Color Theory

Have you ever noticed how some colors excite, rejuvenate and energize, while others relax, calm and comfort? Or have you wondered why certain ones look better together than others? Adding a hint of color can help to construct a unique brand for a spa, produce a wonderful experience for clients and team members, add interest and personality to a space, and even establish an appealing and attractive appearance.

The language of the rainbow

Color is the most powerful, complex and stimulating element of design. It is the first to be noticed and often the last to be forgotten. In spas, it has a way of uniquely establishing a brand—consider the facility’s walls, flooring, artwork and even team members’ uniforms. Each element can work in harmony to add beauty to a space while creating a memorable experience for clients.

Color engages the senses and evokes highly physical and emotional responses. For instance, the saying “I feel blue” connotes a sad mood. When tones are too bright or strong, they often are referred to as loud. An appearance can be chic and stylish or drab and boring—all by the choice of color. Certain shades stimulate and excite, while others feel oppressive or weak. And color can be used in place of words to command action. For example, a green traffic light indicates go, yellow conveys caution and red means stop. Messages are communicated and value placed depending on color—a white dove signifies purity, and a yellow rose expresses friendship. Green is soothing and recalls memories of summer grass and trees, while blue symbolizes water and the sky. The warmth of the sun is reflected in yellow and orange, while shades of violet resemble the distant mountains against an evening sky.

Color helps to identify, distinguish and create powerful illusions about size, shape and distance of an object or an area. Light or bright colors advance, calling attention to themselves, whereas dark tones recede. A red wall appears to advance toward you, while a tan wall recedes into the background. A person wearing white pants will appear heavier than they would wearing the same pants in black.


So how do we perceive color? Light plays an important role in how the brain interprets its surroundings. Color is formed by electromagnetic lightwaves stimulating the retinas of the eyes, which then are interpreted by the brain. Perception is an individual experience and varies by person, due to the physical makeup of the eyes themselves and the light source. For instance, fluorescent lights reflect a cool blue-gray light, whereas a lampshade projects a warm yellow light. Additionally, one’s perception is affected by their background and experiences.

Because color communicates volumes of information and affects emotions, it is important to understand how it works together in order to create harmonious and positive experiences for team members, clients and a spa.

Dimensions of color

To assign structure to the vast options of color, scientists have organized and categorized it by three dimensions: hue, value and intensity. The understanding and application of these dimensions are used universally by artists, painters and designers to create different illusions, communicate specific messages, or evoke certain experiences or feelings.

Color hue. The first dimension is hue and refers to the name of the color, or color family. There are three kinds of hues—primary, secondary and tertiary. Primary colors include red, yellow and blue, which cannot be obtained by combining other colors. Secondary hues are created by mixing two primary colors in equal amounts and include orange (red and yellow), green (yellow and blue), and violet (blue and red). Tertiary hues, such as blue-green, result from an equal mixture of a primary and a secondary hue. Refer to the Color Wheel to see how these colors interact.

Hues are divided into warm or cool temperatures and stimulate different responses. Warm hues—including red, orange and yellow—are associated with the sun or fire, tend to excite and stimulate, and appear to advance toward the eye by causing shapes to appear larger and more pronounced. Any shade can look warmer simply by adding yellow or orange. Cool hues—such as green, blue and violet—are associated with the sky and water, are considered calming and soothing, and appear to recede or cause shapes to appear distant, smaller and less pronounced. Mixing blue or green into any hue will cause it to look cooler. Combining cool and warm colors in a design produces interest and depth, and either warms or brightens a space.

Johannes Itten, author of The Art of Color (Wiley, 1997) and considered to be one of the greatest modern teachers on color, discovered that people are more drawn to—and therefore are more comfortable with—colors that mirror their personal appearance. They are least comfortable using harmonies that are discordant with their personal appearance. In other words, a person with blond hair, fair skin and blue eyes is more likely to be drawn to colors equal or complementary to their personal coloring. For example, some preferred choices might be yellow, sky blue, lime or mint green, or shades of red. A brunette with dark brown eyes and warmer skin tones tends to be drawn to warmer colors, including gold, turquoise, aqua, orange and purple.

