Theory of Color: Guide to a jargon-free designer
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All the colour theory, principles and vocabulary, you need to know.

The theory of Color is a key aspect of every practice of designers and artists. For many of us, colour is so prevalent that it becomes an intuitive choice in all that we see visually in the world. Understanding how colour is generated and, above all, the links between colours may help you more efficiently use colour for your designs and make sure you pick the proper palette for your projects.

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You will undoubtedly remember that when you look back to school the basics of colour theory are taught: There are three primary colours – red, yellow, and white – and a mix of these three colours can make a colour of each one in different amounts. This is not the complete tale (although it is still sufficiently workable to teach the five-year-olds). In this guide, we will explore what you need to know about colour theory and explain the jargon and design concepts along the way.

During your stay here you may also wish to see our Photoshop colour management guide, or our colour grading and art skills guides. We propose Adobe Creative Cloud if you require software to practise all this theory.

Theory of colour: a guide for the designer

In the 1920s and 1930s, the Bauhaus School acknowledged the power of colour. Staff and students developed colours theories to evoke various moods and feelings through a variety of design and architecture choices. (See our Bauhaus design guide for further information.)

Colour theory is a science that extends much beyond that – at least to the 15th century – and uses physics, chemical technology and mathematics in order to define and explain the notions completely. Most of this, however, is not necessary for the successful use of colour. Here we will provide you with an outline of the most significant components of colour theory you need for educated decision-making in your own work.

Systems of colour (Theory of Color)

A system of colours is a way of reproducing the colour. Two main colour systems exist: additive and subtractive (also known as reflective). Both of them are used every day. Screens employ additive colour to create all the colours that you can see while books and other printing materials use their front cover in subtractive colour.

All light-emitting things (such as the sun, a screen, a projector, and so forth) utilise the additive colour, while all else uses the subtractive colour, which instead reflects light.

01. Additive

Intersection Mix Colors - Free vector graphic on Pixabay
red, green, and blue – RGB  (Image credit: Creative Commons)

Additive colour functions with whatever light emits or radiates. The blend of various light wavelengths creates diverse colours, and the lighter and brighter the colour.

We tend to see red, green and blue (RGB) colours of the block (primary) when we utilise the additive colour, which is the foundation for all colours, on a screen. White is the combination of colour in additive colour; black is the lack of colour.

02. Subtractive

File:CMYK-color model.png - Wikimedia Commons
cyan, magenta, and yellow  (Image credit: Creative Commons)

Subtractive colour operates on the light foundation. The way a certain pigment reflects different wavelengths of light, rather than forcing more light out, influences its perceived colour to the human eye.

As an additive, the subtractive colour has three main colours – cyanine, magenta and yellow (CMY). White is the absence of colour in subtractive colour, whilst black represents a colour combination, although this is an incomplete system.

We have to add a fourth compensatory pigment to account for this restriction. We don’t entirely absorb light (preventing colour wavelengths reflected). We term it “key,” therefore CMYK, yet it is black in essence. Without this additional pigment, the closest to black we’d be able to render in print would be a muddy brown.

The colour wheel

File:BYR color wheel.svg - Wikimedia Commons
The colour wheel (Image credit: Creative Commons)

The notion of the contemporary colour wheel was devised around the 18th century to make the relationship between different hues. Although colours exist in a continuous range, painters have succeeded in breaking them down into different blocks.

The primary colour of the outer ring is coloured by the wheels of colour (completely red, yellow and blue). The secondary colours, where red, blue and yellow are the basic colours and the secondary colours are green, orange and violet, are generated by blending two main colours. Then, a primary and a secondary colour are mixed by creating third colours.

Be aware that the main colours of red, yellow and blue do not apply fully as greens and blues actually take on a greater spectrum of colour. Therefore, alternate colour wheels, like rot, blue and green or cyanine, magenta and yellow, are sometimes utilised. Traditional primary colours, though not as intensive as pigments, can be blended using these alternate colour wheels.

The colour wheel enables us to see in a look which colours are additional (on the wheel, opposing), analogous (on the wheels near), triadic (three colours placed on the wheel at 120 grades), etc (see below). All such interactions can yield nice colour combinations, and the associations between colours are much more pleasant dependent on its position on the wheel.

Additional colours

Additional colours (Image credit: Creative Commons)

Additional colours sit on the wheel opposite each other. These pairs have the biggest contrast in hue, thus when placed next to each other they typically look quite intensely. In particular, in close proximity, two intense complementary colours may occasionally clasp and strain the eyes and make sure one is more neutral if you employ them together.

A neutral grey or even black, as they cancel each other out, is created by mixing two colours in addition. This allows greys to be made in the centre of the colour wheel.

Similar colours

File:ART ANALOGOUS COLOR.png - Wikimedia Commons
(Image credit: Creative Commons)

Analogous colours are on the colour wheel near to each other and have less contrast in colour and so easily harmonise. Indeed, they are sometimes too easily harmonised and hence, for instance, by pressing tonal and saturation contrasts you would want to enhance contrast to such combinations (or both).

