Color Theory is a set of principles used to create harmonious color combinations. Color relationships can be visually represented with a color wheel — the color spectrum wrapped onto a circle.
The color wheel is a visual representation of color theory:
According to color theory, harmonious color combinations use any two colors opposite each other on the color wheel, any three colors equally spaced around the color wheel forming a triangle, or any four colors forming a rectangle (actually, two pairs of colors opposite each other). The harmonious color combinations are called color schemes – sometimes the term ‘color harmonies’ is also used. Color schemes remain harmonious regardless of the rotation angle.
Primary Colors: Colors at their basic essence; those colors that cannot be created by mixing others.
Secondary Colors: Those colors achieved by a mixture of two primaries.
Tertiary Colors: Those colors achieved by a mixture of primary and secondary hues.
Complementary Colors: Those colors located opposite each other on a color wheel.
Analogous Colors: Those colors located close together on a color wheel.
ACTIVE & PASSIVE COLORS
The color wheel can be divided into ranges that are visually active or passive. Active colors will appear to advance when placed against passive hues. Passive colors appear to recede when positioned against active hues.
- Advancing hues are most often thought to have less visual weight than the receding hues.
- Most often warm, saturated, light value hues are “active” and visually advance.
- Cool, low saturated, dark value hues are “passive” and visually recede.
- Tints or hues with a low saturation appear lighter than shades or highly saturated colors.
- Some colors remain visually neutral or indifferent.
Classic Color Schemes
The monochromatic color scheme uses variations in lightness and saturation of a single color. This scheme looks clean and elegant. Monochromatic colors go well together, producing a soothing effect. The monochromatic scheme is very easy on the eyes, especially with blue or green hues. You can use it to establish an overall mood. The primary color can be integrated with neutral colors such as black, white, or gray. However, it can be difficult, when using this scheme, to highlight the most important elements.
The analogous color scheme uses colors that are adjacent to each other on the color wheel. One color is used as a dominant color while others are used to enrich the scheme. The analogous scheme is similar to the monochromatic one, but offers more nuances.
The complementary color scheme is made of two colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel. This scheme looks best when you put a warm color against a cool color, for example, red versus green-blue. The complementary scheme is intrinsically high-contrast.
When using the complementary scheme, it is important to choose a dominant color and use its complementary color for accents. Using one color for the background and its complementary color to highlight important elements, you will get color dominance combined with sharp color contrast.
The split complementary scheme is a variation of the standard complementary scheme. It uses a color and the two colors adjacent to its complementary. This provides high contrast without the strong tension of the complementary scheme.
The triadic color scheme uses three colors equally spaced around the color wheel. This scheme is popular among artists because it offers strong visual contrast while retaining balance, and color richness. The triadic scheme is not as contrasting as the complementary scheme, but it looks more balanced and harmonious.
The tetradic (double complementary) scheme is the richest of all the schemes because it uses four colors arranged into two complementary color pairs. This scheme is hard to harmonize; if all four colors are used in equal amounts, the scheme may look unbalanced, so you should choose a color to be dominant or subdue the colors.