rise to ideas such as this.  In my opinion analogous colours always look nice together, but perhaps this saying arose at a time when people favoured complementary colours.   However the saying 'red and green must never be seen' is also in existence at least on the internet and in people's memories.  So there is a case of dislike for complementary colours.  In both cases there seems to be a bias against green that has me curious.

In modern times the concept of clashing colours doesn't seem as much a worry to people, and colour experimentation is encouraged among the fashion forward and sartorially adventurous. 

To me, colours that clash give a visual feeling of discomfort that makes me want to look away.  It seems to me that for the most part the aim of someone presenting colour, whether in art, fashion or a floral arrangement for example, is not to have viewers look away.  The aim of an unexpected colour combination is to have viewers keep looking, intrigued by this new experience, entranced, enticed.  The aim is to please even if it may also be to surprise.  But what pleases me may not please you.  Most of us have experienced thinking something hideous which someone else thinks beautiful.  There are few colours I find hideous in themselves, though some that evoke no emotion from me, but there are combinations I dislike and I am sure that is the case for most people.

So what does it truly mean to say colours clash?

 There was a time when I didn't have the vocabulary to articulate what I was intuitively seeing and as I learned more about colour theory and the properties of colour much clicked into place.  Some things I had intuited now had clarity and I learned some entirely new concepts.

 Often I find myself irritated by the makers of fabric for combining colours in a print which to me are all wrong together.  As I am now shopping not only for purely warm colours, not slightly warm and also warmed with gold not with bright yellow, I am learning to distinguish these qualities more readily although comparison always helps.  So often I am frustrated by a maker of patterned fabric not considering the properties of colour and mixing colours that clash or putting warm colours on a clashing background.  White and black may be neutral in colour science but they are not neutral as in anyone can wear them successfully and it is not a given that they compliment every other colour.   Another type of clashing is in saturation level, where soft, muted colours paired with crisp, strong pure white or black are not only clashing in the sense of pattern colours and background but this combination is not going to flatter anyone because it's a mixture not found in human colouring.  We may have colours in us that appear to be white or black in context but they might actually be various versions of cream, off white, charcoal or dark brown.

So getting back to my theory about clashes being caused by non-harmonising colour properties,the colours you wear might clash with each other or they might clash with you.

I went to the site Who What Wear to read an article on clashing colours that look great.  This is their conclusion, not necessarily mine.  Not every example they offered actually did clash.  Some were just examples of complementary colours.  A general Google search of clashing colours almost predominantly brought images of bright colours and not all of them actually clashing.  Although not a fan of bright colours myself, I began to feel quite defensive on their behalf.  After all, in the right context they look amazing.

Here is an example from Who What Wear

No doubt about it I dislike this colour combination.  The mixture gives us both cool and warm colours, brights with a pastel and a muted dark.   Edgy or ugly?  That's a matter of taste. Would you wear it?   I'd say it's so ugly, so bad, it looks deliberate and that saves it.  Sort of.  Anyhow, the question of whether or not it clashes can be answered.  Yes it does. Perhaps that endears it to you.


If you want an authority I'd suggest Imogen Lamport, who usually explains things clearly and with images.  She has a brief explanation  on clashing colours here.

I get a chuckle out of re-reading her blog post on this because I commented there a few years ago when I was still operating under the assumption that I was a Winter as I'd been told by a dinosaur back in the Cretaceous period.  I also seemed to be under the assumption that I liked mixing warm and cool colours but unfortunately I must have been tired when I left my first comment because Imogen asked me to clarify and I could not remember what I'd meant.  I was still learning about colour then and I hadn't really grasped that there were degrees of warmth or coolness in colours.  I wrote of being attracted to warm oranges and greens so coping with that and my Winterness by pairing them with navy. 

