What I learned about colour from a fashion reality show

What I learned about colour from a fashion reality show


Years ago, I decided to eschew wearing black. I was working in the city, suiting up and pounding the streets on the public-transport-unfriendly commute to the Pyrmont office.

That walk ensured I got my 10,000 steps a day, from Wynyard across the footbridge to Darling Harbour and, on the way, I had plenty of time to think. In winter, particularly, there was an absence of colour around me. Everyone wore black. Like a murder of crows.

It was depressing and dull. So, I didn’t wear black for more than 20 years. I do, occasionally, now.

I’ve always loved wearing colour. I look better in it. It reflects and affects my mood. My wardrobe is a riot and I love all the hues. But avoiding black is not the easiest way to get dressed. It is more challenging to find coloured pants to go with the chartreuse wrap top than to grab the chequerboard black pants and white shirt.

Avoidance of decision-making is why people dress as if for a funeral most days of the week: they don’t have to think much about what to wear. They also have absorbed the clichés that black is “slimming” and “classic”.

If you want to learn about colour, play with it. It is the things that you do every day that refine your “eye”. Challenge yourself with your clothing choices, rearrange your shelves at home, mix your own colours rather than painting straight from the tube.

I take inspiration from pretty much anywhere, so it should not surprise you, dear reader, that I learned some great things about colour by binge-watching the fashion show “What Not To Wear”. (Really. I love a transformation story.)

Aside from discovering that my colour “family” was Spring (pale buttercup yellow, lavender, sage and Schaperelli pink), I also considered Trinny and Susannah’s theory that black “cheapens” colour.

It really does. Put a warm yellow top with black pants and it does neither any favours. But put the yellow with lavender or even grey plaid pants and it enhances both. I don’t know why black deadens colour, it just does.

 I’d like to know more about the science of colour and what makes them sing when you put the right two together. My son (a musician) says harmony is about frequency – whether it is music or colour.

I have bought books on the subject. I just haven’t had time to read them yet. Beyond the basic of understanding the colour wheel and the theory of complementary colours, all I know is that some colours enhance each other and look beautiful and make me happy. Others look wrong, ugly and make me feel queasy.

My relationship with colour is as instinctive and physical as your taste preferences for food. Some flavours and textures send you into ecstasy, others make you feel like throwing up. You may not know why.

If you are interested in looking at research on theories of colour harmony, I found this for you (Link). 

When it comes to painting, black is never on my palette. Even though I paint a lot of magpies, their dark feathers are based on a blend of burnt umber and ultramarine blue. I add yellow or red or more blue and white to get the variation you see in the glossy plumage.

Black comes in many variations (Ivory, Mars, Lamp) and is mixed from combinations of colours. So, in effect, I am just making my own black.

To get a harmonious painting, I start by choosing my base colours – generally a blue, red and something yellow and white. However, I may also add a cobalt violet or green/gold or even a hot pink to add to the mix. This limited palette gives me everything I need to be able to mix most colours. And, because the colours I use are mixed from the same three or four tubes, they all sit well with each other. They “play nice”.

Sometimes, if I am trying to get a particular colour, like the blue in the sky, I may have to reach into my paint drawers for something else to get it right. Turquoise, perhaps. Towards the end of the painting, I may decide to throw in something entirely different to add colour interest … that’s where the green/gold comes in handy. When mixed with a little white it goes a kind of acid green that can enliven a painting that is too harmonious.

I have my enthusiasms. At the moment, I love mixing cobalt violet with a warm yellow. It creates a warm green/brown that changes colour, depending on what it sits next to. It is a great neutral to play around with that doesn’t compete with some of the more pure colours. Not every colour can be a winner. Some have to play second fiddle in a painting – or you may have something that resembles what used to be called a “technicolour yawn” (a vomit of colour).

Recently, I bought an expensive tube of bright pink, but I really dislike it. There is blue in it and it looks ugly with everything I have put it with. However, add yellow and it makes a brilliant orange. It looks great in a magpie eye or a flower. So, all’s well that ends well!

If you want to improve your colour skills, you can start doing some simple exercises to challenge yourself:

  1. Hide all your black clothes and start throwing together outfits with what you have left. If you are stuck, add white today and try again tomorrow.
  2. When you flick through a magazine, take an extra look at photos that attract your eye and make a note of the colours that sit well together.
  3. Screenshot photos online that have attractive colour combinations. If you have room in your home, you can always pin them up on a noticeboard.
  1. If you have arrangements of books or knick-knacks in your home, move them around regularly and notice how different they look when paired with other colours.
  1. If you are painting, mix your own colours. Experiment with the Zorn palette (yellow ochre, ivory black, vermilion and titanium white) and see how far it can take you.   



 This was painted with a Zorn Palette. The orange railings come from the orange gesso underneath.


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I couldn’t agree more! I avoid wearing black (my fair skin really does not go with it anyway) and lived that TV show back in the day! I recently rediscovered Trinny Woodall on Instagram, so check her out. Also, I love you art.

Fiona Diaz

I agree with you wholeheartedly about drab black! Winter needs colour! I have one pair of black trousers and one black top. Navy is safe but I love colour, I don’t feel comfortable in black.
Years ago I was in New York over Christmas. I took an op shop cream wool coat teamed with red hat, alpaca scarf/shawl and red leather gloves. I glowed amongst the dark drab coats!

Leonie Wright

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