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Color Series: Gamut Masks

by Taylor Slattery | January 6, 2022

In the previous installation of this series, we were introduced to the concept of color harmony. Building on the ideas of color relativity and temperature, which we established in prior installations, we then explored how we can use these concepts to navigate the color wheel and create pairings for use in our design and illustration work. Using a single hue as a starting point, we constructed complementary, split complementary, triadic, analogous, and monochrome color schemes.

In this installation, we’re going to build upon those concepts and take things one step further by introducing gamut masks. We’ll explore ways in which we can use geometry to inform our color choices and by the end, you’ll be comfortable picking successful combinations from any point on the wheel.

You may have noticed that in our previous explorations, in all of the pairings except for the complementary and monochrome, the points on the color wheel form some sort of triangle. If we were to use any color that falls within that triangle, rather than limiting ourselves to just the three found at its corners, we are now working within what is called a gamut mask. Put simply, it’s just a geometric overlay placed over the color wheel to limit our color choices. We’ll touch on this just briefly here, but for those curious, this concept is covered in greater depth in Color and Light by James Gurney, as well as on his blog, Gurney Journey.

So now that we know what a gamut mask is, why should we use one? Like the schemes we explored in the previous installation, the purpose of a gamut mask is to build color harmony. If you look closely, you’ll see that a gamut mask actually incorporates each of the schemes we explored previously—this is the key to its success. Within each gamut mask exists a more compressed range of colors representative of complementary, split complementary, analogous, triadic, and monochrome color relationships.

However, unlike the schemes explored last time, which resulted in a relatively small selection of hues, with a gamut mask, we have access to all of the points in between, granting us greater flexibility and allowing for more nuanced color interactions. Because a smaller version of all of the schemes is present within a mask, we can make color choices with confidence knowing there will always be a certain degree of cohesion.

While the most basic form of gamut mask is a triangle, we can manipulate this base to produce gamut masks of various shapes and proportions. By changing lengths of sides we can alter the roles and relationships between colors, making some more dominant, and others subservient. The effects produced by one triangle will vary greatly from those of another.

We aren’t limited to just triangles either. We can just as easily add another corner or even two—any sort of polygon will work. In fact, any shape will work. Circles and ovals are fair game, too. In the case of the complementary and monochrome color schemes, which follow a straight line, we can follow a similar principle by expanding the width of this line to include some of the neighboring hues. What we end up with is a rectangle of sorts.

Choosing colors doesn’t have to be complicated. Gamut masks provide us with parameters to operate within that ensure color harmony so we can make choices with confidence. Next time, using the concepts we’ve learned up until now, we’ll discuss how to exercise restraint with our color choices.


Taylor is the Managing Editor of Notes on Design. Taylor is a graphic designer, illustrator, and Design Lead at Weirdsleep.


If you are interested in learning more about using color, Sessions College offers a Color Theory course and many other graphic design courses for students at all levels. Contact Admissions for more information.

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