White Out: Everything You Need to Know About the Color White

white color theory meaning history

Symbolic of purity and cleanliness, white is an overwhelmingly positive color. Unwrap the secrets of white and infuse calm and serenity into your designs.

Here, discover the fascinating history, psychology and theory of white, and explore three on-trend color palettes for using white effectively in your designs.

White Out: Everything You Need to Know About the Color White — Theory Image by contributor Haris vythoulkas.

Hungry for more color? Discover a whole spectrum of beautiful colors to use in your designs with our new color tool.

Where is White on the Color Wheel?

White doesn’t feature on a traditional color wheel, as it is considered to be a non-color. It is achromatic, meaning that it has no hue. Being the opposite of black, which absorbs all other colors, white reflects and scatters all the visible wavelengths of light.

However, white can and often is treated as a color in itself; with white able to bring a distinct character and mood to designs which feature it.

When darkened with black, white is transformed into shades of gray, darker achromatic hues that carry some of the traits of both black and white.
White Out: Everything You Need to Know About the Color White — Color Wheel
Color wheel images adapted from contributor Antun Hirsman

Types of White

For web design, a true white can be achieved using the hex code #FFFFFF and maximum values of red, blue, and green in an RGB model (255, 255, 255). This is based on Newton’s theory of white light refraction. In 1666 he demonstrated that white light was in fact made up of several colored light composites. To produce the white light we see on screens, red, blue, and green light are mixed at full intensity. This technology is directly inspired by Newton’s theory.

In print design, white is rendered in negative value (0,0,0,0) for an ink-based, CMYK model. This pure white is sometimes referred to as “paper” by print designers, and in design software like Adobe InDesign.

Bright white, a hue which mimics the color of clouds or fresh milk, is a sought-after shade by fans of minimalism. Prized by architects for its ability to let the shapes and lines of interiors and exteriors stand out, this is the ultimate blank-canvas shade of white.

White Out: Everything You Need to Know About the Color White — ArchitectureImage by contributory Roland Shainidze.

A wide range of “off-white” shades can be achieved by mixing white with small amounts of other colors. The mood of the added colors can characterize the white shade. For example, ivory is an off-white that contains a small amount of yellow, named after the material that forms elephant tusks.

Other off-white hues include:

Dusk—containing a hint of either lavender, pink, or blue, dusk is a sleepy, subdued and warm off-white.
Snow white contains a small amount of blue, mimicking fresh snowfall or frost.
Gardenia, named after the tropical flower found in the Pacific islands, is creamier and softer than pure white, making it more versatile and welcoming as a color in interior design.
Honeydew contains a small amount of spring green, creating a remarkably fresh and rejuvenating off-white hue.

Discover how you can use a variety of whites and off-whites using the Shutterstock color tool. Explore palettes and images related to a range of pale hues, including ivory, ecru, cream, and bright white.

White’s Complementary Color

White is not strictly a color, so it doesn’t sit opposite a color on the spectrum. Its non-color opposite is black. When paired together, black and white create a high-contrast, striking result. Artists and designers in every era have adopted this dramatic combination.

Teaming white with gray creates a monochromatic scheme that is subtle, chic, and easily adaptable for a range of designs.

Because it is without hue, white can be treated as a neutral and paired with a wide range of colors. See tips below for designing with white and off-white shades.

White Out: Everything You Need to Know About the Color White – Interior DesignImage by contributor photographee.eu.
The Meaning of White

White is an exceptionally powerful color both psychologically and culturally. The dramatic opposite to black, it is often used in opposition to black’s dark associations. While black is associated historically with fear, evil and mystery, white represents its antithesis—associated with light, purity, and goodness.

White can represent nothingness and possibility. It can also be a signifier of good taste, sophistication, and simplicity. High-end interior brands like Jo Malone and The White Company have placed white at the core of their brand aesthetic and ethos.

White Out: Everything You Need to Know About the Color White — Jo MaloneThe iconic white packaging used by Jo Malone, a British perfume and scented candle brand owned by Estée Lauder. Image by contributor EQRoy.

In many contexts white is used to represent cleanliness, sterility, and coolness. In hospitals, white uniforms and white medical packaging use white to this effect. The color is also often used to market low-fat or diet products, to help consumers feel like they are making a fresh start and purifying the body by using the product.

White has wide-ranging symbolism across different cultures. In the West, white is often associated with virginity and innocence. Traditionally worn by brides on their wedding day (a trend started by Queen Victoria, see below), white is also worn by brides in the Shinto religion of Japan. However, in many Asian countries, white is largely symbolic of mourning (as opposed to black in the West).

White Out: Everything You Need to Know About the Color White— WeddingsA Japanese couple at a Shinto wedding ceremony. The bride wears a traditional white kimono. Image by contributor Blanscape.

Because of its opposition to black and its connections with purity, white is also affiliated with spirituality and faith, with many religions featuring the color prominently. Popes in the Catholic Church have worn white since the mid-16th century, while pilgrims in the Shinto and Islamic religions choose to dress in white. During the Jewish festival of Yom Kippur, the rabbi and congregational members wear white to demonstrate their commitment to atonement.

The Origins of White

White was one of the first colors used in art, with prehistoric cave drawings, such as those at Lascaux in France, featuring marks and images made using calcite and chalk.

In Ancient Greece white was a sacred color, representative of light and the milk of mothers. In Rome, a plain white toga, toga virilis, was worn by all Roman citizens at ceremonial occasions, and togas brightened with white chalk, toga candida (the origin of the word “candidate”), were donned by those seeking public office.

