If you’ve had any classes or done any reading on basic color theory, you’ve no doubt came across the concept that hot colors (red, orange and yellow) ‘advance’, or appear to move forward, while cool colors (purple, green, and blue) recede, or fall back. If you’ve played with colors in your work, you’ve probably noticed it yourself. But, do you know why this happens? If you’ve ever had to sit through a class where someone who didn’t know why this happens tries to explain it, you’ve likely lost an hour or so of your life. The answer is actually much simpler than many that I’ve heard.
It may surprise you to know that this phenomenon is physical, not mental. The warm colors have a focal point that is behind the retina, so in order to truly focus on them, your eye’s lens must thicken to focus the warm colors to the appropriate area. Cool colors, on the other hand, need to be focused on a point in front of your retina, causing the lens to flatten out. This change in thickness actually does physically increase or decrease the distance from your eye to the image, however minutely. The thicker lens also magnifies the image slightly, so that the image appears to be closer. The overall effect is an almost imperceptible version of the horror/thriller movie camera trick where the subject of the shot rapidly moves toward the camera while the background falls quickly away.
An interesting side effect of this phenomenon is that you can physically only focus on either warms or cools at a time. This gives you the potential to use these colors to not only add dimension to your images, but to find other creative ways to separate parts of your image. For instance, you can create two separate stories within a single image by creating one image in the warm space and the other in a cool space. Or you can use color to separate conflicting points of focus that occupy the same space.
So, the next time you are looking for a way to separate items within a single space or illustration, for whatever reason, keep this color principle in mind. If your creative solution is unique enough, you might just start a whole new movement.