On the surface, colors don’t seem that complicated: in elementary school, we learn our primary colors and ROY-G-BIV and are asked our favorite color all the time. Everyone has a preference, and we all know that different colors make us perceive things differently, but we don’t often pause to think about why we prefer certain colors or color combinations. 

Enter color theory, which works to explain how certain colors work together to evoke different moods. Color theory is heavily used by artists, but it impacts our lives in hundreds of small ways every day. Advertisers and businesses use the color wheel and color theory to appeal to certain emotions and populations.

In this article, we’ll dive into the nitty-gritty of the color wheel, learn how colors work together to complement each other, and show you how to put basic color theory into practice in your artwork. 

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Basic Color Theory

So, what is color theory, exactly? At its heart, color theory is based on the color wheel, which was invented by Sir Isaac Newton in 1666. (Prior to that, the principles of color theory were mentioned in Leonardo da Vinci’s famous notebooks, circa 1490, but those musings didn’t make it into popular culture until the 1700s.)

Newton was the first person we know of to map the color spectrum into a color wheel, or circle. His color theory wheel combined art and science to showcase the relationship between colors and how they work together to elicit different moods.

Different colors of paint are used to make a basic color wheel.
Different colors of paint are used to make a basic color wheel.

The positions of colors on the color theory wheel determine which other colors they can be matched with to create color harmony—combinations of colors that spark positive emotions. 

For example, reds, oranges, and yellows (warm colors) complement blues, purples, and greens (cool colors) because they are located on opposite sides of the color wheel. Color wheel theory holds that contrasting colors make each other look brighter and can evoke happiness in the viewer.

Want to know more about how exactly colors work together? First, let’s break down the basics.

Primary Colors, Secondary Colors, and Tertiary Colors

We all learn our primary colors in preschool—red, yellow, and blue. But we might not know what a primary color really is until much later in life. Primary colors on the color wheel are those that form the basis for all other colors.

Mixing two primary colors together yields a secondary color (red + blue = purple, for example). There are exactly three secondary colors—purple, orange, and green—each of which is made up of equal parts of two primary colors. 

From there, primary and secondary colors can be combined to create tertiary colors, such as chartreuse (a combination of green and yellow) or coral (red mixed with orange). Note: the names of tertiary colors tend to vary—goldenrod, for example, might also be called yellow-orange.

A color wheel featuring primary, secondary, and tertiary colors, presented in Michelle Tabares’ Skillshare course,   Exploring Color: Color Theory and Application  .
A color wheel featuring primary, secondary, and tertiary colors, presented in Michelle Tabares’ Skillshare course, Exploring Color: Color Theory and Application.

Additional Colors 

Colors can also be transformed by mixing them with white, black, or gray. There are specific terms for each of these combinations:

Tint: Adding white to a base color to lighten it. This is how pastel colors are created (for example, pastel green is made by mixing green and white). 

Shade: Adding black to a base color to darken it (for example, dark red is made by mixing red and black).

Tone: Adding gray to a base color to softly mute it (for example, slate blue is made by mixing blue and gray). 

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Principles of Color Theory

Now that you know the basics of the color wheel, you can begin to create color combinations to suit a certain need. But this isn’t done haphazardly—there are formulas that guide the color choices of artists and designers.

A sampling of color schemes, all based on tried-and-true formulas.
A sampling of color schemes, all based on tried-and-true formulas.

Let’s explore a few of the most common ways to combine colors: 

Monochromatic Color Schemes

Monochromatic color-matching uses multiple shades of the same color. In this example, several shades of purple are used to create a calm, soothing effect. 

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Complementary Colors

Complementary colors are two colors that are on opposite sides of the color wheel, like red + green, orange + blue, and yellow + purple. Color theory holds that complementary colors reinforce each other’s brightness and impact, so choosing complementary colors for a sign or advertisement will draw a viewer’s attention better than if you picked non-complementary colors. 

Analogous Color Schemes

Analogous color schemes use three colors that are located beside each other in the wheel. An analogous scheme of blue, indigo, and teal, for example, can capture the feeling of water or oceans. 

Triadic Color Schemes 

Triadic matching takes three colors that are spaced equally apart on the color wheel; this use of the wheel creates high-contrast results that draw a lot of attention.

Tetradic Color Schemes

Tetradic color schemes utilize four colors: two sets of complementary pairs (blue and green, red and orange), with one color chosen as the dominant color; this is extra-bold!

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Another way of making a color scheme with four colors is a square, where each color is equidistant on the color wheel (90° apart); in this use of the wheel, all four colors can be used equally, because they balance each other out. 

Ready to Put Color Theory Into Action?

Color Theory: Color Combinations That Work

Why Color Theory Is Important

Artists use color theory and the color wheel constantly—it’s embedded in their practice. Using certain hues, saturations, luminances, or combinations of colors evokes different emotions in the eye of the beholder, so artists turn to the tenets of color theory as they work in order to create art that evokes (or provokes) the desired emotion. 

Color theory also teaches artists about physiological impacts colors can have. For example, warm colors evoke comfort and happiness (yellows, oranges) but also anger and passion (think red!), while cool colors make us feel calm and clear-headed (blue), invigorated and restful (green). Purples can be sexy and bold! Each color on its own sends a message to our brain to feel a certain way; in combination, colors can evoke complex emotions. 

Skillshare teacher Ron Mulvey shows how complementary colors blue and orange can evoke excitement and energy in this painting.
Skillshare teacher Ron Mulvey shows how complementary colors blue and orange can evoke excitement and energy in this painting.

Color wheel theory also finds its way into a multitude of facets of our daily lives. It is prevalent in advertisements—primary colors send a bold message, while greys and muted tones send a softer message—and even in our homes (think about the colors of your walls and how they complement the pictures that hang there). 

The basics of color theory have seeped into our cultural consciousness, so that marketers and graphic designers know how to evoke the desired emotion in a customer by choosing just the right colors from the color wheel. For example, notes Skillshare instructor Lindsay Marsh, many fast food companies use red in their logo to grab attention and cause a sense of alertness among potential customers driving by. Financial institutions utilize green, which can evoke a sense of wealth and success—exactly what they’d like their customers to experience. 

Color theory can also be applied to fields you might not expect, including makeup and exercise. Makeup artists use light (highlighter) to bring out a feature, and dark (bronzer) to make a feature recede. They use the concept of complementary colors when determining which eyeshadows work on different eye colors, and the basics of color theory to create their own eyeshadow color palettes.

An eyeshadow palette based on color theory.
An eyeshadow palette based on color theory.

Gyms use color strategically to convey different meanings: red or orange to convey strength, power, and friendly aggression; purple to stimulate ambitious emotions; blue to project productivity and confidence; and splashes or accents of neon colors are often used in group fitness areas to give fitness-seekers an energy boost. A yoga studio may use soft greens, pale pinks, or other muted colors to bring a sense of relaxation, nurturing, and calm.

In short, color theory is everywhere, and it affects us all the time, whether we realize it or not. Color combinations evoke moods, which dictate our buying choices, emotional reactions to art, and even our feelings about a house we are thinking of renting or buying.  

Curious to learn more about how artists use color theory? The best way to get started, of course, is to try it out yourself. 

Learn More Today

Color Theory for Artists: A Complete Beginner’s Guide