Color Theory Basics You Need to Know

July 9, 2016

Why would you need to understand color theory and what it stands for? The color is one of the fundamental elements of our existence. Some even describe it as a silent, emotional language that we intuitively know how to "speak". The experience of color often triggers associations that are universal, cultural, and personal, and with the color, we can also set a certain mood, make a statement or even attract attention. By choosing the best possible color scheme, we can influence the ambiance of our living style, not to mention how the various color harmonies can help to create some of the most powerful visual and design works. One of the most interesting questions for artists, interest that follows from the birth of art so to speak, is the perception of the eye, and also the understanding of the vast science around the color theory and numerous visual effects, which help to create an array of reflections and emotional responses towards a specific artwork and also help to answer the question:

What would be the best color combination I can use today?

color theory color importance complementary colors orange
Left: Additive Colors / Right: Subtractive Colors. Images via

What is a Color Theory?

Color theory embraces a multitude of definitions, concepts, and design applications and helps create an understanding and guidance to color mixing and the visual effects of specific color combinations. It is, in fact, a science that speaks about the most pleasing combination for the eye that helps in the making of an inner sense of order and a balance in the visual experience. This search for the most harmonious and balanced image or composition has engaged both the artists and scientists and throughout the art history, we have numerous examples of various mathematical rules or philosophical concepts applied for the creation of the most desirable image or desirable and functional art movement.

The need to understand the world around us, explains the need that pushed the color theory forward and made it into one of the vastest scientific fields out there. The understanding of the reflection of light, not to mention the division of color into different categories, along with the reflections concerning the context of how a certain color is used and the communication of such a color, all these questions find their answers in vision science. As much as the breaking of the rules lies at the root of most of us, we all agree that the best way to break certain rules and push the boundaries of art and science forward lies in our knowledge of the basic principles. The definitions of what are primary, secondary and tertiary colors, what is a color wheel, knowledge about the warm and cool colors, along with the familiarity of the best color combinations are the necessary and useful tools that can make the future artworks and design concepts more powerful and help to push creative production forward.

color theory of orange color
Harmony Korine - Fazors

The History of Color Theory

The foundations of pre 20th-century color theory were built around ‘pure' or ideal colors, characterized by sensory experiences rather than attributes of the physical worlds. Some of the first color theory principles appeared in the writings of Leone Battista Alberti (c.1435) and in the writings of Leonardo da Vinci (c.1490) yet it was in the 18th-century that the tradition of the color theory began marked with the theories put forward by Isaac Newton and his views concerning the primary colors. From there it developed into an independent artistic tradition and this investigation into color, influenced some of the major writings of the past, such as the Theory of Colors by the German poet and government minister Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Law of Simultaneous Color Contrast by the French chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul and A New Practical Treatise on the Three Primitive Colors Assumed as a Perfect System of Rudimentary Information written by Charles Hayter in which he describes how all colors could be obtained from just three primary colors- red, yellow, and blue.

As the civilization modernized itself and as the science field developed so did the investigation into color and the understanding of the primary colors, different hues, and color combinations. Two concepts lie at the investigation of the color theory and the first one focuses on the communication of the color and the second involves the reflections on its application. These concerns influenced Albert Munsell, a professor at an art school in Boston to develop a color system, which offered a means to name colors that were reworked for today’s Pantone color system, TRUEMATCH, CIE systems and others. The two questions also focused some of the major avant-garde movements to investigate the independent qualities of color and to embrace the idea that color is a powerful weapon for the transcendence into a spiritual world and metaphysical reflections. Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse, Mark Rothko, are just a few of the names that helped to develop the procedure and theory of color.

Be sure to check out works by Henri Matisse on our marketplace!

Mark Rothko - No. 17, 1957
Mark Rothko - No. 17, 1957

Delving Into the Theory - What is the Color Wheel?

