Color Theory Fundamentals | Design Tip

Color theory and the color wheel

Ever wondered how designers and artists find the perfect color combination?

They use color theory. Color theory is a practical combination of art and science that’s used to determine what colors look good together. The color wheel was invented in 1666 by Isaac Newton, who mapped the color spectrum onto a circle. The color wheel is the basis of color theory, because it shows the relationship between colors.

Colors that look good together are called a color harmony. Artists and designers use these to create a particular look or feel. You can use a color wheel to find color harmonies by using the rules of color combinations. Color combinations determine the relative positions of different colors in order to find colors that create a pleasing effect.

RGB: the additive color mixing model
Humans see colors in light waves. Mixing light—or the additive color mixing model—allows you to create colors by mixing red, green and blue light sources of various intensities. The more light you add, the brighter the color mix becomes. If you mix all three colors of light, you get pure, white light.

TVs, screens and projectors use red, green and blue (RGB) as their primary colors, and then mix them together to create other colors.

CMYK: the subtractive color mixing model
Any color you see on a physical surface (paper, signage, packaging, etc.) uses the subtractive color mixing model. In this case, “subtractive” simply refers to the fact that you subtract the light from the paper by adding more color.

The primary colors used in subtractive process are cyan, magenta, yellow and key/black (CMYK), as this color combo enables printers to produce a wider variety of colors on paper.

Color combinations
Complementary
Two colors that are on opposite sides of the color wheel. This combination provides a high contrast and high impact color combination – together, these colors will appear brighter and more prominent.

Monochromatic
Three shades, tones and tints of one base color. Provides a subtle and conservative color combination. This is a versatile color combination that is easy to apply to design projects for a harmonious look.

Analogous
Three colors that are side by side on the color wheel. This color combination is versatile, but can be overwhelming. To balance an analogous color scheme, choose one dominant color, and use the others as accents.

Triadic
Three colors that are evenly spaced on the color wheel. This provides a high contrast color scheme, but less so than the complementary color combination — making it more versatile. This combination creates bold, vibrant color palettes.

Tetradic
Four colors that are evenly spaced on the color wheel. Tetradic color schemes are bold and work best if you let one color be dominant, and use the others as accents. The more colors you have in your palette, the more difficult it is to balance,

Warm and cool colors
The color wheel can also be divided into warm and cool colors. The warmth or coolness of a color is also known as its color temperature. The color combinations found on a color wheel often have a balance of warm and cool colors. According to color psychology, different color temperatures evoke different feelings. For example, warm colors are said to bring to mind coziness and energy, while cool colors are associated with serenity and isolation.

Warm colors are the colors from red through to yellow. These colors are said to bring to mind warmth, like the sun.

Cool colors are the colors from blue to green and purple. These colors are said to bring to mind coolness, like water.

Shades, tints and tones
You can create shades, tints and tones of a color by adding black, grey and white to a base hue.

Shade
A shade is created by adding black to a base hue, darkening the color. This creates a deeper, richer color. Shades can be quite dramatic and can be overpowering.

Tint
A tint is created by adding white to a base hue, lightening the color. This can make a color less intense, and is useful when balancing more vivid color combinations.

Tones
A tone is created by combining black and white—or grey—with a base hue. Like tints, tones are subtler versions of the original color. Tones are less likely to look pastel, and can reveal complexities not apparent in the base color.

Hue, Saturation and Luminance
A hue is basically any color on the color wheel. When you are using a color wheel or a color picker, you can adjust the saturation and luminance of a hue.

Saturation is the intensity or purity of the color. Luminance is the amount of brightness or light in a color.

This is just an introduction to the fascinating world of color. There’s so much more to learn!

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