graphic design September 7, 2019

Color theory: how to effectively master color

We already know what color is and how it’s different from person to person.
On another occasion, we also analyzed how popular tv shows such as Handmaid’s Tale, and Game of Thrones use color to convey ideas and emotions.
But how do we use color to our own advantage? How do we create those beautiful, catchy color palettes that keep popping up on Behance and Instagram?
We’re going to address these questions in today’s post.

An introduction to color theory

Color theory is a set of guiding principles followed by most designers.
The reason why it works so well is that it ensures proper color combinations.
On one hand, it allows for standardization by following the rules, and on the other, it also enables to break them effectively.
Even though it might seem recent, the color study has been the main subject for scholars over centuries.

Color theory’s history

Old records show that Aristotle formulated color relationships, but it was only with Leonardo da Vinci that they became formally recorded.
He discovered contrary or complementary colors by realizing that some colors when combined, intensify each other.

However, it took about a century later for the first color wheel to appear by the hands of Sir Isaac Newton.
He split white light into red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. Then, he combined the ends of the spectrums to form a circle to showcase the progression of colors.
An interesting idea also appeared to Newton; he noticed that two colors from opposite positions formed a neutral or anonymous color.

Another century went by when the famous poet Johann Wolfgang von Goeth decided to study color psychology and introduced further advances in color theory.
Goethe divided all the colors into two groups, one with a plus side and another with a minus. On the first one, he combined all the warm colors (red, orange, and yellow), while in the second, the cool colors (such as green, blue, and violet).
He noticed that warm colors are associated with good feelings, while cool colors are seen as unsettled.
Unlike his predecessor, Goethe believe that color needs to be seen from the perspective of human behavior and not only from a scientific point of view.

In 1876, Louis Prang published a book called Theory of Color that ultimately introduced red, yellow, and blue as primary colors in art education in America.

Color theory in art & design

In 1916, a chemist named Wilhelm Ostwald developed a color system related to psychological order and harmony that influenced the De Stijl art movement.

After that, a Bauhaus‘ master played a major role.
Johannes Itten was a color and art theorist that modified the color wheel.
Like Goethe, Itten developed an interest in the psychology of color as well as its spirituality.
His theories are still at the core of most information about color in art.

Understanding color theory by using the color wheel

The color wheel is the most used tool to visualize color relationships.
Needless to say, there are are many versions of it but the most useful is the twelve-step color that contains 12 pure hues.
It helps with the selection of effective color combinations that balance each other.
When the sum of all colors adds up to gray or neutrality, the composition is balanced and produces the feeling of feeling right to the viewer.

Color relationships

Six basic color relationships can be applied to form infinite color combinations and produce contrasting results.

1. Complementary
These colors are directly opposite each other on the color wheel. They form the most contrasting pairs and cause visual vibration on the eyes.

2. Split Complementary
When a color is accompanied by two others spaced equally from the first one, we have a split complementary color combination.
Since there are three colors instead of two, the contrast feels more toned down.

3. Double Complementary
In this case, two pairs of complementary colors are together. Since complementary colors appear to intensify each other, using two pairs might result in less pleasing sets.

4. Analogous
When two or more colors are spaced equally on the color wheel, they’re called analogous colors. Since they have similar light wavelengths, they’re easiest on the eye.

5. Triadic
This is a combination of any three colors spaced evenly around the wheel. Triads composed of primary colors seem too harsh but secondary and tertiary triads are softer.
Combinations in which two of the colors share a primary (like purple and orange share red) look more appealing.

6. Monochromatic
These schemes are made of shades and tints of a single color.
Usually, the best way to achieve them is by altering saturation and lightness.

Resources to better use color theory

There are various representations of the color theory. Color wheels, triangles, and charts are some of the tools to create color palettes.

To help you out with color combination, here are some tools that you can explore to help with the next project.

Adobe Color wheel
You can use it to select what kind of color relationship you wish to obtain, or you if you want to extract colors from an image.

Color Hunt
This tool allows you to choose palettes already created by someone else. It’s also available as a Chrome Extension.

Coolors.co
This generator lets you select and lock one particular color, while gives you alternative pairs every time you press the spacebar.
Additionally, you can get alternative shades with just one click.

Color Leap
I’ve talked about this resource before.
What is cool about it, is that lets you pick palettes based on historical periods.

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