So, what is color theory really about? Most of us learn at an early age that three primary colors, red, yellow and blue are the ones that build our ocular perception entirely, meaning that everything we see can be broken down to a combination of these three colors. As already explained, this phenomenon has been both puzzling and compelling to a number of great thinkers and scientists in our past, and it continues to be a recurring subject in contemporary art and phenomenology. Still, the idea that a world of such rich content consists of a seemingly reductive selection of colors may sound unimaginable, and that is why the color wheel is a perfect illustration of this theory. The color wheel, or color circle as some prefer to call it, is a diagram of hues arrayed around a circle. The aim is to show the status and the possible relationships between colors, depicting primary, secondary and tertiary colors accordingly. The three primary colors are usually positioned at three points which divide the circle in three equal parts, leaving space for the derived colors (secondary or tertiary colors) to come in between. The exact look of this diagram changed over time, and the number of hues grew as well, but it is most probable that the idea first came from Sir Isaac Newton who used a circle to calculate and predict the color resulting from a certain amount of given colors. Newton didn’t implement real colors, as his diagram was truly a diagram and less of an illustration, but it served as a good inspiration later on. The other input for the wheel comes from Thomas Young, who designed a color triangle in order to exemplify all the hues which can be derived from three colors alone.

color wheel and orange
Left: Goethe's Color Wheel / Right: RYB Chart from George Field's 1841 Chromatography. Images via

Color Wheel - Complementary Colors

Goethe was one of the first to put the wheel into a sort of "phenomenological" production, as it was a perfect geometrical shape to demonstrate the reciprocally evoked colors, which is how he used to classify colors that are diametrically opposed to each other. The tones are symmetrically positioned along the circle, complementing each other and clarifying Goethe’s endeavor to describe the possible effect of certain colors and their combinations on our perception, and thus on our psychological condition. Goethe noticed how each of the three primary colors “demands” its counterweight, which, quite mathematically, turns out to be the mixture of the remaining two. These are the traditionally proclaimed complementary colors, which should "cancel each other out", if combined in right proportions. For example, if we really try and mix these pigments on a palette, we should get a non-color from the grey scale, somewhere between black and white.

This theory was further examined through the opponent process theory, which explains how humans process the information about color via cone and rod cells which distribute the entire spectrum into three channels. Ewald Hering, who was the one to propose the theory, mentioned the colors red, yellow and blue, but green as well, as four loose categories to cover the entire array of colors. According to this theory, every color can be classified as reddish, greenish, yellowish or blueish – but there is no greenish red or blueish yellow, since they are the ones that are reciprocally evoked, which is similar to what Goethe had assumed. Therefore, the channels oppose red and green, blue and yellow, and finally black and white, which are not treated as colors, but rather as an amount of luminance (achromatic colors). The wheel also helps us categorize colors as warm or cold, which is traditionally addressed to the part of the daytime that provides different type of light.

Karl Ewald Konstantin Hering example of Color Perception - via
Karl Ewald Konstantin Hering example of Color Perception - via

Impossible Colors

Further to this theory, it was later discovered that Hering might have been wrong about one thing. Supposedly, even if the human eye is, indeed, only capable of perceiving these three channels of light (and the three channels burst into 3 million hues), there is some evidence that changing the frequency of visible light might produce the supposed “impossible colors”, namely the reddish green and the blueish yellow. Despite our chromatic adaptability, the regular seeing conditions do not allow our eyes to register these colors and we won’t be able to find them under normal circumstances. This does not come as a surprise since, apparently, human ability to recognize color is not very reliable in the first place (remember the blue/black white/gold dress debate). Still, a few experiments from 1983 based on an induced fatigue of the eye’s receptors and supported by eye-tracking devices made it possible for some people to see these imaginary colors. The experiment used green and red stripes (in some cases yellow and blue), and what was reportedly seen by the partakers was either a mixture of red and green dots, or a completely new, indescribable color. Some of the people said to have attained the ability to imagine the color later on for a short period of time, but they were not able to name it, or place it in any of the existing channels, the ones that scientists classify as part of the CIE 1931 color space.

color theory
Impossible (forbidden) colors test: some people are able to see the forbidden color if they allow their eyes to cross and virtually overlap these two white crosses.

Subtractive and Additive Color Models

Finally, modern color theories that were conceived in the 19th century, but emerged along with the rise of the digital era, propagate red, green and blue as three primary colors, dismissing the yellow. Each of them has a complementary color, two of which do not belong to any of the traditional color theories. Hence, red is complementary with cyan, green is with magenta and blue with yellow. This logic is based on the additive color model and it is different from the one of subtractive colors that we need as pigments in physical world, which function on the principle of absorbing light from existing colors. In contrast, the additive color system uses the overlap of color lights to create secondary additive colors, and computer screens serve as the best example of this theory today. Subtractive color models involve the aforementioned RYB (red, yellow, blue) system, or the CMY (cyan, magenta, yellow) system which is used for printing. In this case, cyan, magenta and yellow become the "primary colors" which absorb the proposed amount of their complementary color and thus create a wide range of hues on paper.

color theory
Kimsooja - Bottari, To Breathe, 2013, Venice Art Biennale. The artist often deploys translucent film which diffracts the sunlight into rays of primary and secondary color.

