What is color theory?

Color theory is a set of rules that combines creativity and science. Color theory sets the fundamental guidelines around color combinations and harmony. Designers and artists rely on color theory to make the correct choices for their projects, but they are not the only ones who use it.

Most people unknowingly make everyday decisions based on color theory and color harmony. Understanding the guidelines of color theory can help you in so many areas of life, from your business to your clothes.

We live in a highly visual world and it is impossible to master the art of visual communication without a good grasp of color theory. If you are a brand, YouTube channel, or organisation that wants to connect with your audience, then getting confident with the color spectrum is advisable. From understanding colors, all the way through to a deep understanding of color wheel definitions.

Color Theory Definition

Colors are everywhere. In our daily lives, we are constantly surrounded by colors. These colors can influence our emotions – how we feel about someone or something – even how we think about brands. Marketers have been using the psychology of colors for decades and often draw on them to gain an emotional response from the customer.

In this post, we will examine the different rules of color theory and break down some different color combinations and definitions. There is also a section on specific color meaning and the power that color has on branding.

What is a color wheel? How is it related to color theory?

Step one to understanding color theory starts with the color wheel. In 1866, Isaac Newton used physics to develop a color disc based on how light reflected off prisms. His discoveries have laid the foundation for the color wheel as we know it today.

There are two models of the color wheel and the first is red, yellow and blue (RYB), which are universally known as the primary colors. Their corresponding secondary colors are then green, orange and purple. Tertiary colors are green-yellow, yellow-orange, orange-red, red-purple, purple/violet-blue and blue-green.

The second is RGB, or red, green and blue,which is a digital color. You could say there are two types of color, subtractive and additive. Subtractive is physical color, the most common type would be paint. Subtractive color works by removing light, so if you kept adding purple paint to a canvas, it would eventually build to black.

Additive color is digital and adds light as you add more color. Keep adding and it will eventually end up white.

Color harmony

Think of color harmony as the visual results from the rules of the color wheel. In order to understand the color theory definitions, you need to know the importance of color placement on the color wheel.

These guidelines can be explained through 9 main color wheel rules: primary colors, secondary colors, tertiary colors, intermediate colors, complementary colors, monochromatic colors, analogous colors, triadic colors, and tetradic colors.  Knowing each rule can help comprehend the importance of each to color theory.

In order to create true color harmony in your marketing collateral, your wardrobe, and your interior design, it’s important to understand what colors work well together and why.

Primary Colors

As mentioned above, there are simply three primary colors and they are red, yellow, and blue. The purpose of primary colors is that they’re the base from which all other colors may be derived.

These three colors combined in all different sequences result in secondary colors. Without these three primary colors, we would not be able to create any other beautiful colors.

Secondary Colors

Colorwheelartist.com nicely describes secondary colors as the children of the three primaries and that is simply what they are. Red, yellow and blue (the primary colors) combined result in orange, purple, and green.

Tertiary Colors

Can you now guess how we make tertiary colors? Yes, primary colors mixed with secondary colors. Again, Colorwheelartist.com calls these colors the six grandchildren of the primary colors, therefore, six tertiary colors are created in total.

Intermediate Colors

Intermediate colors are best described as opposite colors on the color wheel. These colors exist between each primary and secondary color on the color wheel. When naming the intermediate colors, you always take the primary color name first.

Complementary Colors

This is a method of combining colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel – one side of the color wheel that consists of warm colors and the opposite side cool colors. Having one warm color and one cool color is going to increase the contrast of these colors.

The aim is to achieve a vibrant, harmonious color scheme by combining both. The important thing is to remember not to have those two colors at a high saturation as they will most definitely clash and be harsh on the eyes to look at. A good idea would be to pick one of the two colors to be your focus color and then the second color will complement the main color.

Monochromatic Colors

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Monochromatic colors are all the colors from a single hue, using tints, shades, and tones to lighten or darken the original hue. In simpler terms, it may be an image of the clear sky and clear water below, the sky may be a pale blue color, and the more defined areas a dark blue color, but all from the same hue.

Analogous Colors

These are colors right next to each other on the color wheel – so for example red, red-orange, and orange. Analogous is defined as things performing a similar function, but having a different evolutionary origin.

All three colors have similar traits, but also have their differences. Analogous colors are evident almost everywhere and work so well to create a nice harmony in an image or in a real-life setting (like a sitting room).

For example, when creating a design from scratch using analogous colors, you wouldn’t have equal amounts of each color in the design. Typically, you would choose just one ‘mother’ (some people may call it ‘dominant’) color and then use the rest to compliment it in your design. There are no specific rules, but 3-4 colors work best.

Triadic Colors

Triadic color schemes are three colors taken from the color wheel by forming a triangle connecting the three colors. Triadic color schemes always contain rich and vibrant colors of huge contrast. You could say they’re the opposite of a monochromatic color scheme that we spoke about above.

