Understanding Color: Dominant vs. Recessive Colors

Rangan Das

January 6, 2023

Color is crucial to design. Dominant colors pop out, whereas recessive colors fade into the background. Here, we explore how you can play around with these colors for your design and branding needs.

An example of a color palette using both dominant and recessive colors in the movie The Midnight Sky (2020). A color extractor tool can help you create such palettes for inspiration. Source: @colorseffect

Some colors attract more visual attention than others. When we look at the visual electromagnetic spectrum, longer wavelength colors catch our attention more quickly than shorter wavelength ones. Similarly, these are the hues that appear "warmer" in appearance but are "cooler" on the Kelvin scale. Blues, greens, and purples don't reach our eyes until after reds and oranges do (violets). These hues command visual interest.

This property of color, or rather, light has a great impact on visual arts. This includes photography, cinematography, and even design. Using dominant and recessive colors helps guide the eye in the right direction. 

What do dominant and recessive mean?

The pair – dominant and recessive, comes from genetics. An animal receives genes from both its father and mother. Some genetic traits can override others. For instance, the gene that leads to the brown eye color in humans is more dominant than others and hence is so common. The dominant and recessive genes also determine other physical traits in other animals. It can determine the color of the fur coat of a cat or a dog.

Similarly, when it comes to colors, the terms dominant and recessive, are used to determine if one hue will override another one. 

Dominant and recessive in colors

Dominant colors usually “pop out” more. This explains why some hues tend to be strong while others fade into the background. Pure color wheel hues naturally predominate. However, because red, blue, and yellow cannot be made by combining other colors, primary colors are the most prevalent (followed by secondary, then tertiary colors).

Recessive colors are shades and tints of primary and secondary hues. To create a tint, white is added to the hue. For instance, when white is added to red, the original color is essentially made lighter and turns into a pastel-like pink. On the other hand, using black results in a shade. Thus, the shading makes the original color darker. 

Dominant colors

Dominant colors are more likely to stand out. Regardless of how many other colors might be present, the dominant color is always the first thing you notice when you look at a design, a photograph, or a scene. It's crucial to keep in mind that a variety of factors can affect whether a color is dominant or recessive. 

Scenes from Midsommar (2019) [left] and Irréversible (2002) [right]. The use of multiple dominant colors often fails to draw focus to a single point in the scene. Source: @colorseffect

What is the psychology behind dominant colors?

Colors evoke emotions in humans. We frequently relate certain colors to personality traits. It has long been used in marketing to draw customers in and communicate about the brand. 

The primary colors are the most dominating. However, it also depends on how it is used. Red is typically associated with passion, joy, or even excitement. Blue is seen as a color of trust. Black typically connotes a sense of strength, determination, or even corruption while white is typically seen as pure and untainted. Businesses that want to be associated with nature incorporate green into their marketing strategies. Yellow represents friendliness and joy but can have other meanings as well.

Creating color dominance

While primary colors can help create domain colors, various other factors also play an important role in how much a dominant color can “pop out”. Here are some of the key factors that affect the dominance of color. 

#1. Use of other colors

Dominance can also be greatly influenced by how color is used. When one color is used in a design project in large quantities, it may start to take center stage. Let’s take this design kit as an example. 

Minimal UI Kit by Anton Chandra

While this UI has almost no dominant colors, the pastel shades of pink, teal, and blue still dominate because of the surplus use of white space in the design. 

#2. Perception of colors

Source: https://www.mixd.co.uk

The way we see color also influences how dominant it is. Light and dark hues can be combined, as well as using both large and small amounts of color, to alter the perceived visual color mix. For example, in the above image, red looks less dominant than yellow. However, even in small amounts, colors with high intensities can appear dominant (below). Additionally, when combined with a contrasting accent color, using multiple shades of the same hue can give the impression of color dominance.

Source: https://qoals.com

#3. Saturation, contrast, and sharpness

A saturated color will appear more dominant than a less saturated one. Reducing the saturation makes the color appear grayish. Similarly, contrast can affect color dominance too. A dominant color with too many other dominant colors around will not pop out as much. Finally, sharpness determines how much the object of interest is in focus in the entire design. Saturation, contrast, and sharpness are related design terms. You can use saturation to create contrast and make a certain color stand out more. 

“Color clutter” affects perceived dominance. The presence of too many bright colors can reduce the overall dominance of any particular color. Source: Vratislav Pecka

Example of using more and less saturated colors to create contrast and dominance. Source: UMA Brand Studio

An icon kit that puts the softer color in the foreground while accentuating it with a more dominantly colored element in the background. Source: SINTHAI Boonmaitree

Recessive colors

Recessive colors are those that tend to blend into the background. Given their propensity to grab attention, colors like red or blue will undoubtedly avoid taking on the recessive role. However, from the previous examples, we also know that may not be true. 

Under the right conditions, almost any color can become recessive. When compared to a bolder color, even bright blue can seem recessive. This is particularly true if the blue color has been somehow lightened or faded. It can also be done by using other design tricks. Utilizing recessive colors allows you to use a variety of hues without making the project's overall appearance appear cluttered.

Recessive colors can help set the mood of the piece. Scenes from Arrival (2016) [left] and Drive (2011) [right]. Source: @colorseffect

Leveraging recessive colors

Recessive colors are generally used as background colors. Recessive colors can be used to set the entire mood of the design or create a sense of depth. They are used for backgrounds in visuals, as a "neutral" in a color scheme, or to emphasize a focal point. Recessive colors are usually the murky or subdued tones that appear behind the object that is supposed to be the focal point of an image or the pattern.

#1. Creating depth

One of the main reasons recessive colors are used so frequently in art is that they can be used to add depth. Whether the item in question is for a marketing campaign or a work of art that will hang on a wall is irrelevant. A sense of depth is produced by mixing dominant and recessive colors. Simply put, rather than making a piece feel unfinished, this color combination gives it life. Without recessive colors, the effect would be all but impossible to achieve. The artwork would probably feel unfinished or overly busy, making it difficult to look at.

Subtle colors allow the foreground elements to stand out. Source: Muskan Raina

#2. Setting the mood

Without a doubt, the aesthetic you decide to use for a particular piece will depend on your motivations. Depending on how they relate to psychology, you can use a combination of dominant and recessive colors to produce a certain mood. To draw attention to something significant to you, you can use a color palette to gain insight into other people's perceptions. You are always trying to get a message across, convince someone that your point of view is worthwhile, or otherwise connect with them.

Graphical user interfaceDescription automatically generated

Different background colors determine different weather conditions and set a different mood in this weather app concept. Source: liberté art

#3. Controlling color dominance

Recessive colors can be used to control how dominant a dominant color looks. They can be used to make recessive colors appear dominant or can even make brighter colors appear less significant. By cleverly using recessive colors, you can control how much your dominant colors pop. 

The Tidal web app uses a shade of the dominant color in the album art for the background. This makes the UI feel more balanced by reducing how much the album art pops out. Source: listen.tidal.com

Art is subjective, but color is science

Designers select colors because of branding requirements. It may be the case that the brand logo uses a recessive color, and the task is to draw focus to that. In such cases, it's critical to keep in mind that all forms of art are subjective. The audience might completely miss the thing that speaks to them first. Even worse, someone might not like the way a particular piece appears for a variety of reasons. In such cases, it is extremely important to develop designs collaboratively with proper Brand Management tools

Along with that, understanding the science behind dominant and recessive colors can still help you communicate your ideas even if you produce something that isn't necessarily well-liked purely based on aesthetics. 

Related Articles