Tints, Shades, and Tones - What is the Difference?

Although it may seem obvious what is meant by tones, shades, and tints, sometimes those terms get the wrong interpretation, or they are simply not used correctly. Here come the definition and thorough explanation of those color concepts.

The tint is the result of making one color lighter than it is, by adding white to a pure hue. The more white is added, the lighter the color is.

Different shades of one color are the result of adding black to it. That means that every darker version of one color is a shade of it.

Adding gray to one color results in getting a different tone of that color.

Those simple color variables are very important for every color distribution, no matter if the aim is to make a painting richer by adding different tones or shades of a color, or if someone wants to choose the right colors for making the interior of his apartment look pleasant to the eye of the viewer.

Hue, Tint, Shade, and Tone - Image via
Hue, Tint, Shade, and Tone - Image via

Split Primary Colors – A Clockwork Pallete

Even though experienced watercolor painters seem to be able to make color mixing look extremely easy, most of their skill and confidence comes from knowledge and practice, states Susie Short in her tutorial for watercolor painting, entitled Some Thoughts on Color: Working with a Split Primary Color Palette. Being able to mix the colors is mots certainly considered to be a basis for a successful watercolor painting. Once the artist, or an art enthusiast, learn the basic principles and how they apply to the Split Primary Palette, color mixing can become really simple. For starters, Susie Short in her tutorial suggests starting with a color wheel arranged like a clock and divided into three equal sections, with four colors each. At the top of the wheel, or should we say at 12 o’clock, there is a cool yellow, and then Hansa Yellow Medium - a lemony, slightly bias to blue-green is on the right of the line; and a warm yellow, New Gamboge, as a golden, slight bias to red-orange is on the left of the line. Going clockwise around the circle, at 4 o’clock there is a cool blue, so-called Phthalo Blue (GS), as an icy color, slight bias to blue-green, which is above the line, with a warm French Ultramarine blue, as a purplish blue, which is below the line. Moreover, at 8 o’clock there is a cool red, Quinacridone Rose, which is a slight bias to red-violet that is below the line; and a warm Pyrrol Orange, slight bias to red-orange, stands above the line. In short, that is the 12-part color wheel divided into three segments, also referred to as a Split Primary Palette for an easier color mixing.

Split Primary Color Wheel by Susie Short - Image via
Split Primary Color Wheel by Susie Short - Image via

Color Harmony – A Dynamic Equilibrium

Different color schemes and color harmonies can be seen everywhere around us, from a natural environment, retail merchandising, advertising niche, or fashion industry, to the fine art. Everywhere we look, there are colors, and those colors are matching with some other colors, and those are being aligned with different colors, and it goes on and on and on. But, what is a color harmony? Is every color in harmony with any other color? Well, not exactly. That is why there are so-called complimentary, or analogous, or achromatic colors. It means that some colors in addition to some other ones make a perfect balance, while others can make a chaotic appeal to the eye, or it may appear boring which will definitely not engage the viewer anyhow. Colors define an image’s aesthetic. If used properly, an image conveys more visual information and refers to a greater realism than the one with an inappropriate use of colors. Because of natural color harmony, landscapes are usually very well balanced, as nature itself, so those kinds of paintings tend to have the rather calming effect on the observer.

Harmony can be defined as a pleasing arrangement of parts. In our case, those parts are colors. When it comes to visual appearance, harmony can engage the viewer by creating an inner sense of order, a balance in the visual experience. If something is not appealing enough, or it appears too chaotic, or too boring, the human brain will simply reject it, and it will not create a relation to it what so ever. Color harmony brings up the visual interest and it usually requires some sort of logical visual structure. The experience shouldn’t be extreme in any direction, but it should create a kind of a dynamic equilibrium as the harmony is sometimes defined.