The early Christians adopted the Romans’ use of white, with priests wearing the color during Mass. For Christians, white was symbolic of purity, humility, and virtue. This was reinforced by depictions of the white lamb, which was symbolic of Christ’s sacrifice for humanity.

Through the Middle Ages, white was strongly associated with its religious connotations of martyrdom, sacrifice, and humility. It was commonly worn by widows in mourning up until the 16th century, giving the color an association with death and reflection.

White was an enduringly fashionable color for both men and women into the 18th and 19th centuries, with a cultural fascination for Ancient Greece and Rome helping to prolong its popularity.

Although historically some famous brides did opt for white gowns on their wedding day, such as Mary, Queen of Scots, when she married her first husband, Francis Dauphin of France, in 1559, it wasn’t until Queen Victoria chose to wear a white court dress at her wedding to Prince Albert in 1840 that the trend for white bridal dresses became commonplace across the Western world.

White Out: Everything You Need to Know About the Color White — Royal Wedding TrendsPrince Harry and Meghan Markle, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, on their wedding day in 2018. Meghan opted for a traditionally colored white dress which was cut in a contemporary, minimal style. Image by contributor Blueskynet.

The white wedding dress is one of the most culturally and symbolically potent uses of white, but because of its origins as a signifier of female virginity and modesty, its relevance for modern brides has been increasingly questioned. Many brides now choose to purposefully reject the white dress in favor of more contemporary alternatives.

In the 20th century, white was the color of choice for architects of the Modernist movement, with Le Corbusier and Oscar Niemeyer championing the color for its minimal and stark aesthetic. Although white was historically applied to temples, churches, and government buildings to symbolize religious and civic purity, modernists used white to emphasize the clean lines and geometric forms of buildings.

White Out: Everything You Need to Know About the Color White — BrasiliaDetail of the Cathedral of Brasilia, designed by architect Oscar Niemeyer and completed in 1970. Image by contributor Nick Photoworld.
How to Design with White

White is often used by designers as a neutral backdrop. The natural color of most paper stock, it is treated as a blank canvas to add contrasting colors to. For web designers, it’s also the default background for websites and apps before color is applied.

However, white can be used as a statement color in itself. White typography set against colored or black backgrounds is high-contrast and eye-catching. The color can be used to evoke a wintery mood or a bright summer’s day, depending on the context and neighboring colors, and it is popularly used in minimalist designs to emphasize simplicity.

“White space” is a term used by designers to describe areas on a layout that don’t contain any busy text or graphics, although it might not necessarily be white. In these posters by Frankfurt-based creatives Bureau Mitte, white space allows minimal splashes of graphic color and vintage photography to shine, creating an ultra-stylish and minimal design.

White Out: Everything You Need to Know About the Color White — White Space

White Out: Everything You Need to Know About the Color White — Poster DesignPoster designs by Bureau Mitte.

When used plainly in graphic design, white has a neutral mood, allowing other elements to shine. But, in some contexts the symbolism of white can be channelled to create a compelling all-white design.

These beautiful floral wall decorations by Ukrainian artist Zoya Olefir are simultaneously minimal, delicate, and even mournful. The choice of white gives the designs a near-funerary but nonetheless extremely elegant style.

White Out: Everything You Need to Know About the Color White — Florals

White Out: Everything You Need to Know About the Color White — Elegance

White Out: Everything You Need to Know About the Color White— FunerealFloral wall decor by Ukrainian artist Zoya Olefir.

In interior design white is purifying and chic, but when used too liberally it can feel harsh and clinical. For livable white schemes, look to warm, natural colors and materials to offset white’s cleanliness. Wood, copper, and burnt orange give white interiors a cosy, Scandinavian-inspired look.

White Out: Everything You Need to Know About the Color White — Scandinavian LookImage by contributor Photographee.eu.
What Colors Go With White?

As a “non-color” without hue, white can be treated as a neutral, allowing it to be paired with almost any other color. White will adopt some of the traits of paired colors, creating a scheme with a particular mood and aesthetic.

For example, pairing pink with white gives the impression of innocence and youth, because pink is traditionally associated with women and children. Pairing white with blue creates a cool, fresh palette reminiscent of the coast and the ocean, making it a popular color pairing for nautical interior schemes.

A monochromatic white color scheme uses darker shades of white (gray) to create an entirely white-gray palette. Often termed “winter whites,” a white-gray scheme is somber, reflective, and chic.

To find the colors and exact hex codes that go with white, use our color combinations tool. It shows you monochromatic and contrasting color palettes for a variety of white and off-white shades. Try a scheme with ivory, honeydew, cream, or gardenia.

Below, discover three trend-led color palettes for white.

Palette 1: Santorini View

Inspired by the striking white and blue facades of houses on the Greek coast, this palette uses creamy white as an accent color, with sky blue, ocean blue, and deep orange working together harmoniously to create a scheme with a Mediterranean feel.

White Out: Everything You Need to Know About the Color White — Santorini Wiew

Palette 2: Back to Nature

This is a contemporary palette that will bring a natural feel to urban interior schemes. Mustard yellow is paired with charcoal gray and olive green. Using these as accents in your scheme with ashy white as the main color will create a fresh and relaxing result.

White Out: Everything You Need to Know About the Color White — Back to Nature

Palette 3: Clean Start

Cool blue-tinted whites look beautiful paired with baby blue and camel. Anchored with black, this is an elegant, fashionable palette that would work well for fashion design or branding.

White Out: Everything You Need to Know About the Color White — Clean Start

Ready to discover more beautiful colors to use in your designs?

Discover a whole spectrum of incredible colors with our new color tool that helps to bring your projects to life.

Cover image via contributor PASSE.

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