The coloring found in the eyes, skin and hair should be worn near or around the face—with clothes, makeup or accessories—and can make all the difference between looking older, tired and unhealthy or appearing rested, healthy and youthful. Studies have found that hues such as pink, coral and salmon, and various blues, such as teal or sky blue, are complementary for most people because they tend to be found in their natural coloring. Drape clients in these colors when providing facial treatments for a healthy and attractive appearance.

Tips. Following are suggestions on how to incorporate interesting combinations of warm and cool hues to complement and enhance the spa experience.

• Decorate with both warm and cool colors in different proportions and scale. A cool slate blue wall can be warmed by sunlight shining through a window onto a painting featuring both cool and warm colors.

• Select spa uniforms that flatter the wearer and blend well with the spa’s décor. Dark-colored pants tend to slenderize all figure types and require less maintenance. The top color is the most memorable, since it is near the face, so opt for colors that complement most skin tones.

• Choose towels, robes and hair capes that flatter your clients and complement their complexions.

Color value. The degree of lightness or darkness of a color is indicated by its value. Each pure hue on the Color Wheel has an assigned value. For instance, yellow is naturally light, while violet is darker. A color can be a tint, tone or shade, depending on the level of white, gray or black mixed with it. Tints are considered high-value colors because they are lighter than their natural color and reflect more light with the white that has been added. For instance, adding white to the pure color blue creates a lighter tint called baby blue. Colors containing gray, such as slate blue, are considered a tone. A shade, such as midnight blue, has a low value because it appears darker than the natural blue color, and black has been added, which absorbs more light.

Tips. Mix tints, tones and shades with various color values to create dramatic contrast or to complement subtly.

• Close color value contrasts in tones or shades have a sophisticated flair, are calming to work in and do not tire the eye. Strong value contrasts fight for visual attention, can become irritating over time, and are best used as accent colors and in smaller proportions.

• Tints have a stimulating effect on the mind and body, and uplift the mood. To make a room appear larger and to add visual interest, accent with decorations in various tints, or consider painting one wall in a tint while covering the other walls with a tone or shade.

• Tones are neutral in color, harmonize well and do not call attention to themselves. Flooring or clothing pieces often are designed in tones for this reason.

• Shades are quieting, absorb more light and appear to recede. Shapes and objects appear farther away and smaller. Shades and tones complemented with tints evoke a relaxing atmosphere.

Color intensity. The degree of brightness or dullness of a hue is called its intensity. Shocking pink is considered bright, whereas dusty rose is comparatively duller. Bright intensities reflect more light, create energy, call attention to themselves, stimulate the body and mind, and tend to cause objects to appear closer, larger and more pronounced. In addition, they are stimulating to look at initially, but, over time, large quantities tend to become overpowering and less pleasing. Bright colors should be used strategically and minimally as accents to enhance or brighten the appearance of dull colors.

Tones, such as taupe or mauve, consist of warm and cool hues that are muted or grayed. These dull tones are less intense, absorb more light, appear more conservative, and have a soothing influence on the body and mind. In addition, they seem to recede or cause shapes to appear distant, smaller and less pronounced.

Tips. Color intensity can add drama to any space. Play with varying values to create a unique environment.

• Strong contrasts of either hue, value or intensity capture attention. The eye naturally compares color contrast and divides the space, making it look wider and deeper or shorter and longer.

• Using bright colors strategically near product boutiques will emphasize the items and stimulate customer interest.

Color effects

Colors are rarely seen alone and can appear to change as they are viewed in combination. Surface textures also can alter the appearance of a color, because textures absorb or reflect light differently. For instance, a red rose will look brighter and richer compared to a red balloon. Using different lighting or slightly changing the scale or proportion of a color produces entirely different effects.

When creating a harmonious and unique spa atmosphere, consider what meaning and message you want to convey and how they will interact with the brand image you already have established.

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