Have you ever seen the old “optical illusion” that makes one color appear to be two entirely different colors? If you’ll excuse the MS Paint quality image (is there a rule that all optical illusions have to have been designed before 1997?) the one below makes two spirals appear to be blue and green, when the stripes making the spirals are actually the same color. Its the same principle at play as when you look at a color in a design and it just doesn’t seem to work right. When placed next to specific hues, certain colors can take on the visual characteristics of their neighboring color. Making this even more tricky, the human eye perceives color in different ways depending on if it is in the background or foreground.
The specific colors that can take on other characteristics are referred to as recessive colors, while those who always look the same are called dominant colors. Many pure colors such as cyan maintain their hue even when mixed or paired with other colors. No matter what color is mixed with a dominant color, the original color will still remain at least partially visible.
Dominant colors also tend to “push through” the design, or powerfully assert themselves within the composition. While recessive colors easily fade into the background, it is hard to make a dominant color sit far in the background. Pure hues are naturally dominant, though primary colors are more dominant than the others, because red, blue, and yellow literally can’t be created by mixing other colors.
Recessive colors, on the other hand, naturally fade into the background. They also easily take on the properties of any surrounding color. Recessive colors act as a neutral in a palette which help the more dominant colors maintain their emphasis and focal attention. As Carrie Cousins puts it, “recessive colors are the blurry or muted tones behind the focal point of an image or the pattern that appears behind something you’re supposed to be looking at.”
Cousins explored the relationships between dominant and recessive colors exhaustively at Design Shack. Not only does she delve into the scientific basis for why we perceive these colors the way we do, she also explains how these ideas can be adapted to design of all kinds, including web design.