As an illustrator and graphic designer the art of visuals is my life blood so to speak. The artwork itself not only consists of just the composition, form, shade and texture but the colours too. It is the colour palette that sets the mood for the whole illustration as seen in the image above. The warm hues give a sense of summer and happiness which also help to express the emotion displayed in the artwork image “fox hugs and summer of love.” The theory of colour encompasses a multitude of definitions, concepts and design applications – enough to fill several encyclopedias. However, there are three basic categories of colour theory that are logical and useful : The colour wheel, colour harmony, and the context of how colours are used. These principals can not only assist in art but in everyday life too. For example – understanding of how colours work together can improve your home decorating and improve your colour schemes.
The colour wheel
A colour wheel, based on red, yellow and blue, is traditional in the field of art. Sir Isaac Newton developed the first circular diagram of colours in 1666. Since then, scientists and artists have studied and designed numerous variations of this concept. Differences of opinion about the validity of one format over another continue to provoke debate. In reality, any colour circle or colour wheel which presents a logically arranged sequence of pure hues has merit.
This is the basic colour wheel and it will guide you in making colour choices. You’ve probably seen it in school, but here’s a quick refresher just in case you’ve forgotten.
Red, blue and yellow are primary colours. When you mix red and yellow, you get orange; mix blue and yellow, you get green; mix red and blue, you get violet. Orange, green and violet are hence called secondary colours. Tertiary colours like red-violet and blue-violet are derived by mixing a primary colour with a secondary colour.
All colours have tints and shades. A tint is the variation of that colour when mixed with white; a shade is the variation of that colour when mixed with black. But generally, you don’t need to worry about tints and shades for basic colour schemes, says Colour Wheel Pro:
According to colour theory, harmonious colour combinations use any two colours opposite each other on the colour wheel, any three colours equally spaced around the colour wheel forming a triangle, or any four colours forming a rectangle (actually, two pairs of colours opposite each other). The harmonious colour combinations are called colour schemes – sometimes the term ‘colour harmonies’ is also used. Colour schemes remain harmonious regardless of the rotation angle.
Basic Colour Schemes
Based on the wheel, there are a few basic rules to match colours, but they are relatively simple to master.
Analogous colours are any three colours next to each other on the wheel. For example, orange, yellow-orange, and yellow.
Complementary colours are any two colours opposite each other on the wheel. For example, blue and orange, or red and green.
These create a high contrast, so use them when you want something to stand out. Ideally, use one colour as background and the other as accents. Alternately, you can use tints and shades here; a lighter tint of blue contrasted against a darker orange, for example.
Split complementary colours use three colours. The scheme takes one colour and matches it with the two colours adjacent to its complementary colour. For example, blue, yellow-orange and red-orange.
With analogous colours, it’s best to avoid hues as they can be jarring. Instead, focus on tints of analogous colours. Another tip Colour Wheel Pro shares is to avoid combining warm and cool colours in this scheme.
Triadic colours are any three colours that are equally apart on the colour wheel. For example, red, yellow and blue.
The Triadic scheme is also high-contrast, but more balanced than complementary colours. The trick here, Decor Love says, is to let one colour dominate and accent with the other two.
Tetradic or double complementary colours uses four colours together, in the form of two sets of complementary colours. For example, blue and orange is paired with yellow and violet.
Context of How Colour is used
How colour behaves in relation to other colours and shapes is a complex area of colour theory. Compare the contrast effects of different colour backgrounds for the same red square.
Red appears more brilliant against a black background and somewhat duller against the white background. In contrast with orange, the red appears lifeless; in contrast with blue-green, it exhibits brilliance. Notice that the red square appears larger on black than on other background colours.
The same colour can appear like an optical illusion in some cases, as shown in the image below. The small purple rectangle on the left appears to have a red-purple tinge when compared to the small purple rectangle on the right. They are both the same colour as seen in the illustration below. This demonstrates how three colours can be perceived as four colours.
Helpful Apps for Colour Palettes
While the basics of colour combinations are more clearer with the above info, that doesn’t mean you will always nail it. But like with anything, there’s an easy way out!
There’s quiet a few apps and websites such as: use web sites where designers suggest colour palettes, like ColourLovers.
While that helps when starting from scratch, what do you do when you have a colour in front of you but need to know what are its complements or triads? That’s where apps come in. SwatchMatic for Android identifies any colour you point your camera to (no need to take a photo), and suggests what you can match it with using the basics of the color wheel.
Though it’s not exactly the same, ColourSnap is a good option for iPhones. You need to take a photo and the app then identifies various colours in it. Tap one and you’ll see a palette of matching colours from paints company Sherwin Williams, which made the app. You can ignore that part and just use the palette for reference. Paint companies seem to have the market cornered on this type of app, with others like Colour Smart (Behr), Colour Capture (Benjamin Moore) and Pick-a-Paint (Valspar).
Finally, Colour Matters says you needn’t always rely on the colour wheel and take inspiration from nature, or other elements around you:
Nature provides a perfect departure point for colour harmony. In the illustration above, red yellow and green create a harmonious design, regardless of whether this combination fits into a technical formula for colour harmony.