Color Spectrum - Image via
Color Spectrum - Image via

Color Harmony Formulas

There are many formulas of color harmony. The basic ones refer to the analogous color schemes, as well as complementary, semi-complementary, split-complementary schemes, and also triadic, rectangle or tetradic, and square color schemes. And here comes the explanation for each and every one if those schemes.

Analogous colors are any three colors which are side by side on a 12-part color wheel, such as blue-green, green, and green-yellow. Usually, one of the three colors is dominant and other two follow. Analogous color schemes are often found in nature. Those are usually highly harmonious and pleasing to the eye, so they create comfortable designs.

Complementary colors are any two colors directly opposite each other when observed within the color wheel. For example, complementary colors are red and green, or blue and yellow, and everything in between which creates maximum contrast for a vibrant look. Complementary color schemes are good to use when something needs to be pointed out.

Split-Complementary colors are the complementary color scheme variable. Instead of one complement to a color, this scheme uses the two colors adjacent to its complement. The result is the same strong visual contrast, but a little less intense. A split-complementary scheme is really easy to implement, thus could be a good choice for beginners in a color theory field.

Triadic colors are the ones that are evenly spaced around the color wheel. Triadic color schemes tend to be quite vibrant, even if the unsaturated versions of a hue are in use. But, in order to have a successful harmony, one color should predominate, and the other two should be used for accent.

Rectangle or tetradic color scheme uses four colors that are arranged as two complementary color pairs. It is a rich scheme that offers many possibilities, with one color as a leader, and other as followers. If using this scheme, a special attention should be paid to the balance of warm and cool colors.

Similar to a rectangle, the square color scheme has four colors, but all four are spaced evenly around the color wheel. However, one color should be dominant, and the focus has to be on making harmony with well-balanced warm and cool colors.

Color Harmony Schemes - Image via
Color Harmony Schemes - Image via

Iconic Use of Color Schemes

Having in mind that the colors are nothing more than the perception of the light in a human eye, colors can be used to produce some sort of optical illusions as well, depending on the way they are refracted. For example, red will always appear brighter if it is on a black background than if we put it on the white surface. Same goes for the volume – red shape will seem larger if the black color is behind it, that if the background is blue, for example. Many artists apply this in order to emphasize something in the picture, or to create an illusion.

Colors had a strong influence on the Pop Art as well. And now, when you are equipped with a detailed knowledge of the color theory and the various color schemes, about the harmony of analogous, complementary, or split-complementary colors, you can try to define the Marilyn Monroe painting from 1967 by Andy Warhol. What color scheme did Warhol chose for his iconic art piece?

Andy Warhol - Marilyn Monroe, 1967 - Image via
Andy Warhol - Marilyn Monroe, 1967 - Image via

Primary Colors and Art Composition

Another great example of simple color use in the field of visual arts is Piet Mondrian’s art composition, where the artist, also known as the father of the abstract painting, uses only primary colors – red, yellow, and blue, accompanied with black lines and white surfaces. Everything that Mondrian did was based on different variations of those primary colors. Not only that he had a huge success with his art, but his composition has been used ever since for a different application, whether it is in the area of fashion, interior, graphic, or furniture design, souvenir gifts, or anything else as a matter of fact, as it has been widely used for a commercial purpose all around the world. It was applied to art theory as well, in a form of educational discussion about the composition through the history of art, and the use of colors and lines in art.

Piet Mondrian - Composition C (No III) with Red, Yellow, and Blue, 1935 - Image via
Piet Mondrian - Composition C (No III) with Red, Yellow, and Blue, 1935 - Image via

Color Theory and Art Today

The nature of contemporary art is a rebellious one and in the following with the postmodernism and consumer spirit almost every set definition of the past is heavily questioned by major artists and designers today. Does this also apply to the color theory? How often do we question what is a color wheel, or mention that the artist concentrates his or her production following the rules about opposite colors, warm colors, complementary colors etc.? As much as the exploration of color falls under a vast scientific category, major investigations into the emotional meaning of color and exploration of the cultural, individual, and universal associations a particular color combination has, suggest the importance of the individual understanding and reflections. But, is this truly relevant today? What place does the color theory occupy in the multitude of contemporary art practice?

emotional understanding of color
Wassily Kandinsky - Composition VIII. Image via

The Spiritual and The Consumptive Spirit

Wassily Kandinsky was one of the most influential painters accredited for the production of the first purely abstract painting. Influential as a theorist as well in 1911 he wrote one of the most celebrated pieces of art writing Concerning the Spiritual in Art. In it, the painter also discussed the effects of color on the eye and the inner resonance of particular colors. The primary color yellow was defined as warm, cheeky and exciting, red as restless, glowing and alive and the third primary color blue as peaceful, supernatural, deep, typical heavenly color. These ideas and Kandinsky’s views about geometrical objects influenced a variety of artists such as Georgia O’Keeffe, Mark Rothko and the birth of the geometrical abstract art movement.