Although Imogen advised me to pair them with a warm navy and I now understand what warm navy looks like I don't think that a cool navy paired with a bright orange would offend my eyeballs.  To me most navy blues ( not the warmer marine navy though ) are like black and work well with bright colours.  I know that the colours of the palette Bright Spring are all neutral-warm and created with a touch of the same bright yellow to give them that hint of sunshine brightness, but some of the colours still read as cool to me and some warm in the same way that when looking on a basic colour wheel I see the blue/green/purple side as cool and the red/yellow/orange side as warm.


Bright Spring is one of the few palettes that has true black.  It also has a few deep blues that read as a bright navy to me.  There are both pinks, yellows, orange and warm red in this palette and every colour looks great together.  If looking at any of these colours in isolation I would probably identify some of them as cool and some as warm but they don't clash with each other because they have the same degree of warmth, which is just a little bit, they are all bright, even the lighter colours having a certain bright sunlight sort of intensity to them.  I think this colour chart shows what didn't quite work in the colour blocked outfit above.  The pale pink isn't quite warm enough and the maroon colour is really out of place.    Although there is a lot of pink in this palette, and some are pale, there is more warmth to them and the coolest looking pinks have a brightness.  On their own I might guess that some of these colours would clash with each other but seen together I can sense that there is a commonality, properties about them that make them harmonise and it's not just their brightness.  The colours are mixed using a bit of the same bright yellow to give them their brightness and to take them in a warm direction.  They are not purely warm, but neutral-warm.  This is a concept that is fairly new to me and it's difficult to see it without context.

Another website offered up this image as an example of clashing colours.  It looks like a magazine page from the eighties.  The colours are bright and yes we've got blue and pink which we traditionally think of as cool and orange and a greenish yellow that we might think are warm, but I suspect these are all colours of the Bright Spring palette I showed above.  The palette is representative, so there will be colours that fit which aren't shown, like this green-yellow.  Further below I compared a bright cool palette with a bright warm one to see which it looked like this unusual yellow belonged.  To my eye all of these colours look like they are in the Bright Spring palette as shown or that they would better fit with it than with the Bright Winter palette.


There sure does seem to be a bright colour bias on the internet, with everybody assuming that a colourful mix means clash.   I am not a big fan of bright colours myself, as to me they are the volume turned up too loudly, but I can admire them in small doses, absolutely admire them when worn by someone who is suited to them, and just cannot get on board with the idea that pairing bright colours makes for a clash.  For one thing, wearing all brights is getting a very dominant colour property in harmony. I think that  these particular brights would all turn out to be leaning warm if tested so that would make them absolutely in harmony and there is no colour clash here.  It might be eye-searing depending on your taste but a clash would result if you replaced the bright blue here with one of the soft greyed blues from a Soft Summer palette.


 A comparison of bright colours shows the palette that is neutral-cool above the palette that is neutral-warm. 



Here we've got a clash, where although the colours are all brights the top is cool and the bottom is warm.  She gets away with this clash because it looks so deliberate.  It's still a clash but it's not likely you would assume she didn't know what colours she was putting together.  She has also put the cool colours up top because they suit her own colouring so best to have them near her face.


What if we use all neutral-warm colours but combine muted and soft colours with deep and rich ones? I suspect it could take me forever to find such an image in an outfit.  It's more likely in home decor where people are less discriminating.  So I will take images of palettes again.



I  don't see a lot of tension here, though a little bit.  The Soft Autumn palette doesn't seem as warm and that is what stands out most to my eye.  They both appear a bit muted though the Dark Autumn is muted with darkness as though there is a bit of shadow falling on right autumn colours.  The Soft Autumn seem more noticeably influenced by the neighbouring Summer palette.  I think my reaction to this would be to sense something was off but not be able to identify it right away.  The less harmony between colours the more obvious the clash.

 There are more subtle clashes when our eyes detect some sort of similarity.  This can happen when trying to figure out your own best colours too.  It's exactly what happened to me.  The warmer I went with a palette the better it got but each time I thought, surely this is enough and each time it was almost good enough.  Until I got to the palette with the most harmony and it was a 'wow' moment.  Almost good enough isn't as obvious a clash even though it still is one. 

