What is colour theory?

Colour theory is a general ruling of the colour wheel, what colour combinations are possible, and the effects of these combinations. These include the primary, secondary and tertiary colours, the 6 colour schemes and their relevant properties and harmony. Colour theory is a set of guidelines and rules that artists, designers and creatives generally use to aid in portraying their message, idea or concept. It’s a form of conceptual communication through a visually appealing use of colour. Together with colour psychology, culture and the latest trends – the colour wheel is used as a basis for most, if not all creative projects and designs.

The Colour Wheel

If you’ve taken any kind of lesson in art, its highly likely that your first theory lesson was based on the colour wheel. The colour wheel is a circle that consists of different colours and is arranged in the order of a rainbow. This wheel helps to understand how different colours work together and how they are related to each other. The colour wheel is made up of 3 categories; the primary colours, secondary colours and tertiary colours.

Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Colours

Primary colours are those that are ‘pure’ and cannot be made using a combination of other colours. Secondary colours are made using a combination of the primary colours. Lastly, tertiary colours (also referred to as intermediate colours) are made using a combination of both primary and secondary colours and usually have two-word names.

Primary Colours: Red, blue and yellow
Secondary Colours: Green, purple and orange
Tertiary Colours: yellow-green, blue-green, red-orange, blue-purple etc.

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Colour Properties

Colours can be further classified according to a number of properties. You’ve probably come across these terms before, but here’s some definitions to give you a better understanding of what exactly each terms means.

Hue: refers to how a colour appears or the dominant colour family that a specific colour belongs to (i.e.: a green hue). White, black and grey are never referred to as a hue.

Value: refers to how saturated or pale a colour appears.

Saturation: refers to how pure a colour is. A colour has shades (varying amounts of black added), tints (varying amounts of white added) and tones (varying amounts of grey added).

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Colour Harmony

Colour harmony refers to the visually pleasing, orderly use of colour. Essentially, colours are arranged in a way that is most attractive and effective in portraying its intended message.

When colours are arranged in accordance with the general rules of colour harmony, viewers may feel content and at peace whereas if colour harmony is not taken into consideration, viewers may feel uneasy, chaotic or disgust.

As discussed in our previous article on the importance of colour in design, we know that colour plays a significant role in how a brand, artwork or project is perceived. So, creatives often turn to the main colour schemes that exist in colour theory, to ensure that they are effective and well received by their audience.

Main Colour Schemes


A monochromatic colour scheme is made by taking one hue (for example, blue) and extracting different shades, tones and tints of that same hue. The monochromatic colour scheme is always classic, tasteful and extremely difficult to fault.

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An analogous colour scheme is created by selecting 3 colours on the colour wheel that are directly next to each other. An example of this could be orange, yellow-orange and yellow. This type of colour harmony is usually used when limited contrast is needed to create distinctions between background and foreground.

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This colour scheme is made using colour pairs on opposite sides of the colour wheel. This type of harmony is the opposite of analogous and monochromatic colour schemes as its aim is to produce a combination of high contrast rather than low. Examples include purple and yellow, blue and orange, green and red.

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Split-Complementary / Compound Harmony

This works in a similar way to the previous colour scheme, but includes more colours to soften the contrast. For example, red will be added to blue and orange. This particular colour scheme allows for a wider range of colours and decreases the intensity of the colour combination.

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This colour scheme is constructed in a slightly more complicated way than the others – it is made up of three colours that are an equal distance apart on the colour wheel. For example, red, blue and yellow are an equal 120° apart.

Choosing a colour scheme this way does not always guarantee a high vibrancy however, a high contrast and a sense of harmony is guaranteed. It is often easier to create a colour scheme using this technique, as it involves more colours at a higher contrast. As a design tip, try using one colour as your key colour and the other two as accent colours.

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A tetradic colour scheme is made up of two sets of complimentary colours, for example red/green/blue/orange. This colour scheme is mostly used by experienced designers, as it can be difficult to correctly balance the colours.

By connecting the four colours on the colour wheel, a rectangle should form. One colour is used as the dominant colour, around which the others are used as accent colours. It is important to pay attention to the balance of cool and warm tones to ensure a sense of harmony.

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When deciding on which colour scheme you want to use, make sure you remember the importance of colour and the psychological impact it has on viewers. When used correctly, colour can be used to express a brands identity, an artist’s emotion or a designs goal.

Information on colour theory is virtually endless. So next time you have to make a decision involving colour, make sure to check out our articles on colour theory, how it plays a role in branding, and some online tools to make your decision a little easier!

Books about Colour Theory

In you want to go more in depth with this subject, then we like to advice some of the books that can help you understand colour theory better, or that can help you selecting the right colours for your design project. We’ve made a small short list for you.

Course about Colour Theory

Richard Mehl has created an awesome course about Colour Theory: Color for Designers: Exploration, Theory, & Application.

The course contains over 20 different classes and covers topics like why you should study colours, colours and their relationships, colour contrast and the colour wheel, colour in design and many more. A small preview of the course:

YouTube video

Make sure you also read our other articles regarding colours in design

Do you want to learn how colour has an impact on our emotions? And how you can use that knowledge in your branding? Then make sure you read our article on the importance of colours in branding.

We also checked out the 3 best colour palette generators that will help you pick the perfect colour combinations for your next project.

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