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Overview about Color Theory

Colors can rouse personal feelings, solicit nostalgia, and trigger sense memories. When an artist has a strong understanding of the mechanics behind how color usage works, his or her work will have the power to influence an audience’s mood. The principles behind the treatment and application of color is called color theory.

Color theory is a set of structured principles to create color combinations. More specifically, color theory speaks to the psychology behind the application of color groups. Three colors used in a composition can get a different reaction than a different trio of colors used in the same composition. When composing a visual work, color choices must be considered when the artist wants to express a specific mood or tone.

The Color Wheel Is the Foundation of Color Theory

The color wheel is a circular graph that represents a spectrum of hues. Artists use color wheels to select color combinations. Traditionally, there are color groups called  “color chords” or “color harmonies” that have proven to be the most aesthetically successful when composing a work of art.

It’s no coincidence that color studies have adopted musical terminology. The first color wheel was invented by Sir Isaac Newton. He created the wheel to break down the colors of white into red, orange, yellow, green, cyan, and blue beams; and joined the colors to show the progression of the spectrum. He associated each color with a note of a musical scale.

About 100 years after Newton turn colors into chords, Johann Wolfgang Goethe took it a step further, and created a color wheel showing the psychological effect of colors. He split the colors into two groups. Colors from red to yellow were classified as the plus side and green through violent were part of the minus side. Goethe concluded that plus side colors produce energetic and jovial feelings. Conversely, he found that minus side colors are associated with melancholy and despair.

Most contemporary artists use the color wheel created in the 20th century by Johannes Itten, an art and color theory professor from the Bauhaus school. Itten modified the original color wheel by further developing the concept of color chords. The core elements of the color wheel remain the same, and are comprised of primary, secondary, and tertiary colors.

Primary Colors

Primary Colors

Primary colors refer to the 3 main hues of the color wheel spectrum. These colors are red, yellow, and blue (RYB). Primary colors are essential building blocks of the spectrum, because they cannot be created by mixing any other colors. However, all other colors are derived from combining red, yellow, and/ or blue.


Secondary Colors

Secondary Colors

Secondary colors are derived from combining primary colors. This mixture includes red and yellow to create orange, blue and red for purple, and blue with yellow to create green. Black can be created by mixing all three of the primary colors. Secondary colors are the next step in creating images that are both dynamic and harmonious.


Tertiary Colors

Tertiary Colors

Finally, tertiary colors combine the primary colors with secondary to create multiple hues, such as yellow-green, blue-purple, red-orange, and so on. While these colors still use the primary spectrum at their core, the ability to expand on these colors creates a creative effect that can mimic that of a natural setting.

Color Harmony/Complimentary Colors

complementary color

Color harmony at its main prospect promotes the balance in a visual experience. Certain hues in a painting can create a sense of joy, such as orange and reds, while purples and blues will create a sense of serenity. Painters must be aware of what will be pleasing to the eye, with over stimulation and under-stimulation in mind.

Over stimulation occurs when complexity occurs in the color scheme. While our brains are trying to make sense of the painting, chaotic colors can make us not want to look at the source of the overstimulate. Additionally, if a scheme is too harmonious, we can experience and underwhelming experience of which would cause disinterest in the painting.

The same can also be said for music compositions in relation to color theory. Using harmony when creating a masterpiece can help the acceptance of the project by avoiding under or over stimulation. To create this effective concept, it should use three types of color schemes: complimentary, analogous, and triadic. Sticking to these three concepts ensures that the person viewing the work will feel that sense of harmony.

Complimentary colors take the thought process behind color harmony and create a realm that is easier for the viewer to relate. To connect complimentary hues, look at the color wheel and connect opposing sides. For example, red and green are opposite on the color wheel but can create a complimentary experience. Complimentary colors are exactly as they sound, and can easily create a harmonious experience.

Combining colors of which are on the same side of the color wheel are analogous to one another and promote the main color with two supporting colors. Blue, purple and green are an example of an analogous color scheme.

Triadic color combinations include evenly spaced color combinations of three and compliment one another. As such, they are in different but equal spacing on the color wheel such as purple, green, and orange.

Adding in too many of the opposing colors will create a chaotic overstimulating effect, possibly rendering the image difficult to view. When the brain sees such a chaotic image, it immediately wants to look away. This reaction is because we are wired to remove ourselves from chaos for our safety. Occasionally, various creators use this to send a message, overall it is not a welcoming experience.

An ideal example of over stimulation is a website that has too many ads. When you first look at the website you do not know exactly what caught your attention first, and can often decide that it is best to seek another website for the answer you were looking for if you didn’t forget why you were there in the first place. This overwhelming sensation of too many colors causes it to overrun the brain with too many sensations. Much like a chaotic environment, your brain will want to end this over stimulation as quickly as possible.

With that said, using tint, tone, and shading can help keep the piece of art from being under-stimulating. The tint is created by adding white, shading by adding black. Tones can add effects through gray scales. Through the addition of these effects, the work can become dynamic as well as incorporate an aspect of realism. White, black, and grays are more neutral colors and can be mixed with the color spectrum to create even more variations of those colors.

Psychologically, colors can also promote certain feelings. In color theory, red is an exciting color, yellow energizes, and blue calms. As a full mixture, black promotes sophistication or rebellion, depending on how much black is used. Orange is a fun color while green balances and dark purples are luxurious.

When promoting a brand, the colors chosen should reflect that of the feelings the brand wants to incorporate. With that said, there shouldn’t be too many colors added to a certain branding, as there will be an overabundance of feeling stimulation, thus creating the opposite effect.

Another aspect to consider is the personal experiences that people associate with certain colors. If a brand uses red in overabundance, this can cause a negative feeling toward the brand because of red’s over exciting tendencies. The thought behind also using complementary colors offsets the overuse of one color. The same can be said for the use of too much blue for its calming tendencies. Using the complementary color of orange can help make a branding more dynamic in its call to action, or the part of the page that engages the reader in a website.

color overview


Sir Isaac Newton created the first color wheel, of which now has quite the expansion, by relating colors to his music. Johann Wolfgang Goethe could then expand on this knowledge by looking into the psychological effects color has on people. Johannes Itten made the final expansion to the color wheel by creating color chords. Noting how these colors work in color theory and harmony can help a person create a stimulating experience. Using the thoughts of how our brains react to various color combinations will help make the work of art more readable.

Furthermore, adding in primary, secondary, and tertiary color schemes that compliment one another will create a harmonious balance to the work of art. Avoiding over stimulation and under-stimulation are key points to achieving the harmony that will make the work dynamic and easily enjoyed by the viewer.

Finally, adding tones, shading, and tints can create the effects necessary to increase interest. Whether creating a website, business card, or painting; harmony promotes the psychological feelings associated with the piece. In using the psychological effects of colors and complementary versions of those colors, we look to satisfy the harmony that the brain seeks and use these effects to promote the masterpiece.