Color Theory: Brief Guide For Designers And Artists

Float Media
Mar 29 · 5 min read

The world of shades is magical. Each designer should feel the mystery of tints to be able to create his or her masterpieces. The color theory helps to understand how shades blend making wonderful designs. This article will help understand the basic concepts of this theory and improve designer skills.

Origins of Colour Theory

Ancient Egyptians discovered the magic of coloration and how it makes an impact on people, but initial bloom theory started to shape only after the 18th century. They learned to derive tints from minerals and created primitive paintings. Leonardo da Vinci explored this theory in his canvas. Isaac Newton was the first person who in his book Optics explained from a scientific perspective that pure colorless light consists of different tones. He used a prism to refract pure light into spectrum tints. The first blossom wheel was proposed by him. Further, a famous poet von Goethe, a chemist Michel Chevreul and Emily Vanderpoel contributed to the development of the color theory.

Von Goethe published his book called The Theory of Colours which together with The Law of Simultaneous Colour Contrast by Chevreul are considered fundamentals of color theory. Both books concerned color psychology and made changes in the blossom wheel presented by Newton.

In the 19th century, the color theory was widely applied in arts. Except main tints like red, green and blue, people started to distinguish intermediate shades and hues. In 1814, Werner wrote his Nomenclature of Colours and gave beautiful names to all tints. Also, Werner specified from which minerals or plants those tints can be derived. This manual was used by Charles Darwin in his research.

A manual of Emily Vanderpoel written in 1901 was revolutionary in the area of hue science as she used an innovative approach to renew this theory. Vanderpoel used grids to classify all objects that exist in nature by types of hues. Also, she incorporated elements of industrial progress in her study. Basic pigment terminology and principles were considered in this article.

The Colour Wheel

The spectrum consists of several hues often depicted in the form of the color wheel. This wheel helps creators and artists understand combinations of hues. It consists of primary, secondary and tertiary tints. Primary shades are those that can’t be created using other tints like red, green or blue in the additive system. Secondary tints are obtained from mixing primary. For example, by blending yellow and blue one can get green.

Similarly, by mixing primary and secondary casts, one can get tertiary hues like red-violet or yellow-brown. All these hues make spectrum variety. Nature of each tint is twofold: tangible blossom and its hues produced by light. This theory resulted in creating two models: subtractive and additive.

Colour Models

There are several main hues that may create various hues when mixed together. Every child knows that spectrum consists of three primaries: red, yellow and blue. In short, it’s called the RYB model. All artists and inventors use these primaries when creating pictures or interior designs.

Another model used by arts professionals is called CMY. It comprises cyan, magenta and yellow tints. Both RYB and CMY models are subtractive. In subtractive models, creators obtain hues by subtracting light. RYB system is used for the education of artists, while the CMY model is employed in photomechanical printing where black ink and its shades are used as main components. This model is also called CMYK where “K” means “key ink” or black.

There is another model — RGB — that comprises red, green and blue tints. This model is called additive because different hues are added to the darkest one to get the white color finally. This model is used on computer monitors and TV screens. An equal proportion of hues in this combination makes secondary tints (cyan, magenta, yellow). The more light is added to this mixture, the lighter final tint becomes. Sometimes people obtain surprising results when mixing up these tints.

It’s important for any designer to remember that an additive model is used for digital media, while subtractive better fits print media. Also, tints on screens and in print don’t look the same. Additive model spectrum is significantly wider than that of CMYK. Therefore, it’s better to convert inventor projects to subtractive model to get an idea of final results. RGB model is preferable when creating various digital products as wide spectrum is used in this model.

Colour Schemes

Designer’s job is to create a harmony of casts. To reach this goal, inventors need to understand the power of coloration and how users perceive harmonious design. Well-organized coloration is pleasant to see. It makes users feel calm and satisfied. On the contrary, if the design isn’t very successful, it may bring a feeling of discomfort. Therefore, understanding balance in coloration is the key to success in design.

Experienced authors outlined certain rules that can help make attractive website designs. These design schemes are used not only for creating websites. Any digital product is made using these schemes. The following pigment schemes are the most often used for website design: monochromatic, analogous, complementary, split-complementary, triadic and tetradic.

Monochromatic Colour Scheme

As it follows from the name, only one tint is used in this scheme. However, shades of this tint create coloration diversity. Monochrome design is an excellent choice if used wisely. Using this scheme is beneficial for novices in design because making mistakes when creating this design is almost impossible.

Analogous Colour Scheme

The analogous design scheme is used in the projects when there is no need for contrast. Shades that are located near each other in the color wheel are used in this scheme. It’s often employed for making the design of websites’ background.

Complementary Colour Scheme

On the contrary, to analogous, the tones located to the opposite of each other on the color wheel are used in the complementary scheme. This design aims to cling contrasting hues. Who can disregard green figures on a yellow background?

Split-Complementary Colour Scheme

This is a sort of complementary scheme, but the contrast in the split-complementary scheme is less evident. The only rule any designer should follow when using this scheme is to use contrasting shades adjacent to each other. If a creator needs to create a split-complementary design, he/she should choose one main tint and two opposite shades that are close to each other on the color wheel (main tint — blue, contrasting shades — red and yellow).

Triadic Colour Scheme

Triadic scheme suggests multicolored design. To create this scheme, a designer uses three tones that stay the same distance apart from each other on the color wheel. One tint is used as main, and others make accents.

Tetradic Colour Scheme

Once a designer gains some experience, he starts using more complex schemes like tetradic. It’s difficult to create tint balance using this scheme as it employs four paired hues. One hue in each pair complements the main tint. It’s difficult to harmonize this scheme, but if a creator succeeds to do it, results will be impressive.

The color theory is difficult to capture after reading one publication. In this article, only the basics of this theory are presented. These insights will help novices make the first steps in design.


My name is Alexia Wolker, I am a blogger and an editor. I have a Master’s Degree in literature and love both reading and writing about books and literary topics. You can see my articles at freebooksummary website.

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