Color theory

Image by lumakirau.

Whether you’re thinking about what colors to pick for a presentation, infographic, shirt or an advertising banner, if you don’t get some outside advice – you’re bound to meet with a problem of combing colors - when that amazing sky-blue color looks less than satisfactory with a swampy-green of your company’s logo – that’s when the color theory comes in handy.

The roots of color theory reach as far back as 1490 (in the records of Leonardo da Vinci) – so this is not some pseudo-science. Specifically for people who do not sense compatible colors, a helping cheat sheet was invented – a well-known color wheel (historically called hue circle):

Color Theory / RFclipart

Blue, Yellow and Red are also known as the primary colors – because every other color in the wheel can be seen as their combination. The colors opposite each other are called complementary – they stand out the most and are a naturally effective way of combining colors. It is a common choice; usually one of the colors is selected as a background, and the other one – to highlight various elements on it. Colors in between the primary ones are called split primary colors – and there’s a huge variety of those, not only the ones shown on the picture above.

Among painters pure colors themselves are known in fact as ‘hues’; mixing the paint with black produced what is commonly called ‘shades’; adding grey resulted what is referred to as ‘tones’; and finally, brightening up the mix with white produced ‘tints’. The differences are clearly shown on the picture below:

Color Theory / RFclipart

Tints, tones and shades behave in similar ways as their parent hues do – if we’re talking about their combination, however, one should be careful about the natural color lightness – for instance, highlighting something with shade of orange on blue background might not provide the best result, as the general picture will turn out quite dark.

Color Theory / RFclipart

That being said, another topic entirely – is contrast. This is especially true for things like signs and banners, and where it will be used also plays a huge role.

For example a black background (see picture) – makes letters stand out more than other backgrounds, but if the font is too small, it can be overwhelming. If we are talking about something more colorful however, there are also a number of options to consider.

Split complementary color choice includes picking a color, and then two derivatives of its complementary color; for example, if we pick green, then the split complementary choice would be purple and orange. This is a common choice for beginners in color theory, but shouldn’t be underestimated.

Triadic color choice consists of picking three equidistant colors of the color wheel. It is a rather high-contrast scheme, but it is more balanced than taking two complementary colors.

Analogous scheme is simply a three colors next to each other on the color wheel, like, for instance, blue, teal, and purple. A less contrast choice, but the hues themselves work poorly with each other – try experimenting with tints, tones and shades instead.

Tetradic color choice (also known as the double complementary) uses two sets of complementary colors – and known as the hardest to use color scheme. Even if colors are applied in same amounts, due to already mentioned differences in natural color lightness, it is very hard to balance properly. For ease of remembering, here’s a cheat sheet:

Color Theory / RFclipart

Using only one color and it’s variations in saturation, tint and shades is called a monotone chromatic color choice. In some cases it may work out, but the risk of looking boring and stressful to the eyes is quite high. A special variation, an achromatic monotone is based on the same principle, but using only the colors range from black to white – variations of grey and such, no other colors.

If you are making something for your work, or a certain enterprise (which is basically the same thing), it is a good idea to pick colors that go along with company’s branding – e. g. company’s logo color or the merchandise that is being sold – so determine the complementary color and decide on the color choice. Also, try to avoid using seasonal color choices, unless it is intended. For instance, the common colors of Christmas are green, red and white.

One should also take the color warmth (by dividing the color range in half, see the picture below) into consideration, and the psychological effect it produces. The approach goes like this (there are of course, other ways to present them, this is just the most common one):

  • black – associated with elegant, formal, powerful things;
  • white – signifies light, purity, cleanness;
  • red – is assertive, strong, determined;
  • yellow – means joyful, happy, energetic;
  • blue – conveys trust, wisdom, calm;
  • green – symbolizes freshness, environmental significance, relaxation.

Color Theory / RFclipart

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