Defining a Color System or Collection: How Coatings Manufacturers Use Multiple Inputs to Create a Color Palette

July 21, 2020

Defining a color space is an essential step in  promoting a coating system. Ultimately, it will be the end-users of the coatings that will define whether the color space selected is successful.  So, understanding the number of factors influencing the choice of colors will help to determine whether that color space will be successful or not.

Factors Influencing A Color System

The Experience of Color

The way we experience color can be influenced by the warmth, personality and symbolism the color conveys. These meanings are fluid and change across cultures and borders. The way a color space is perceived and the emotions it may provoke can even change with age or through influence by external factors.

Each person’s perception of color is entirely unique.  A particular color may calm one person but make another excited. One person’s favorite color may be a dark shade of red and another person’s preferred color may be a light shade of green. Whether there is something inside each of us that makes feel a certain way when we see a color, science can’t tell us right now. However, science can help define color. 

Color space is well known in the paint and coatings industry.  A color can be described by coordinates within that color space.  In coatings, pigments are used to zero-in on those coordinates.  However, science cannot help to describe the aesthetic or emotional connotation of each color represents across different cultures and people.

Western culture, for example, associates the color orange with autumn, harvest, and warmth. In Hinduism, it is considered auspicious and sacred. And it is the official color of the Dutch Royal family. In Asia, orange is associated with love, happiness, humility, and good health. These are positive reflections of the same color.  However, other colors may have very different symbolism in different parts of the world. In Western cultures, white can represent cleanliness, health, or purity.  In Asia, white is associated with death and bad luck.  Black can invoke feelings of sophistication and formality, but it also represents death, evil, mystery, and bad luck.  These associations can contain significant differences especially when considered sub-regionally or locally.

Because end-users will perceive colors differently, it is important to consider this factor when developing a color system or collection. Prioritizing a customer’s cultural and personal experience of color will provide a better experience for the end-user.


Another interesting consideration is that color spaces tend to change with location. Geography and climate influence trends in colors for architectural coatings. So even within similar cultural contexts, the expectation of color spaces will vary across the regions they’re applied in.

Most paint companies in North America have similar, neutral color spaces as their highest selling colors. In contrast, companies in South America or the Caribbean carry colors that trend towards brighter and more saturated colors.

This is also true within a single country or region.  An example would be within various regions of the United States. In southern Florida, the colors can be brighter and more saturated while colors in the Midwest may be more muted and colors in the Southwest are more earth tone shades. Because of this regional variance, it is worth considering how geography might influence the color spaces selected for your coatings.

While architectural coatings will be affected more by geography, industrial coatings can be affected as well.  Industrial coatings, such as coatings for automobiles, concrete, durable goods, industrial maintenance, and wood, can have minor changes in the color space based on the popularity of shades within a region. The colors selected for these coatings can be driven by many of the same regional factors, however, maybe not to the same extent as with decorative coatings.

The Application

The method of tinting as well as the end application for the coating will drive the color system or collection.  In many places, such as North America, Australia, and Western Europe, Point-of-Sale (POS) tinting is a highly used method of coloring paint.  This tinting concept is used in architectural as well as industrial applications, although it is employed in slightly different ways. Despite the virtually endless color options associated with POS tinting, the color palette of pre-matched colors is larger in architectural coatings and smaller in industrial coatings.

The level of POS tinting varies around the world. Without POS tinting capabilities, a color palette may be smaller with wider variation between colors in the system due to the need to stock all available colors. In regions such as China, the Indian subcontinent, or ASEAN, the level of POS tinting may lower than in North America or Europe, but these regions are also moving towards increased usage of POS tinting.  Over time, the color systems and collections will likely adapt or change.

In Architectural paints, the color collection may include 1,500+ colors arranged in the large color display at a big box retailer or a local paint & decorating store.  With this  number of colors, the shade difference between one color and the next may be minor, and this is also known as a “letdown”. It may be very difficult for the novice DIY consumer or homeowner to decide on a color to repaint the interior of their house.  So, the paint manufacturer will create smaller color schemes within the larger collection. These manufacturers will show how two or three colors pulled from their larger palette will complement each other. 

This step is where a knowledge of color theory is very useful. You’ll need to consider how each color influences the other and how they work together to achieve the objective of the application.

