Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Color Basics

Over the past few days, I've managed to get into more than a couple of conversations about color and color combinations. This article is to touch on the basics of color, while understanding that color combinations are infinite and complicated.

In cake world, brides and clients have many color requests to match the theme, the dresses, the cardboard cake plates. These are usually not a problem and the cake designer can blend colors to create the masterpiece for the client.

However, I've come across some questions that hinge on "the basics" and so I thought I'd offer this primer in color combination.

One person asked, "How do I create blue?" Blue cannot be created. There are three primary colors from which all colors are derived. The three primaries are red, yellow and blue. These colors cannot be created. They just "are".

Another situation that comes up is "My black (or grey) looks green (or sometimes purple)?" Theoretically, when the three pure primary colors are mixed, we get black. I say "pure" because there are different grades of color and pure colors are usually only found in laboratory settings. When you and I mix the three primaries, we get something close to black.

But why does it look green? Here's a list of the color combos:

Yellow + Blue = Green
Yellow + Red = Orange
Blue + Red = Purple
Yellow + Blue + Red = Black

So if your black icing looks green, that means you have a lot of yellow and blue and you are short on red. The ratio of color is out of balance. Add a tiny touch of red to balance the colors.

If your black icing looks purple, that means you have a lot of red and blue and you are short on yellow. Add a tiny touch of yellow to balance the colors.

The base color used can also impact the color. If someone wants to tint some chocolate to a red color, remember that since red is a primary color, it cannot be created. Adding red to a brown chocolate makes a brown-red color ... not a pure red.

I make a cookie that has a butter-powdered sugar filling. Making a blue or a red filling is difficult because of the yellow color in the butter. Adding red coloring to yellow butter will give me orange, so I have add a LOT of red to the butter (and usually the best I can get is pink!) Adding blue coloring to yellow butter will give me green, so I have to add a LOT of blue coloring to the butter. Keep the base color in mind when mxing colors.

Color can be complicated but if the baker keeps in mind that all colors come from red, yellow and blue, it can be less stressful.

Knowing what you have (in the color mixture) can let you know what you need (to get the color desired).


  1. Very good post! I've been dealing with color issues today and found that many people don't realize the fundamentals of color. I have a caramel color base. People wanted me to make it pink... but with a caramel color... when I add red, the best I can do is orange... Which isn't pink at all... Even the red isn't a true red because the caramel color has a bit of yellow in it. It is what it is... Understanding the limitations is essential to having realistic expectations.

  2. This is truly sad to me that a lot of people don't know the basics of color! Where are our tax dollars that are earmarked for education going? This is not fair that people can be sent through the educational system and not know this.

  3. Anna, I'm finding many "basics" need explained more and more these days. I'm not sure if its an education system or a by product of a totally technology world in which people don't have to experiment and try things for themselves. People who dont' have to know how to balance a checkbook because its on done autmatically online for them .... but when there's a problem, they've no idea how to fix it because they never mastered doing it to start with. We can move forward by sharing information and making sure we never let the basics fall by the wayside!