Colour is a fundamental part of our visual experience and an important part of how we perceive and interact with the world. There are many different colours that exist, more than we could ever count, but traditional colour models identify a set of basic colour categories that act as building blocks for creating all other colours. One such model identifies 24 basic colours that encompass the full spectrum of visible colour.
So what exactly are these 24 colours that form the foundation of the colour spectrum? Read on to learn more about the history and science behind the identification of the 24 basic colour categories, see examples of each distinct colour, and gain a deeper understanding of the vital role these 24 colours play in art, design, and human vision.
The Origins of the 24 Colours
The concept of identifying a set number of distinct, basic colours dates back centuries in the history of colour theory. In 1708, Sir Isaac Newton identified seven colours in his optical experiments—red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet—which formed the basis for the rainbow. Later scientists such as Thomas Young expanded this to include more intermediary colours, eventually arriving at 24 colours as the optimal number of categories needed to describe the full range of visible colour.
The development of colour models identifying these 24 colours coincided with advancements in colour theory and the study of human vision and perception. Scientists aimed to understand the mechanisms by which the human eye and brain interpret colour information, and these colour models helped categorise colours into distinct groups that aligned with the eye’s receptors and the brain’s interpretation.
Modern colour models like the Natural Colour System (NCS) built upon this early research on human vision to methodically identify the 24 optimally-distinct colour categories encompassing all visible colour space. The 24 colours continue to be a useful framework for understanding, communicating about, and creating colour harmonies.
The 24 Colours of the Spectrum
So what specifically are the 24 colours that comprise the foundation of the visible colour spectrum? They are:
These colours represent the distinct hues our eyes can detect and our brains categorise into colour sensations when viewing the full spectrum of visible light. The colours are grouped into warm colours (reds, oranges, yellows), cool colours (greens, blues, violets), achromatic colours (whites, greys, black), and intermediary colours between these groups.
Definitions and Characteristics of Each Colour
To fully understand the 24 fundamental colours, let’s explore each one in more detail:
Red – The pure, fully saturated red with no traces of orange or violet. It is the hottest, most energetic colour.
Red-orange – A red with a subtle shift toward orange; a warm, vibrant colour.
Red-violet – A red with a subtle shift toward violet; a rich, intense colour.
Violet – The pure violet at the end of the spectrum, neither reddish nor bluish. Intense and spiritual.
Violet-blue – A violet with a subtle shift toward blue; a cool, tranquil colour.
Violet-red – A violet with a subtle shift toward red; a soft mixture of warmth and coolness.
Blue – The pure, fully saturated blue with no hints of green or violet. Cool, calming, and intellectual.
Blue-green – A blue with a subtle shift toward green; a restful, tranquil colour.
Blue-violet – A blue with a subtle shift toward violet; a rich, wheeling colour.
Green – The pure, intense green exactly midway between blue and yellow. Balanced and refreshing.
Green-yellow – A green with a subtle shift toward yellow; a youthful, vibrant colour.
Green-blue – A green with a subtle shift toward blue; a relaxing, tranquil colour.
Yellow – The pure, brilliant yellow at midpoint between green and orange. Cheerful and sunny.
Yellow-orange – A yellow with a subtle shift toward orange; a bright, energetic colour.
Yellow-green – A yellow with a subtle shift toward green; a fresh, lively colour.
Orange – The pure, fully saturated orange with no traces of yellow or red. Joyful and energetic.
Red-orange – A vibrant colour midway between red and orange.
Orange-yellow – A warm colour midway between orange and yellow.
White – Pure white without traces of colour. Innocent and clean.
Grey – The perfect neutral grey, midway between white and black. Classic and refined.
Light grey – A lighter grey closer to white than true grey. Cool and smooth.
Dark grey – A darker grey closer to black than true grey. Serious and formal.
Black – The deepest, most saturated black with no traces of colour. Powerful and sophisticated.
This breakdown showcases the diversity within each colour family and the subtle variations that allow for 24 distinct categories. Keeping these detailed definitions in mind will help you identify, compare, and contrast the 24 foundation colours.
