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What you should know about color contrasts for lighting design

Color contrast

The difference between at least two color tones is called color contrast. Color contrast is elementary for visual perception. We can see objects by separating them from their surroundings. For this reason, color contrast should also be taken into account in lighting design for architecture. The contrast between body colors or light intensities can emphasize areas in (interior) design. On a white background, in addition to colored light, the light colors of different shades of white – ranging from a reddish warm white and neutral white to a bluish cool white – are a design tool in lighting design.

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Color contrast: an overview

What are the color contrasts?

Seven color contrasts according to Itten
The seven color contrasts are based on the color theory of the Swiss painter and art theorist Johannes Itten. The approach he developed is not based on the physical and chemical properties of color but on its subjective effect. Psycho-physical perception therefore plays a decisive role here.

Color in itself contrast

Color contrast of the primary colors yellow, red and blue at 100% and 50% saturation.

This contrast refers to the effect of pure colors in their highest possible intensity. The primary colors of yellow, red and blue create the greatest contrast. The color contrast becomes weaker with secondary or tertiary colors or with decreasing saturation.

Simultaneous contrast

Effect of simultaneous color contrast: a red dot on a black background creates a greenish gray tone on the adjacent surface, and a green dot creates a reddish gray tone.

The effect of simultaneous contrast is caused by the perceptual processing of the eye: after looking at a color for a long time and then seeing a neutral grey, the eye forms a simultaneous contrast. Red leads to a greenish gray tone. This complementary interaction makes a gray surface appear reddish if it is next to a green surface. Colors thus change their effect through the influence of their adjacent colors.

Complementary contrast

Depiction of complementary contrast: color wheel and red square on green square.

The pairs of colors opposite each other in the color wheel form complementary contrast: blue and orange, red and green, and yellow and violet. Yellow and violet show the greatest light-dark contrast in the color wheel, whilst orange and blue show the greatest cool-warm contrast.


The complementary contrast between red and green causes an increase in the luminosity of colors to the point of achieving a flicker effect. This is why we also speak of a flicker contrast in such cases. The eye reacts to the colors and their radiation intensity at identical brightness.

Quality contrast

Quality contrast for red, yellow and blue: depiction of color contrast when purity is reduced from 100% to 50%.

The quality contrast or intensity contrast describes the contrast of pure colors to dull colors. The mixing of pure colors with gray tones makes them dull and murky. The quality of the purity is lost. In their effect, pure colors dominate over dull colors.

Quantity contrast

Color contrast through quantity contrast: color areas of different sizes on one main area.

Quantity contrast refers to the size ratio of color areas to each other. A large color area with a small area of a contrasting color increases the color effect of the main area.

Warm-cool contrast

Warm-cool contrast: color wheel separation into cool and warm colors and a warm yellow square on a cool green base.

In the color wheel, the warm colors with red and yellow components are positioned opposite the cool, blue color tones. Green and magenta make up the neutral transitions. The effect of a predominant color can be increased when combined with an accent from the opposite color.

What is the strongest color contrast?

The 'non-colors' black and white form the strongest contrast, which is the light-dark contrast introduced and named by Itten. The separating effect is also clear in bright colors. A light color next to a dark color has a stronger effect than next to an equally light or lighter color. The highlighting effect of color tones can be enhanced by strong differences in brightness.

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Further topics on colorimetry

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