In the visual arts, color theory is a body of practical guidance to color mixing and the visual effects of a specific color combination.
Color theory is a term used to describe the collection of rules and guidelines regarding the use of color in art and design, as developed since their early days.
Color theory is a crucial part of designers’ and artists’ practice. However, color is such a pervasive part of everything we visually encounter in the world that for many, it becomes an intuitive choice.
Understanding how color is formed and, more importantly, the relationships between different colors, is one of the most vital art techniques to master. It can help you use color more effectively in your designs, and make sure you pick the right palette for your projects.
Additive color, or “additive mixing”, is a property of a color model that predicts the appearance of colors made by coincident component lights, i.e. the perceived color can be predicted by summing the numeric representations of the component colors.
Subtractive color, or “subtractive color mixing”, predicts the spectral power distribution of light after it passes through successive layers of partially absorbing media. This idealized model is the essential principle of how dyes and inks are used in color printing and photography where the perception of color is elicited after white light passes through microscopic “stacks” of partially absorbing media allowing some wavelengths of light to reach the eye and not others.
Modern color theory is heavily based on Isaac Newton’s color wheel, which displays three categories of colors: primary colors (red, blue, yellow), secondary colors (created by mixing two primary colors), and intermediate or tertiary ones (created by mixing primary and secondary colors). Colors can be combined to form one of five main color schemes that allow designers to achieve harmony in their designs. These are:
Analogous: based on three colors located next to each other on the wheel
Complementary: one or more pairs of colors that, when combined, cancel each other out (i.e., they produce high contrast)
Split-complementary: a combination of the analogous and complementary schemes
Triadic: using three colors at equal distances from each other on the wheel
Tetradic: using two sets of complementary pairs
First and foremost, the Primary Colors, Yellow, Red, and Blue, are at the top of any color structure. That’s because you can think of the three Primaries as the original parents of all the future generations of colors.
In Theory, Primary Colors are the root of every other color.
So in other words, you could conceivably mix gazillions of colors with only three pure Primary pigments of Yellow, Red, and Blue. Of course, that’s what they teach us in school.
Next, come the three Secondary colors, Orange, Purple, and Green. Think of the Secondary colors as the children of the three Primaries as shown above.
In color theory we are taught that the Secondary colors are mixed like this:
Yellow + Red = ORANGE
Red + Blue = PURPLE
Blue + Yellow = GREEN
Finally, the remaining six colors are referred to as the Tertiary Colors. Think of these as the six grandchildren of the Primary Colors.
Again, Color Theory teaches us that each Tertiary color is the result of one Primary Color mixed with one of its nearest Secondary colors. Therefore we end up with a new color somewhere in between.
Yellow + Orange = YELLOW/ORANGE
Red + Orange = RED/ORANGE
Red + Purple = RED/PURPLE
Blue + Purple = BLUE/PURPLE
Blue + Green = BLUE/GREEN
Yellow + Green = YELLOW/GREEN