Terracotta is a unique color that seems to straddle the line between orange and red. It is an earthy, burnt shade that derives its name from the natural clay material that it resembles. So is terracotta classified as orange or red? The answer lies somewhere in between.
The Origins of Terracotta
The name “terracotta” comes from the Italian words “terra” meaning earth and “cotta” meaning cooked. It refers to a type of ceramic clay that is fired at high temperatures to produce its signature burnt orange-red color. This clay has been used for centuries to make pottery, tiles, and other decorative and architectural items.
Natural clay deposits are found in various shades of orange, red, brown, and yellow due to the iron oxide content present in the soil. When the clay is cleaned and fired at high heat, these metal oxides produce the deep, rusty colors we associate with terracotta. Different clays and firing methods result in variations of the color.
Terracotta’s Distinctive Hue
So what exactly is the hue of terracotta? It falls somewhere between the color ranges defined as orange and red:
- Orange – A secondary color made by mixing red and yellow. It sits between red and yellow on the visible color spectrum at wavelengths between 585-620 nm.
- Red – A primary color with the longest wavelength visible to the human eye at 625-740 nm.
Terracotta falls right in the middle with wavelengths of 610-620 nm. This gives it an earthy, burnt shade that overlaps both orange and red.
Terracotta in Color Systems
Let’s look at how terracotta is classified in some common color order systems:
RYB Color Model
The RYB or red-yellow-blue color model is a historical model based on paint pigments. In RYB:
- Orange is a primary color
- Red is considered a secondary color made from orange and purple
Since terracotta is closer to orange than true red, it would be classified as a light orange in this system.
RGB Color Model
The RGB or red-green-blue color model is used for digital displays. It is an additive model based on mixing light beams.
In the RGB system, terracotta is defined with an RGB code of:
- R = 153
- G = 80
- B = 38
The higher red value moves it closer to red than orange on this spectrum.
CMYK Color Model
CMYK (cyan-magenta-yellow-black) is a subtractive model used in printing. Pigments absorb certain wavelengths to create color.
Terracotta has a CMYK code of:
- C = 25
- M = 65
- Y = 100
- K = 25
The higher magenta and yellow values push terracotta into an orange classification in this system.
HSB (hue-saturation-brightness) and HSL (hue-saturation-lightness) models define color by hue, saturation, and lightness/brightness.
Terracotta has an HSB code of:
- H = 15° (orange-red)
- S = 59%
- B = 59%
And an HSL code of:
- H = 15° (orange-red)
- S = 43%
- L = 47%
The low hue value indicates terracotta’s status as an orange-red color.
How Designers Classify Terracotta
Some designers consider terracotta to be a shade of orange, while others view it as a red. How do designers delineate between the two?
Terracotta as an Orange
Many designers classify terracotta as an earthy, burnt orange because:
- It evokes images of natural clay with high iron oxide content
- It has an orange undertone compared to true reds
- It is considered a shade of orange in the historical RYB color model
Orange is a stimulating, energetic color associated with joy, creativity, and warmth. Viewing terracotta as an orange connects it to these uplifting qualities.
Terracotta as a Red
Other designers categorize terracotta primarily as a red because:
- It sits next to red at the end of the visible color spectrum
- It has a distinctly reddish, rusty tone compared to pure oranges
- The RGB model gives it a higher red than orange or yellow value
Red is associated with passion, excitement, danger, and action. Grouping terracotta with reds gives it a more intense, vibrant feel.
Terracotta Across Various Fields
How is terracotta classified in some practical color applications?
In art, terracotta is generally considered an earthy, reddish-orange:
- Paint pigments classify it as an orange-red or reddish orange
- Crayons and colored pencils have shades named “terracotta” placed with other oranges
However, some artists will group it with reds for intensity when mixing paints.
In interior decorating, terracotta can provide a warm, inviting orange tone. Designers use it for:
- Paint – Add depth and warmth to spaces as an accent wall color
- Tiles – Coordinate with natural stone and wood
- Furniture – Terracotta pots and vases for an earthy feel
It works well with browns, greens, blues, and other shades of orange.
In fashion, terracotta is considered a warm neutral that pairs nicely with other earth tones. It flatters a wide range of skin tones.
- Seen often in fall collections
- Works for handbags, shoes, and clothing
- Provides an earthy, rustic vibe
It can lean slightly orange or slightly red depending on accompanying fabrics and materials.
Psychology of Terracotta
What psychological effects does terracotta’s color have? As an earthy orange-red, terracotta combines uplifting orange qualities with the intensity of red.
- Energy: The orange undertone is energizing and uplifting
- Passion: The red base conveys excitement and enthusiasm
- Warmth: Evokes coziness and comfort like a fireplace
- Creativity: Inspires innovative thinking and experimentation
- Overstimulating: Can increase stress and frustration when overused
- Aggression: Extreme red hues can provoke anger and confrontation
- Isolation: Drab or muddy shades can make people feel detached
Lighter, brighter versions maximize positive effects. Darker, muted tones should be used carefully.
Terracotta in Culture and History
Terracotta clay has been used since ancient times for sculpture and pottery. Here are some cultural examples of terracotta through the ages:
- Terracotta Army – Thousands of painted clay soldiers buried with Emperor Qin Shi Huang
- Tang dynasty tomb figures showing daily life
- Red burnt orange color symbolizes luck, success, and happiness
- Goddess figurines dating back to Indus Valley civilization
- Widely used for flower pots, decorations, temples
- Red symbolizes purity, fertility, sensuality, and motherhood
- Etruscan, Greek, Roman pots and architectural decorations
- Spanish Moorish designs and patterns
- Warm earthy tones fit with climate and landscape
The natural clay’s red-orange hue resonated with cultures across the world.
What’s the Consensus?
So what’s the verdict – is terracotta considered orange or red?
The consensus view is that terracotta is primarily an orange, but contains enough red content to almost be classified as an orange-red:
- Sits midway between orange and red spectrally
- Has an orange clay association
- Used as an orange earth tone in many design fields
- Provides warm, uplifting energy like orange
However, terracotta retains enough underlying redness in its personality to crossover into red territory depending on the context. Its classification can vary based on how it is used.
In the end, terracotta’s uniqueness comes from straddling the line between the warmth of orange and the excitement of red. Its rich burnt orange-red hue provides the best of both worlds!
Terracotta occupies a distinctive place between orange and red on the color spectrum. Its burnt reddish-orange tone has been prized for centuries across cultures and art forms. While terracotta leans orange due to its earthy clay associations, it borrows enough red intensity to sometimes be grouped with reds as well. Its split personality only adds to its beauty and versatility as a color.