Introduction to Color Theory

Color theory is the study of colors and how they interact both with each other and with people. Every artist, regardless of their medium, should have a basic understanding of color theory. Understanding how colors relate to each other helps in selecting a color scheme for a project. Knowing which emotions each color or combination of colors evokes is also helpful information to know, especially if an artist or designer is looking to evoke a certain emotion.

The first step to learning color theory is learning the color wheel and its different iterations. There are three: the 3-color wheel, the 6-color wheel, and the 12-color wheel. While the 12-color wheel is the one most often used, the 3- and 6-color wheels have their uses also.

Primary Colors | 3-color wheel

The primary colors are red, yellow, and blue. These are the basic blocks of all the other colors of the rainbow, and they’re called primary because they can’t be produced from mixing other colors. If an artist has paint of these three colors, they can mix nearly every other color they could need (having a tube of black and white can also help too).

A standard color wheel with three colors has red on the top, yellow on the bottom right, and blue on the bottom left.

Secondary Colors | 6-color wheel

The secondary colors are green, orange, and purple. These are the three colors that result from mixing two primary colors together.

Red + Yellow = Orange
Yellow + Blue = Green
Blue + Red = Purple

On the color wheel, starting from the top, the colors usually appear in this order: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple. You may recognize this pattern as the standard order of the rainbow.

Mixing two complementary colors will get brown. Complementary colors are opposites on the color wheel. For instance, the complementary pairs of the 6-color wheel are red and green, purple and yellow, and blue and orange.

Tertiary Colors | 12-color wheel

The tertiary colors help round out the color wheel so it’s more complex and vibrant, like the world we live in and the art we create. These colors appear when you mix a primary color with an adjacent complementary color.

The tertiary colors are: red-orange, yellow-orange, yellow-green, blue-green, blue-purple, and red-purple.

The order of colors on a 12-color wheel are, starting from the top, red, red-orange, orange, yellow-orange, yellow, yellow-green, green, blue-green, blue, blue-purple, purple, red-purple.

Understanding how colors relate to each other helps in understanding the world around us. With help from the color wheel, artists and designers can select a color scheme that evokes a certain emotion in a project.

Further Reading:

• Maryville University | The Art of Color

• Inside Design | Understanding Color Theory: The Color Wheel and Finding Complementary Colors

• Teach Kids Art | The Great Tertiary Color Debate

Color Matters 

Header Image Credit: Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash