Basic Color Theory
Color theory encompasses a multitude of definitions, concepts and
design applications - enough to fill several encyclopedias. However,
there are three basic categories of color theory that are logical and
useful : The color wheel, color harmony, and the context of how colors
Color theories create a logical structure for color. For example, if
we have an assortment of fruits and vegetables, we can organize them by
color and place them on a circle that shows the colors in relation to
The Color Wheel
A color circle, based on red, yellow and blue, is traditional in the
field of art. Sir Isaac Newton developed the first circular diagram of
colors in 1666. Since then, scientists and artists have studied and
designed numerous variations of this concept. Differences of opinion
about the validity of one format over another continue to provoke
debate. In reality, any color circle or color wheel which presents a
logically arranged sequence of pure hues has merit.
There are also definitions (or categories) of colors based on the color wheel. We begin with a 3-part color wheel.
traditional color theory (used in paint and pigments), primary colors
are the 3 pigment colors that can not be mixed or formed by any
combination of other colors. All other colors are derived from these 3
Secondary Colors: Green, orange and purple
These are the colors formed by mixing the primary colors.
Tertiary Colors: Yellow-orange, red-orange, red-purple, blue-purple, blue-green & yellow-green
are the colors formed by mixing a primary and a secondary color. That's
why the hue is a two word name, such as blue-green, red-violet, and
Harmony can be defined as a pleasing arrangement of parts, whether it be music, poetry, color, or even an ice cream sundae.
In visual experiences, harmony is something that is pleasing to the
eye. It engages the viewer and it creates an inner sense of order, a
balance in the visual experience. When something is not harmonious, it's
either boring or chaotic. At one extreme is a visual experience that is
so bland that the viewer is not engaged. The human brain will reject
under-stimulating information. At the other extreme is a visual
experience that is so overdone, so chaotic that the viewer can't stand
to look at it. The human brain rejects what it can not organize, what it
can not understand. The visual task requires that we present a logical
structure. Color harmony delivers visual interest and a sense of order.
In summary, extreme unity leads to under-stimulation, extreme
complexity leads to over-stimulation. Harmony is a dynamic equilibrium.
Some Formulas for Color Harmony
There are many theories for harmony. The following illustrations and descriptions present some basic formulas.
1. A color scheme based on analogous colors
Analogous colors are any three colors which
are side by side on a 12 part color wheel, such as yellow-green,
yellow, and yellow-orange. Usually one of the three colors predominates.
2. A color scheme based on complementary colors
Complementary colors are any two colors which are directly opposite
each other, such as red and green and red-purple and yellow-green. In
the illustration above, there are several variations of yellow-green in
the leaves and several variations of red-purple in the orchid. These
opposing colors create maximum contrast and maximum stability.
Nature provides a perfect departure point for color harmony. In the
illustration above, red yellow and green create a harmonious design,
regardless of whether this combination fits into a technical formula for
When you've finished exploring "Basic Color Theory,"
see "The Meanings of Colors" at Color Matters!
How color behaves in relation to other colors and shapes is a complex
area of color theory. Compare the contrast effects of different color
backgrounds for the same red square.
©Color Voodoo Publications
Red appears more brilliant against a black background and somewhat
duller against the white background. In contrast with orange, the red
appears lifeless; in contrast with blue-green, it exhibits brilliance.
Notice that the red square appears larger on black than on other
Different readings of the same color
©Color Voodoo Publications
If your computer has sufficient color stability and gamma correction (link to Is Your Computer Color Blind?)
you will see that the small purple rectangle on the left appears to
have a red-purple tinge when compared to the small purple rectangle on
the right. They are both the same color as seen in the illustration
below. This demonstrates how three colors can be perceived as four
Observing the effects colors have on each other is the starting
point for understanding the relativity of color. The relationship of
values, saturations and the warmth or coolness of respective hues can
cause noticeable differences in our perception of color.
Illustrations and text, courtesy of
Color Logic and Color Logic for Web Site Design
What's your favorite color? What does it mean to others?
Explore "The Meanings of Color" at Color Matters.
Don't miss this article at Color Matters!
The Evolution of the Symbolism of Green
Color & Culture Matters
Available color systems are dependent on the medium with which a
designer is working. When painting, an artist has a variety of paints to
choose from, and mixed colors are achieved through the subtractive
color method. When a designer is utilizing the computer to generate
digital media, colors are achieved with the additive color method.
When we mix colors using paint, or through the printing process, we are
using the subtractive color method. Subtractive color mixing means that
one begins with white and ends with black; as one adds color, the result
gets darker and tends to black.
The CMYK color system is the color system used for printing.Those colors used in painting—an example of the subtractive color method.
Additive Color. If we are working on a computer, the
colors we see on the screen are created with light using the additive
color method. Additive color mixing begins with black and ends with
white; as more color is added, the result is lighter and tends to white.
The RGB colors are light primaries and colors are created with light. Percentages of red, green, & blue light are used to generate color on a computer screen.
Working With Systems
Visible spectrum consists of billions of colors, a monitor can display
millions, a high quality printer is only capable of producing thousands,
and older computer systems may be limited to 216 cross-platform colors.
Reproducing color can be problematic with regard to printed, digital
media, because what we see is not what is possible to get. Although a
monitor may be able to display 'true color' (16,000,000 colors),
millions of these colors are outside of the spectrum available to
printers. Since digital designs are generated using the RGB color
system, colors used in those designs must be part of the CMYK spectrum
or they will not be reproduced with proper color rendering. Working
within the CMYK color system, or choosing colors from Pantone© palettes
insures proper color rendering.
color wheel (also referred to as a color circle) is a visual
representation of colors arranged according to their chromatic
relationship. Begin a color wheel by positioning primary hues
equidistant from one another, then create a bridge between primaries
using secondary and tertiary colors.
These terms refer to color groups or types:
Primary Colors: Colors at their basic essence; those colors that cannot be created by mixing others.
Secondary Colors: Those colors achieved by a mixture of two primaries.
Tertiary Colors: Those colors achieved by a mixture of primary and secondary hues.
Complementary Colors: Those colors located opposite each other on a color wheel.
Analogous Colors: Those colors located close together on a color wheel.
The color wheel can be divided into ranges that are visually active
or passive. Active colors will appear to advance when placed against
passive hues. Passive colors appear to recede when positioned against
- Advancing hues are most often thought to have less visual weight than the receding hues.
- Most often warm, saturated, light value hues are "active" and visually advance.
- Cool, low saturated, dark value hues are "passive" and visually recede.
- Tints or hues with a low saturation appear lighter than shades or highly saturated colors.
- Some colors remain visually neutral or indifferent.
Color relationships may be displayed as a color wheel or a color triangle.
The Painter's color triangle
consists of colors we would often use in art class—those colors we
learn about as children. The primary hues are red, blue and yellow.
The Printers' color triangle is the set of colors used in the printing process. The primaries are magenta, cyan, and yellow.
Nine-part harmonic triangle of Goethe
begins with the printer's primaries; the secondaries formed are the
painter's primaries; and the resulting tertiaries formed are dark
Continue tutorial, view: Complementary Colors