Analogue colours create brilliant intermediate colours when combined. The closer the two colours, the more strong their mixing is on the coloured wheel. The further they are apart, the more drab the blend.

Colors Triadic

(Image credit: Creative Commons)

Three colours consist of triadic schemes, equally spaced around the colour wheel. If you use strong colours, this type of scheme might be a challenge, as it covers the entire area of the wheel, making contrasting colours difficult to manage. One way is to choose a dominant colour, which can be supported as subdued tones by the second two.

A triad of rich colours with whites can also be bonded. This permits the eye to break and gives the triad subtle signs. Otherwise, triad colours may be employed to ‘spice up’ neutral settings in modest amounts.

Split additional colours

Fargeklanger - Håndverk, design og produktutvikling (DT-DTH vg1) - NDLA
(Image credit: Creative Commons)

Two such examples of colour schemes are similar complementary schemes, except one colour is divided into two in this scenario. This second colour is in front of this pair’s centre point. The split pair can be separated narrowly or grow until it becomes a triadic design.

This type of arrangement is a fantastic choice for a limited palette as it delivers the harmony of an additional colour scheme while covering more flooring on the wheel with a larger range of hues. Complementary plans split both colours sometimes (this is sometimes called a tetradic scheme). They function particularly well if the range is limited for each pair.

There are free applications for choosing a colour scheme or you can select your own with the eye of your designer. For a little help, click the following page.

The three colour elements

yellow is yellow, is yellow? Well, no, in fact. We can call them yellow in many different tints. Different shades or tints, saturations, and shades can all be found on the colour wheel’s yellow part. As a result, three fundamental components contribute define a colour: colour, saturation and luminosity.


The coloured wheel is positioned here and the base colour is represented. Usually, that’s in the degree (around the coloured wheel), so that a yellow colour is somewhere between 50° and 60° and a perfect yellow is 56°. Green, however, shows on the wheel at 120 degrees.


This shows how saturated (or rich) a colour is. Low saturation results in less overall colour. When completely unsaturated, this becomes a grey tint. The percentage of saturation is usually between 0 and 100%.


This is the brightness of a colour, usually indicated by 0% to 100%. A yellow at 0% is black while the complete yellow colour has the same yellow hue and saturation at 100% brightness.

Colour gamut

Color gamut describes the whole spectrum of colours, which can be reproduced by a system. The colour spectrum in CMYK is different from what can be achieved with RGB may surprise you.
This is due in part to the nature of the two separate systems, but also (at least in the actual world) due to constraints in our technology – displays can’t always produce the same colours, and the colours reflect light at a rate that is uniform, as the saturation of them is reduced.

Perception of colour

It’s also interesting looking at how the way we see different colours can influence. The middle greys on a sparkly grey backdrop and the same middle grayscent on a dark grey background represent a typical instance of this.

The perceived luminosity of the mid-gray is varied depending on the context in which you see it – an eye trick attempting to make sense of its environment. Hues works the same way as tones when placed next to other colours, so that diverse effects can be created with the same colour palette.

The colour emotions

Color may play an essential influence in how individuals feel when they see a picture, as specific colours. There are numerous complex reasons why a colour causes a psychological reaction in a viewer and depends not solely on the coloured features, but on the setting, society and interactions with other colours.

A field of yellow flowers would be a brilliant, regenerative image, but yellow also is dangerous as warning signs and venomous insects reveal. As a result, some partnerships may appear contradictory, but the way they might alter the way people feel is worth considering.

RED = arousal, violence, romance
YELLOW = hot, friendly, hazardous.
GREEN = nature, wax, envy
BLUE = rest, cold, grievance
White Signifies purity, innocence, void.
BLACK = oppressive, quiet, strong


The key to a painting is the general dominating tonal value, and how its tonal values are constrained to a single area. Light tonal values dominate a highly important piece. It tends to eliminate or to just minimise dark tone values, although rich colours are more predominant than pastels. Highly important compositions therefore typically have a bright, airy vibe.

Low key compositions in contrast allow predominant dark tonal values to omit or minimise light tones. This can be useful for atmospheric effects. Adding little traces of light results in striking tonal contrast.

Read more…
There’s more to explore in the colour realm, therefore we have a tag for all of our colour papers. Read some of the following highlights.

A colour branding guide for a designer

How can designers sideline subjective discussions to more efficient use of colour power in branding projects? How can the “correct” choices of colours? We talk to colour branding specialists and look for tools to help you make the correct decisions. Please see the Color Branding guide for our designer.

Calibrators of the greatest monitor

You need to make sure it is correctly calibrated to make sure your monitor shows colours as precise as possible. This is vital for anyone who works on graphic design, film, photography, or digital art — you could see an entirely different colour than your audience if your display is not calibrated properly. You will find the tool to do the right task in this guide to the top monitor calibrators.

Select the suitable colour palette of the website

Begin to choose the proper colour palette for your website with the help of this guide. With the aid of this guide. The numerous aspects you have to consider while making your design decisions are well introduced, with references to psychology studies and colour theory.

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