The Bright Winter palette shown above is one of the worst I can wear because it is such a strong clash with my own colouring.  Cool and Bright combined with Warm and Soft is a colour clash indeed.  With either of the two Autumn palettes above the clash would not be as obvious and we may not even call it a clash so much as feel the colours together are a little bit off.  "Meh" we might say if we've picked up any vocabulary form our children



This pairing is surely a clash.  If the top palette represents my own colouring it couldn't be a good idea to dress myself in the colours of the bottom palette.

So let's try Soft Autumn again but this time next to Soft Summer.  How do these two palettes work since they've both got the soft, muted aspect going for them?


While Soft Autumn looked a little cool next to Dark Autumn it looks warm next to Soft Summer.  It's not a screaming clash because they aren't screaming colours but let's not make the same mistake as the rest of the internet and think that only bright colours can clash.  These are clashing, it just might be that the emotional response this clash provokes is more along the lines of disinterest than aversion.  Combine these in an outfit and you have nothing special, something a little off. You might tolerate some of the colour mixes more than others. The eye does see that there is something in harmony.  Both palettes are soft and muted.  I can imagine combining the Soft Autumn greens with the Soft Summer pinks and not really detecting anything amiss because they are almost complimentary colours ( green and red ) so a little tension is expected.

So how should you wear clashing colours?  Any way you want to, of course.  You  might wear them by accident if the clash is subtle and you don't see it.  I doubt that is the end of world.  You might wear them obviously and deliberately because it suits your sense of risk and fun.  Or maybe you will use the cheat method: don't wear clashing colours at all but let most people think that you do by just wearing a selection of mixed brights from the same palette. 

If clashing unknowingly concerns you then you can see how a personal palette swatch can be helpful.  How easy is it to tell Soft Summer colours apart from Soft Autumn if you are just trusting your eyeballs?  Easier for some than others and harder than most people think. 

Maybe now you have a better idea what to look for if you sense that some colours are clashing but don't know why.  And never let anyone tell you that colours clash simply because they are a mix of three or more brights. 

None of these photos are my own and I have attempted to give credit as I found it.  If a photo here belongs to you and you wish me to remove it please let me know. I will be sad though because this post took me hours.


  1. There's clashing and then there's just plain awkward colours!
    Great post...I'm not surprised it took you hours!
    That first photo is a great example of every type of clashing there is.
    Xo Jazzy Jack

    1. Yes, that first outfit makes me cringe. To me it doesn't shout hey I am daring, it shouts I am colour blind. xoxo

  2. Wow, I'm really drawn to that Bright Spring palette. It makes me want to jettison all the "muddy" colours in my wardrobe. I adore that 80s magazine page too!

    RE: green bias, my favourite story is around the song "Greensleeves": - where ""green" had sexual connotations, most notably in the phrase "a green gown", a reference to the grass stains on a woman's dress from engaging in sexual intercourse outdoors." My mom had been told by her mom somewhere along the way that a green dress or skirt meant you were a "loose woman." Think we still have any of that subconsciously buried in the aversion to green?

    1. LOL-I love green and have always been puzzled when people give that 'green?' response. I wore it a lot in the eighties when everyone else was doing neon. If I had a million dollars I'd buy a real green dress. Re Bright Spring. I see you as either a Bright Spring or a Dark Autumn because they both have an intense saturation to them that suits you, you look great in the intense colours, the brighter warm ones rather than earthy and anyone who looks great in the red-purple hair colour range that doesn't pretend to be a natural colour seems to me to be a bright. I suspect Natalia is Bright Spring to as the more she moves from the obviously warm and earthy to the brighter neutral-warm the more amazing she looks. I see that in you too. The warmth is obviously there but it might be the second most important feature with brightness being first. Just my guess. :-)


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