As much as Kandinsky and his contemporaries concentrated their practice and writings on the experience of the divine in art, concern with color today suggests and reflects the consumerism culture we all live in. A substantial number of present research shows that the color theory and the reflection on why color matters and how it plays a pivotal role is explored within the marketing and branding business. Trying to reach the best placement and high quality of products, color is used to increase brand recognition, to place importance on the visual factors of the offered goods, and is also used to attract attention, or to manipulate. The psychology of color as it relates to persuasion is one of the most interesting and most controversial aspects of marketing.

internet color art
Internet Art. Image via

The Shift in the Color Vocabulary

Color theory, and the understanding of the primary colors, hues and saturations etc., has not developed an explicit explanation of how specific media affects color appearance. In the digital era we live in, most of us experience color on our screens, and as we know the experience of color differs. A number of artists, concentrating their practice in the virtual reality space of the Internet, manipulate with our senses and perception of the eye. Similarly and in following with the tradition of Op Art and Illusion Art, gif creators manipulate our senses and for this need to restrict their use of material to hundred and fifty-six colors. This restriction has created a sense of a new style of minimalism art, and our perception of the color differs due to the resolution or camera used by the makers. This ‘virtual’ experience of color contrasts heavily from the traditional understanding of color in the past, where the color was understood to represent the shift in the light and the behavior of paint, ink, dye, or pigment mixture. The eclectic understanding of what is art today allows for almost all color combinations, and if we understand that each of us perceives color differently, today a creation of a new color wheel is accepted as well. Many consider the understanding of the rule put forward in the past that all color is created by the three primary color, as false and new definitions are put forward regarding the understanding of primary colors. Today, artists and designers are more concerned with the effect the color will produce and the knowledge of color and how to manipulate with it is pivotal.

pantone color chart art
Left: Nick Smith - Slutty, Shades of Lust / Right: Nick Smith - Flirty, Shades of Lust. Images via

How to Know What Looks Good?

The traditional understanding of color, as much as it is implemented in the lives of all of us, is challenged by the eclectic style of contemporary art allowing for the breaking of rules and for total freedom of color celebration. There is for sure a lack of experimentation in the quality of different contexts a color is used and it seems that color today is used not just as a vehicle for a visual experience but as a major element for marketing, branding and for the creation of different illusions and manipulations. Major fashion labels, interior designers, graphic designers, and artists push the understanding of the most pleasing color combination to the limit and often create major trends in color and shape. In art schools, the teaching of the color theory starts relies on the traditional understanding of what color is and how it is defined but this knowledge, as much as it is set in stone, it is today more open than in the past.

None of us can deny the importance color has on us and the knowledge about the theories concerning the color can only help us understand some of the major developments and works of the past and today. In the vast practice of contemporary art, color is individually understood and used to manipulate the space, eye and our understanding of the traditional color theory.

Editors’ Tip: Color in Art

As we have seen in this article, the complex phenomenon of color has received detailed treatment from the perspectives of physics, chemistry, physiology, psychology, linguisitics, and philosophy. But what do visual artists who work most closely with color think about this ubiquitous but insolubly mysterious subject? This is what the new book, Color in Art, written by John Cage, will be focusing on - the thoughts and practices of artists. The book is concerned with the history of color, but is not itself a history; instead each chapter develops a theme from one of the aforementioned scientific disciplines from the viewpoint of artists such as Kandinsky, van Gogh, and Kapoor. Flags, synaesthesia, theosophy, theater design, chromotherapy, and chromophobia are among the many topics covered.

Written by Silka P, Natalie P and Nadia Herzog.

All images used for illustrative purposes only. Featured image in slider: Color Wheel. Image via; Wassily Kandinsky - Composition IV , detail, 1911 (courtesy of; Piet Mondrian; Visitors look at Matisse's famous work at the opening of the 10 Manifesta Biennial

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