For example, a triad could be made up of yellow, red, and blue, but if you think they wouldn’t compliment each other very nicely, then you could take different hues, tints, and shades from each color and create a triadic color scheme from those.

Tetradic Colors

Similar to triadic colors a tetradic color scheme is combined of four colors that are made up of two sets of complementary colors. The four colors form a rectangular shape on the color wheel.

On the short side of the rectangle, there is only one color separating the colors and on the long side of the rectangle there are three in between. Again, like the triadic color scheme, it is best to let one color be the dominant or mother color.

Color Combinations

So, now that you know the basic rules around color harmony, and its relation to color theory, let’s delve a bit deeper into color combinations. Knowing how color theory is more or less the art or science of combining multiple colors and our perception of those colors is invaluable. Putting colors together is definitely a skill in itself, because the potential combinations are endless.

The most important thing to remember is balance, one color should balance the next. If you are decorating a room, for example, it would be advisable to have one strong color, and then the rest can work in harmony with that shade.

Take this interesting duo – lime green and grey. The zesty lime green packs a serious punch and could be garish if it was paired with something equally strong. Teamed with a flat dark grey, it creates harmony and becomes a really cool and contemporary combination.

Another pairing is this mysterious deep green combined with a rich rose pink. What works here is the balance between the masculine green and feminine pink, neither of which are too extreme in either direction.

A fabulous trio color combination would be this coral, soft brown, and peach. Together they conjure up feelings of homeliness. Here, the warmth of each color creates harmony. This combination would be perfect for a living room or bedroom!

Once you go above three color combinations, it is important that you have a clear vision of what the end goal is. Harmony and balance is harder to achieve, so make sure you try and test before committing.

This purple-shaded quadrant is in perfect harmony, because it pulls inspiration from different families of hues. The rich raspberry is the perfect companion to the dark, inky purple. Both of these rich shades are then set off by the lilac and mid-tone blue/purple.

For a full compilation of inspiration, check out 75 Of The Coolest Color Combinations Of 2020.

The meaning of colors

Green

We often associate green with nature, health and vitality, so it’s no wonder we see this color in environmentally-friendly products or natural beauty and health products. Use nature-inspired hues in your designs to convey a natural feel.

Red

Red is powerful and can convey many different emotions and feelings, depending on its context. It can evoke passion and love in some, but anger and rage in another. Universally, red is a color of strength and brands often use it to show power, even dominance. Prominent brands when it comes to red are Coca Cola, YouTube, Toyota, CNN and Canon.

Blue

Some see blue as a calming color, while others associate it with sadness. It has of course long been a color to denote masculinity, often campaigns associated with men’s health overwhelmingly use blue. A dark navy blue is often used in business campaigns as it conveys a sense of seriousness and professionalism. Use navy blue in your design for that corporate feel and conservative look.

Purple

A traditionally royal color, purple has been associated for centuries with royalty and majesty. Purple will always be a color of luxury and it is often used to show opulence or expense. To give your designs a luxurious feel, incorporate purple throughout.

Orange

It is said that the happiness associated with the color yellow combined with the energy of red combines in orange.  Orange gives a sense of sunshine, joy and the tropics. The color is associated with happiness, creativity, warmth, sunshine, fun and happiness.

Orange has the appearance of general wellness, vibrancy and emotional wellness. Orange is believed to offer emotional strength in difficult times.

Yellow

Yellow can be seen as having two different meanings. The first is being a bright, fresh, positive energizing color. Sunshine and optimism are characteristics of yellow, along with building confidence and encouraging communication. Bright yellow tends to be used a lot in products for children in particular as it’s fun and attention grabbing.

On the other hand, the overuse of yellow can be negative. A lack of focus, frustration and inability to complete tasks can be the result of the overuse of a bright yellow color.

Pink

Pink on the color wheel instantly reminds people of femininity and girlishness and gives a sense of calmness, love and kindness. The soft and relaxing, romantic color is actually a light shade of red, but it’s so popular it has become a color of its own. It is said to be the sweet side of red.

Ever wonder why Iowa Hawkeyes has pink locker rooms for visitors? (Or did you know they do) Well it is famously said to be to make the opposing team be so relaxed at the sight of the color and also another theory of the pink locker rooms was they would psychologically beat the opposing team before they stepped out on the field.

Black

The color black comes with many mixed emotions and meanings for everyone. Some include power, mystery, aggression, sophistication, evil, aggression, grief, mystery or even both positivity or negativity.

The color can also be used powerfully among rebellious teens or people wanting to cover up weight or even feelings, fears and insecurities.

The color black is commonly used in brands in contrast with white to stand out. You would think since they are opposite colors they would not work well, but in actual fact they’re very effective.

White

A color that is associated with purity, innocence, light, safety, brilliance and cleanliness. A blank canvas being pure white is satisfying and clear to look at. Painting the walls in your entire house white is now a trend as it has a clean and classy look.

The color white gives mental clarity and a look of freshness that is clutter free. Like most colors, when overused white can have a negative impact, being blinding if it is in very bright light. White is a very complimentary color as it almost goes with any color on the color wheel.

