The foundation of color theory is the understanding and application of basic color schemes. To understand color theory, one must utilize the primary rules and guidelines surrounding color to create pleasing visuals.
If you are seeking a career in design, color theory will help you to understand the basic structure of color and how to use it strategically in business and in graphic design. Using color theory allows an artist to evoke a certain emotion or aesthetic.
The most important aspect of effective graphic design is color. It can change the meaning of text. Dictate how a user moves around a particular website or layout. And change the way the user feels about a particular piece. For example, creating a design using the colors of a nation’s flag can instantly add patriotism to a piece of art or a graphic.
If you want to design and create impactful visuals, having an understanding of color theory will help. Although it may seem simple at first, once you start looking at a color wheel you will soon realize that you need more information in order to create cohesive color themes. You need to know how colors interact, how they affect human emotions, and how they work together to create different aesthetics.
Creating a color scheme and using it appropriately in a business or a design can have several benefits including:
- Recognition – Many famous brands are instantly recognizable simply by their brand color.
- Sentiment – Your brand can instantly inspire emotions in potential clients or customers by using colors that evoke that emotion.
- Visibility – The right color selection will make your graphics, logo, and website stand out (in the right way) while giving customers a feeling of familiarity.
The Color Wheel
A color wheel, also known as a color circle, is a circular arrangement of colors. All color wheels are based on three primary colors. Between each primary color sits secondary and tertiary colors. The basic color wheel is used every day in art and design. Using a color wheel helps artists determine the relationship between colors. They then use this information to create cohesive color themes for their work.
In elementary school, you probably learned that the primary colors are red, yellow, and blue. What makes red, yellow, and blue primary colors? Simply put, the fact that they can’t be created from any other colors. Science has determined this isn’t exactly true because you can in fact make those three colors if you use a different color wheel based on different primary colors.
However, no matter which color wheel and primary color set that you choose to use, secondary colors are what is created when you combine two primary colors. Tertiary colors, also known as intermediate colors, are created when you combine one of the primary colors with one of the secondary colors. Combining colors this way is what creates a color wheel that we can then use to create color schemes.
Different Types of Color Schemes
Now that we understand what makes up a basic color wheel, its time to put it to work to create a cohesive and pleasant color theme. When you begin creating a theme, its important to remember what it will be used for. Are you looking for a specific aesthetic? Does the theme need contrast, or should it be muted? These are all important factors to consider when choosing the type of color scheme to use.
Monochromatic color schemes combine a single color with different shades and tints to create a consistent appearance. It lacks contrast but a monochromatic look can be used to create emotional pieces that have a specific aesthetic.
Analogous color schemes can be created by pairing one color with two of the colors next to it on a color wheel. If you need a five-color scheme to just three, you can add two more colors to the color wheel. Analogous color schemes are softer and have less contrast making them an alternative choice to monochromatic schemes. Use an analogous scheme when you want to create an emotional or aesthetic color scheme such as one that represents the ocean or the Fall season.
A complementary color scheme is one that uses two colors opposite of each other on a color wheel. It can also include relevant tints if more than two colors are needed. A complementary color scheme offers the most color contrast of any color scheme.
Split complementary schemes include one dominant color and two colors that are adjacent to the complement for a 3-color palette. This allows for a more nuanced palette while keeping the high-contrast benefits of complementary colors.
Triadic color combinations offer high contrast color schemes with a consistent tone. Triadic color combinations are made by using three colors equally spaced around the color wheel. A Triad color scheme is great for creating high contrast between colors in a design but in order to create some variation, the colors should be chosen in different tints so that they do not sit in line when a circle is drawn around the color wheel.
A tetradic colors scheme is in the shape of a rectangle on the color wheel. The rectangle color offers a subtler approach to color selection than its square counterpart.
In a square colors scheme or diamond-shaped color scheme, four colors that are equal to each other on a color wheel are selected. This scheme creates two sets of complementary colors that add significant contrast to a design, much more than the rectangular version.
How to Choose Colors
Whatever color scheme you choose to use, remember what your graphic needs are. Choose a color scheme that creates contrast if you are looking for that. For designs meant to create an emotion or aesthetic choose a monochromatic or analogous scheme.
While many color schemes have 5 colors, sometimes choosing just two or three colors from a scheme is better than trying to fit all five together in one graphic or design.