Color Theory: The Basics


All colors are the friends of their neighbors and the lovers of their opposites. -Marc Chagal

Color theory is a very broad subject, getting downright scientific. While we don’t need to become scientists to be good designers, it is important to focus on what colors work well together and the emotions they convey. Becoming good with color has a lot to do with trial and error and will come over time, through observation and hands on experience. However, it is important as designers to have some guidelines and know the basic terms and definitions that make color possible.

Even in their simplest forms, the following time-proven formulas are useful and powerful references when choosing a color palette.

The Color Wheel

The most basic way to describe colors and their relation to one another is through the color wheel. Organized in a simple, orderly fashion, the color wheel enables users to visualize compatible color combinations.

The color wheel is made up of twelve colors consisting of three primary, three secondary and six tertiary colors.

Primary Colors
primarycolorscirclePrimary colors are red, yellow and blue. These colors cannot be created by mixing any other colors. All colors are made from blending these three colors. Using primary colors can give a feeling of directness and simplicity.

Henri Matisse
Ken Bailey

Secondary Colors
secondarycolorscircleSecondary colors are orange, green and violet. To get these colors you must mix two primary colors together. Using secondary colors can give a feeling of excitement and movement.

Chris Burrows
Brian Gordon Green

Tertiary Colors tertiarycolors
tertiarycolorscircleTertiary colors, sometimes referred to as intermediary colors, are red- orange, yellow-orange, yellow-green, blue-green, blue-violet and red-violet. They result from combining a primary and secondary color.

Ynon Mabet

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