Introduction to Color Theory

Color Adds Excitement to Our Lives!
'Color' is all around us. It adds excitement and emotion to our lives. Everything from the clothes we wear, the pictures we paint and the environment in which we live revolves around color. Without color, the world would be a much less attractive place.

Color Theory is a set of guidelines that uses the element of color to create harmony, communicate ideas or to invoke an emotional response in the viewer. We call it "theory" because we use generalizations to create aesthetically pleasing results.

It relies on the use of six colors or 'hue families' which follow the visual spectrum of light "ROYGBV." These color families can be further broken down into tertiary colors which make 12 color families on the traditional color wheel system and most importantly they are all in the same order around the wheel.

Primary Colors

Are YELLOW, RED, and BLUE. When mixing pigments (subtractive color method), secondary colors are created by mixing these together. Note that these three on their own create a beautiful color scheme, later introduced as a "triad."

Secondary Colors

Are ORANGE, GREEN, and VIOLET. They are created by mixing two primaries. For example: ORANGE = RED + YELLOW. They also create a "triad" color scheme.

Tertiary Colors

Are formed by mixing two secondary colors together. For example, they include YELLOW-GREEN, BLUE-GREEN, YELLOW-ORANGE.
Now that we have all of the twelve basic color families in order around the wheel, the following color schemes are all based their relationships to each other as we go around the wheel.


Are colors directly opposite from each other on the wheel. Compliments together are extremely eye-catching and vibrant.

Split Compliments

Split compliments are less vibrant that compliments. Complements with an additional split complement are also eye-catching but have more variety that a simple complementary scheme.


Are any three colors in relation to each other on the wheel, i.e. three colors in between each color. This combination creates a colorful yet balanced scheme.


Also known as a "square" combination, are any four colors in relation to each other on the wheel. It creates a colorful yet balanced scheme but is more complex.


Is a single color with variations that change in lightness or darkness. "Tints" are created by adding white to a single color which lightens it. "Shades" are created by adding black to a single color which darkens it. 'Monochromatics' lack variety however they are quiet and soothing.


Are colors next to one another on the wheel, they feel calm and soothing but is more dramatic than a monochromatic scheme because it has more variety. This scheme is often found in nature because light reflects from one object to another. For example an apple maybe red but on closer observation, it may reveal orange and yellow colors as well depending on the lighting conditions.


Are colors which have been diminished or "neutralized" by the addition of gray, black, earth tones., or it's own color complement. Most all of the colors found in the plants or nature are some type of neutralized color.


Means no color or void of any color, also referred to as a "monotone achromatic." This scheme consists of black, white and gray combinations only.

Clash or Polychrome

Of course, if you do not want to create color harmony then clashing colors will work. Color and a color on either side of its complement or a mixture of many opposing colors will create a polychrome or color clash.

Let's recap on these color combinations, notice how they are all about relationships on the wheel...

Color Theory Relationships

Have you ever tried using color theory to create your own color scheme? Did you know how complex color theory can be?
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