How the 24 Colours Are Used
These 24 colours serve many important purposes in colour theory, design, and art:
- They provide a standardized colour vocabulary for precise, consistent communication about colour.
- They establish optimal hue variations and relationships useful in colour mixing.
- They enable sophisticated colour selection, coordination, and harmonies.
- They form a basis for software tools, apps, and formats for digital colour use.
- They serve as reference points for calibrating and evaluating colour reproduction.
Some specific examples include:
- Paint and Pigments – Many paint or pigment systems are built around the 24 hues as core colour options.
- Digital Design – Software for digital design, imaging, and video editing often employ the 24 colours in colour selection palettes and tools.
- Textiles and Dyes – Textile mills utilize the 24 colours to systematically develop coordinated fabric colour palettes.
- Graphic Design – Graphic designers refer to the 24 colours as a guide for making sophisticated colour choices aligned with colour theory.
- Industrial Design – Product designers use the 24 colours as reference when specifying colours for manufactured products.
Across many fields, the 24 colours provide a common framework and vocabulary for practical, real-world colour applications.
Colour Harmonies Using the 24 Colours
One of the most powerful uses of the 24 basic colours is in intentionally creating colour harmonies. Colour harmony refers to the pleasing visual relationships and combinations of colours.
Several types of harmonies can be derived from the 24 colours:
Complementary Harmony – Complementary colours are opposite one another on the colour wheel. When placed together, they create high contrast and reinforce each other. Examples using the 24 colours:
- Red and Green
- Yellow and Violet
- Blue and Orange
Split Complementary – Uses one colour plus the two colours adjacent to its complement. Provides a nuanced variation on complementary harmony. Example:
- Orange as main colour
- Blue and Blue-green as split complements
Triadic Harmony – Uses three colours equally spaced around the colour wheel. Balanced and vibrant combinations. Examples:
- Red, Yellow, Blue
- Orange, Violet, Green
Tetradic/Rectangle Harmony – Combines two pairs of complementary colours into a four-colour palette. Bold and vibrant. Examples:
- Red, Yellow, Blue, Green
- Violet, Orange, Green-yellow, Red-violet
Analogous Harmony – Uses colours located right next to each other on the colour wheel. Subtle and soothing. Example:
- Red-violet, Red, Red-orange, Orange
These harmonies provide starting points for aesthetically arranging the 24 colours into inspiring combinations for design projects across all visual media.
Examples of the 24 Colours in Art and Design
To further demonstrate the role and application of the 24 basic colours, here are examples showcasing their use in notable works of art and design:
Vincent Van Gogh’s Cafe Terrace at Night – This iconic painting masterfully employs complementary colours from the 24 colour palette, including violet, yellow-orange, blue-green and orange. The vivid colour contrasts create an expressive, emotionally charged scene.
Pantone Colour Matching System – This proprietary colour system used throughout the design industry contains over 1,100 colours systematically derived from mixtures of the 24 hues. It enables commercial colour matching across media.
Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych – Pop artist Warhol ingeniously used the 24 colours as a basis for screen printing. By layering screens of the basic colours, he built up luminous portraits brimming with visual energy.
Paul Rand’s IBM Logo – Rand’s classic logo design for IBM perfectly balances the complementary colours blue and orange-yellow from the 24 colour palette, echoed throughout IBM’s longstanding brand identity.
The Child’s Play Clothing Line – This children’s clothing manufacturer employs the 24 colours to intentionally design cheerful, stimulating colour palettes promoting learning, creativity, and emotional wellbeing.
From classical art to commercial design, the 24 colours provide an invaluable resource for artists and designers across the centuries seeking to make colourful impact and communicate meaning through their visual work.
The 24 colours comprising the foundation of the visible colour spectrum play an integral role in how we conceptualize, communicate about, create, and experience colour. Understanding these colours, their characteristics, relationships, and applications equips us with valuable knowledge for navigating and appreciating the vibrant, colourful world around us. So take a fresh look at colour through the lens of the 24 colours—a perspective that is scientifically precise, aesthetically pleasing, and creatively inspiring.