These are eight types of basic color schemes you can use as your foundation:

  • Monochromatic: Different shades and depths of a single color.
  • Analogous: The main color and the colors from either side of it on the color wheel
  • Complementary: Complementary or opposite colors from the color wheel
  • Split-Complementary: Three colors — the main color and colors from either side of its complement
  • Triadic: Three colors from equidistant points on the color wheel
  • Tetradic: Four colors from points on the color wheel that form a rectangle (or could be a square which would be four equidistant points)
  • Neutral: Uses colors that either are significantly muted by adding black, such as earth tones or exhibit minimal color, such as ivories, off-whites, and beiges.
  • Achromatic: No color — just blacks, whites and greys

Visualization is important to make the architectural coatings user comfortable in their choices. It is important to remember these color systems or collections are not static.  Even the larger decorative paint color collections will change slightly from season to season.  As color trends change, old or out of fashion colors may be removed, and new colors introduced.

In Industrial coatings, the color collections will be much smaller and the difference between those colors wider. For instance, in automotive, there may be 6 or so available exterior colors with two or three interior colors available. These colors would be within the broader color families such as red, blue, tan, white, or black.  In flooring or concrete protective coatings, there may be up to 25 colors available with the majority of colors being in the earth tone color space (grays, tans, browns, and reds).  For industrial maintenance coatings, the color selections may be even wider and will typically also include ANSI Safety Colors or utilize a color system such as RAL.  The flooring and industrial maintenance segments will also have a larger number of custom colors that can be serviced through a POS tinting approach.  For aerosols, there can be more than 20 colors in multiple sheens and types.

External factors

Fashion and apparel have been associated with driving decisions of future options in automotive colors.  Television shows, especially home improvement shows, can drive people to certain color spaces such as cool colors or vivid colors or pastels.  Even company brand colors can influence someone’s decision about a color.

We are surrounded by color.  Everywhere we turn, there is a color that may make us feel calm, angry, worried or relaxed.  In some cases, these feelings may be universal.  In other cases, they may be regional.  It is important to understand these factors when creating a color collection for your customers.

Creating a Color System or Collection

Once you’ve assessed the factors affecting color choice, the next step is to define the color space you will offer to your customers. This process can be complex and has no universal rules. However, there are a few guidelines and questions you can use to make this step successful.

Define Consumer Needs

When defining a color system or collection, it’s tempting to dive into the color selection right away. But there are thousands upon thousands of colors and combinations to choose from. Making a decision about a color can be debilitating without a clear vision for what the selection needs to achieve.  Is the color space for a DIY’er who plans to repaint their living room or is it for the contractor who has been hired to repaint a water tower? Is there a need to provide color collection with slightly different shades or will a few colors from each color family suffice?  Will all tinting of the coatings be done in-plant or will there be the ability to tint at the point-of-sale?

Addressing these factors prior to beginning the project will help in creating a color system or collection of colors that is more manageable and more aligned with the end use. This enables the consumer’s needs and expectations to drive the decisions about the color space and ultimately making your color collection development project more successful.

Define the Color Space Requirements

The first step to creating a color system or collection is to broadly decide what general colors will be included. Will they be bright colors spanning all colors of the spectrum or will they be limited to muted earth tones or a mixture of both.

Once you have your broad colors selected, you then have to decide how many colors do you want and how they will be arranged. If a larger number of colors are wanted, an easy way to start is to determine how much room is there to display the colors. Do they need to fit within 4” wide display or is more room available? Perhaps the colors will be contained in a fan deck only and space is not a concern? For a smaller palette, is it a fold-out brochure, a one-sheet selection or may be limited to a small group of colors?

The number of colors in a color collection will help determine how far apart the colors will be and decisions will need to be made on the color distribution throughout the palette. For a small collection, the color choices may be driven primarily by current consumer trends.

Once you’ve identified the basic color space as a starting point, you’ll need to refine it to meet the final requirements. This might involve adjusting the characteristics of the colors, such as chroma, hue and value.

When defining a new color system or collection, it is recommended to keep in mind both the coatings and the colorant dispersions that will be used. Working closely with your colorant supplier at the beginning of the project will assist in ensuring that the colorants align well with the desired color space targeted.

Ideally, the new colors are prepared in the coating with the colorants to be used and then provided to the color card producer as standards to match for the new color collection. This will set up excellent alignment between the color system colors and color formulas produced.


Defining a color system or collection is an essential step in promoting coatings for a planned application. As discussed, there are a number of factors that should be considered when developing a color system or collection for that application. Because the way we experience color is so subjective, it will take insight into the science of color as well as human interpretation of color and cultural impacts to make decisions about your new color collection much easier and effective.

By: Teri A. Kummer
Color Science Manager – Americas

Steve Riccardi
Director – Global Marketing & Business Development

Mike McCormick
Global Industry Manager-Industrial Coatings

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