Turquoise

Being a color between blue and green color, turquoise can be summed up as cool and calming. The meaning of the color can be described with words such as wisdom, creativity, emotional balance, growth, peace of mind and mental clarity.

It is said to have turquoise around is good in case of emergency and the color can help you think clearly and make decisions.

Brown

Even though it can appear to be dull and serious, brown can be associated with quality, comfort and friendliness and approachability.

Another side to the color brown is that it can be associated with wholesomeness, nature, outdoors and agriculture. The color that brown is teamed up with also depends of the meaning it gives off. For example, brown and ivory can appear stylish and classy.

Grey

Grey is a color that has more negative characteristics rather than positive. This timeless and practical color is often emotionless, moody, dull and dirty, but on the other in the right setting it can be sophisticated, knowledgable and wise.

The perfect neutral, an intermediate grey color can be used as a canvas for designers. The ‘grey’ area is commonly heard of and can be characterized as the area between black and white.

Coral

Coral is a color made up of pink and orange, giving the vibe of warm and tropical seas and it can be seen as a color of peace. Coral helps you focus and gives you clairity to form balanced and healthy opinions.

Living coral (color of the year in 2019) a shade of the coral family is very popular and is nourishing and youthful without being overbearing. Our color combinations blog goes into more detail about living coral and many more colors.

Indigo

Indigo is often described as a color that is a mix between blue and purple. In times of deep concentration, the color indigo helps us to focus and is powerful and dignified.

It is a color that go well with imagery related to wisdom and devotion. This color is strong and on the negative side, is associated with addiction. Too much of the color is also said to give your ego the potential to go out of control.

Amber

Similar to coral, yet more akin to a shade of dark yellow, amber promotes feelings of joy and energy, but can be daring. The color amber can make one feel safe and create an atmosphere full of happiness.

In marketing, the orange-yellow color of amber can draw impulsive shoppers into a store. Amber is also commonly used in call-to-actions (CTAs) on websites.

Olive Green

Olive green is a dark shade of green that signifies ambition, greed and flattery. There is a mixture of  meaning for this color, also symbolizing luck in most Western cultures.

Leadership, especially among women, is commonly associated with the color olive green.

Lilac

Lilac is a soft, relaxing and friendly looking color that has a sense of innocence about it. It’s a very light purple, giving a sense of tranquility, peace and friendship.

More traits of the color lilac are bravery, value and loyalty. Brands may choose this color to express the personality of their brand as open-minded and friendly. It’s a nice, unique color that we don’t see enough of.

Fuchsia

You would presume fuchsia is a shade of pink, but it is actually a purplish-red color that is very vibrant and eye-catching. This confident, bright and bold color is perceived as a ‘girly’ color.

Fuschia inspires commitment and attracts a lot of attention. If it were a person, it would be loud and outgoing.

Burgundy

A touch lighter than the color maroon, burgundy can be viewed as a color to represent power, wealth and high society.

It’s one of the more sophisticated colors on the color wheel. Many wine companies would use burgundy as a color in branding, seeing as burgundy is part of the wine color family.

Color And Branding

Savvy marketers and business owners know the importance of color on branding. As we showed you above, colors hold their own special meaning and significance and they have the power to evoke emotions.

The color choice of certain brands is so successful that they have trademarked the exact shade. Tiffany & Co is the famous New York City Jewelers known not only for their amazing choice of jewelry, but for their iconic robin’s egg blue branding. Tiffany Blue was trademarked in 1998 and is also a Pantone color.

Barbie Pink, Cadbury Purple, T-Mobile Magenta and UPS Brown are all trademarked colors that have worked spectacularly for their brands.

They have found the formula for brilliant brand recognition. It is estimated that brand recognition can be increased by up to 80% by effective use of color throughout marketing, packaging and logo design.

Creative marketing uses the emotions of consumers to sell their product or service successfully. Using color as a tool to do so is a quick and inexpensive way to carry the right message. As outlined in the section above, every color carries its own meaning. As a business owner or marketer, use this to your advantage.

If you are a brand new health drink, then chances are you wouldn’t use black as your primary color, because the immediate associations that people automatically think of would be way off what would you want to portray. On saying that, there is room for creative licence. Sometimes a bit of shock value works wonders!  But always make sure you understand what you are doing and why.

Brand colors can be used everywhere, from their logo and website, to social media and marketing collateral. But they are just the obvious ones, business owners need to think about staff uniforms, store fit-outs and advertizements. Before you commit to a color, make sure that you have thought all these things through.

Let’s look at some strong brands and the reasons why their colors work. Here are some of the most popular brands that are instantly known by their colors:

color theory color and branding

Conclusion

An understanding of color comes naturally to some people, but there is always room to improve and push the level of your comprehension.

Those for whom it doesn’t come so easily, this blog post should help you to lay the foundations to build on your color knowledge.

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