If you’re like me, you might not consciously think about color theory – let’s be honest, it all feels a bit scientific for a right-brained artist, am I right?
Never fear! Even professional artists and designers don’t always know exactly what color theory is. They might intuitively have a sense of it, but color theory is one of those concepts that can easily get confused, as there are many similar terms.
Whether we subconsciously understand color theory or are completely intimidated picking out colors, a quick refresher in “color theory” can help us feel more empowered. Whether for a new piece of art or those renovated kitchen walls.
So, What Is Color Theory?
Color theory is simply the way colors relate to each other and what kind of impact they leave on us - think “color psychology.” Of course, because it’s not math, there tends to be a lot of gray area (no pun intended!) on what color theory is.
So let’s stick to the basics. We’ll begin with the Color Wheel as it effectively maps out all the colors and how they relate.PRIMARY COLORS
There are three primary colors: red, yellow, and blue. Primary colors are opposite each other on the color wheel and cannot be created using any other colors. Primary colors can be used to create any other color on the color wheelCOMPLEMENTARY (OR SECONDARY COLORS)
There are three complementary colors: orange, green, and violet. The complementary colors are opposite each other on the color wheel and are created by mixing primary colors (red + yellow = orange, yellow + blue = green, red + blue = violet)
Tertiary colors are created when you mix a primary color with a complementary color. When naming the tertiary colors, always place the primary color before the complementary color (ie. red + orange = red-orange, yellow + green = yellow-green, blue + violet = blue-violet)ANALOGOUS
Analogous refers to any three colors that fall side-by-side on a 12-part color wheel – such as blue-green, green, and yellow-green. Usually, one color is dominant among the three.TRIADIC
Three colors evenly spaced on the color wheel. The two most basic triadic palettes are the primary colors red, blue, and yellow, and the secondary hues of orange, green, and violet.MONOCHROMATIC
This is a color scheme using various shades, tints, and tones of ONE color.HUE
In simplest terms, a hue is simply color or the characteristic that distinguishes one color from another. Hue is commonly a synonym for the words color, tone, shade, and tint. In scientific terms, a hue is the dominant wavelength of light that a person can see - yellow, red, blue, green, etc.SATURATION
The degree of richness, intensity, and purity of a color equals saturation. The more saturated a color, the brighter and more intense it looks. The less saturated a color is, the duller and grayer it looks.TONE
A hue that’s mixed with gray (black + white). The tone of a color will reduce its intensity.SHADE
A hue that’s mixed with black and therefore darkens the color.TINT
A hue that’s mixed with white. The color remains the same, only lighter.VALUE
The relative lightness or darkness of a color. It defines a color in terms of how close it is to white or black.WARM COLORS
Reds, oranges, and yellows are all considered warm colors and emit energy, love, power, vibrance, and attention.COOL COLORS
Blues, greens, and violets are all considered cool colors and emit a sense of calm, tranquility, peace, and relaxation.NEUTRAL COLORS
Neutral colors are not on the color wheel as they appear to be without color – think blacks, whites, browns, and grays. Neutral colors do not compete with primary and secondary colors but instead complement them.
Now that you have a basic understanding of color theory (and that was just the short version!), let’s highlight three key areas to make these terms work for you.
How To Make Color Theory Work For You
Here are three easy ways that color theory can help us become more confident when selecting colors.
1) Analogous Color Scheme
As defined above, these three colors fall next to each other on the color wheel. Using an analogous color scheme can help bring balance to your art. For example, you can choose to create your design with base colors being more neutral.
Interior designers enjoy using neutrals by following the 60-30-10 rule. This rule ensures a peaceful, balanced design. 60% is the base color (neutral). 30% is the accent color. 10% will be the pop of color or the more dominant color.
Look at my holiday art. I’ve used a neutral background with an analogous color scheme of yellow-green, green, and blue-green.
However, you can skip the neutrals and create a more colorful mood for your painting. Think of violets mixed with red-violets and pops of red. This color scheme can create a real sultry vibe to your art.
2) Complementary Color Scheme
Complementary colors work well for a design too. While the pure form of complementary colors (blue + orange, red + green, yellow + violet) can be stark when used at full brightness, try toning down the hues to create more balance in your art.
Take a look at my cat and plants art. While the green pops out as a dominant color, it actually takes a lower precedence than the orange of the pots and the blue of the background. This is because nature already holds a sense of color harmony (see number 3), so the focus shifts to the balance between the complementary colors.
If you wish to keep your colors more saturated, try adding neutrals as your base color, much like described above. This grounding color will add a sense of harmony to your work. Of course, if you’re looking for a highly contrasting piece of art (think sports team logos), use complementary colors at full saturation.
3) Nature Color Scheme
Here’s a cool fact – using nature as your guide when creating a color scheme pretty much guarantees a harmonious piece of art. Perhaps that’s why this category is off the charts (i.e. not listed above)! Nature has its own rules, yet always brings a sense of calm and order to your art. Everyone can relate to nature, and it brings a sense of comfort to your space.
To create a color scheme based on nature, take a photo of something natural outside. Pull colors from that photo to use in your art. It’s okay to use bright colors (think hot oranges from a pumpkin) mixed with chartreuses (stems and leaves). Experiment with different shades of those colors. Try toning them down to duller hues if you want a more subtle piece of art.
Nature provides one of the best and easiest ways to pull together a color scheme. If you’re ever in doubt about which colors to use for a painting, or when decorating your home, let nature be your guide. It will never disappoint!