Color theory provides guidance on how colors interact and how to create harmony and contrast through effective color combinations.
Understanding the fundamentals of color theory can help artists, designers, photographers, and anyone working with color choose color schemes that evoke certain moods, draw attention to focal points, and create visually appealing compositions.
The Color Wheel
The color wheel organizes colors into a circular diagram to depict color relationships. The basic color wheel includes 12 main hues - three primary colors, three secondary colors, and six tertiary colors.
- Primary colors - The primary colors are red, yellow, and blue. These colors cannot be created by mixing other colors, but when combined, they form the rest of the colors on the wheel. Primary colors are the basis for the color wheel and color theory.
- Secondary colors - Mixing two primary colors creates the secondary colors - green, orange, and purple. Green comprises yellow and blue, orange is red and yellow, and purple is red and blue. Secondary colors have strong visual impacts.
- Tertiary colors - Tertiary colors are created by mixing a primary color with the secondary color next to it on the wheel. For example, red and orange make red-orange. Other tertiary colors include yellow-orange, yellow-green, blue-green, blue-purple, and red-purple. Tertiary colors are not as visually potent as primary or secondary colors.
The color wheel shows how colors relate to one another - complementary colors sit opposite each other, analogous colors sit side-by-side, and triadic colors are evenly spaced around the wheel. Understanding these relationships allows for strategic color mixing and pairing.
Complementary colors reside on opposite sides of the color wheel. Common complementary color pairs include red and green, yellow and purple, and blue and orange.
When paired together in a composition, complementary colors create high contrast and intensify one another. The high contrast of complementary colors draws attention and creates vibrancy, which is useful for highlighting focal points. However, using complementary colors excessively can be jarring, so they should be balanced with more subtle elements.
Complementary colors work well when one dominates and the other takes on a supporting role, like orange text on a blue background. Adjusting the saturation and brightness of complementary pairs creates further contrast variations.
Analogous colors sit next to each other on the color wheel, like red, orange, and yellow. They contain one dominant color, a primary or secondary color, plus the colors on both sides of its complementary color.
Analogous colors create harmony and visual continuity when used together. They are often found together in nature, like the shades of a sunset or foliage transitioning from green to yellow to red.
For background gradients and large color fields, analogous colors prevent jarring contrast shifts. However, analogous color schemes can become monotonous without enough variation in hue, saturation, or brightness.
Examples of analogous colors:
- Red, red-orange, orange
- Yellow, yellow-green, green
- Blue, blue-purple, purple
Avoid using more than three analogous colors together. Add contrast with an unexpected complementary color for visual interest.
Warm and Cool Colors
Colors also differ in temperature, classified as either warm or cool. Warm colors seem energized and vivid, while cool colors appear calmer and soothing.
- Warm colors - Red, orange, and yellow are warm colors. They evoke feelings of comfort, energy, excitement, and heat. In design, warm colors tend to pop and grab viewer attention.
- Cool colors - Green, blue, and purple are cool colors. They take on more passive, tranquil qualities often associated with water, sky, and foliage. Cool colors recede visually in space and can suggest professionalism in design.
Balancing warm and cool colors creates vibrant, harmonious compositions. Warm colors tend to overpower cool ones, so use warm colors as accents against cool backdrops. Adjacent colors can also take on warm or cool properties depending on their surrounding colors.
Using complementary and analogous schemes, warm and cool contrasts, and an understanding of basic color relationships allows for endless color possibilities. Color theory principles provide guidance on evoking particular moods and directing visual emphasis through informed color choices.
Color theory provides a framework for understanding color relationships and using colors effectively.
Using principles like complementary schemes, analogous colors, and warm/cool contrast allows for strategic color mixing and pairing to evoke certain moods, direct visual emphasis, and create appealing, balanced compositions.
A solid grasp of color theory fundamentals guides impactful color choices.