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Color Theory - Some Basic Primer

By Chris Arlidge

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Now I can't relate an entire course here, nor would I be qualified to do so, however I will lay down some important primer and definitions garnered from my own personal education and experience, as well as various resource materials.

The following color theory is based more on subtractive color which is the color we see around us in a day to day life, or used in painting printing, etc. Additive theory involves Red, Green, Blue (what we see on screen and produced by video devices).

However much of the terminology and information can be used for both spectrums. I hope you find this useful.

Color Theory: As far back as man can recall, color has played an important part in communication, psycology and even physical health. Let's face it, color has power.

Your choice of color whether it be for interior design, graphic design, or fine art, can set the mood, and effect the viewer in many way ways. Knowing how certain colors reach a particular target market or elicit a specific emotional response is important for the practicing designer or artist.

Let's Start with the Basics:

The color wheel - This very important and sometimes intimidating device is essential to designers and artists alike.
You will see why later in the discussion. (Colors are approximations only) The color wheel is made up of 12 basic hues. 3 Primary 3 Secondary (Mixture of 2 primaries) 6 Tertiary (Mixture of a primary and a secondary)


Primary Hues: Blue, Red, Yellow (In the printing world these colors are Cyan, Magenta, Yellow)
Secondary Hues: Violet, Green, Orange
Tertiary Hues: Red-Violet, Yellow-Orange, Blue-Green, Red-Orange, Blue-Violet, Yellow-Green

Some Color Terminology:

Hue: The term hue is used to describe any pure color, with the exception of Black or White.
Chroma/Chromaticity: The chromaticity of a color is its saturation or intensity. For example if we are using an RGB palette a high chromaticity blue might be 0,0,255 or Red has a higher chromaticity than pink.
Value: The value of a color is its lightness or darkness. This is not to be confused with saturation which is a measure of a colour's intensity or chromaticity. Dark values of colours are sometimes called shades (adding black), and lighter versions (adding white) of colours are often referred to as tints.
Tone: A tone is any hue mixed with a grey (grey is a neutral of black and white)
Tint: A Tint is a hue mixed with white.
Shade: A shade is a hue mixed with black.
Complimentary Color: The color that is on the exact opposite side of the color wheel of one color. A neutral color is created when you mix these two colors together. TIP: When painting it is often better to use a color's compliment to darken an area of shadow rather than black. The reason being, it creates a richer more realistic shadow and when blacks are used in shadow they tend to 'flatten' them out.

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The Effects and Moods of Color:

The colors of 'Cold': Colors like Blue, green and Blue-green are associated with cold, and calm. Use these colors to promote a feeling of austerity, cleanliness, invigorating freshness, coldness.
The colors of 'Cool': Blue is the base for these colors but added are reds and yellows to bring out a wide range of color from minty green to a soft violet. These colors help promote a feeling of calm, serenity, trust and relaxation.
The colors of 'Hot': Red is the highest chroma color there is...simply put it is the most powerful hue. A hot color may evoke strong emotional responses, and has been known to stimulate physical activity and sexual desire. Use hot colors if you are wanting an aggressive feel or want something to really stand out amongst others. Note: Even though red is the strongest of hues, placing a high chroma yellow in any designsd or work of art will draw the eye first.
The colors of 'Warmth': Based in Red but softened and suffused with orange and yellows. Warm colors are often used to suggest comfort and warm heartfelt emotions.
The colors of 'Darkness': No these are not the colors of evil. They are often used to reduce space. These colors are also used so that lighter colors can stand out greater and be more effective. These colors are somber, and can suggest melancholy and solidity.
The colors of 'Light': These colors are barely colors at all they exist merely as suggestions and hints of colors. They are the opposite of darkness, and they are often used to open up a space or evoke a feeling of openess.
The colors of 'Pastel': These pale colors are hues tinted with large amounts of white and are very soft in nature. The bring out a mood of innocence, fond memories, and romance.
The colors of 'Intensity': The colors of intensity are high chroma colors, pure and when used seem to scream their message. Great for attention grabbing.

The Color Schemes:

Achromatic: Achromatic schemes are made up of Black and Whites and the various range of neutral grays they produce. You can give achromatics a temperature by adding a small touch of another color.
Monochromatic: If you take a basic hue from the color wheel and use it and only its various tints and shades. The monochromatic scheme is usually a safe bet for pleasabilty factor. However it can often be the fall back scheme for designer and artists that are afraid to play with color.


Analoguos: An analoguous (say that 5 times fast) are three colors that are adjacent (side by side) on the color wheel. These colors are often harmonious and easy on the eye.

Primary:The playground colors. Made famous by such painters such as Mondrian (he rarely if ever used green in work), the Primary scheme is made up of a mixture of the Red, Blue and Yellow and is strong and energetic.
Secondary: The secondary scheme is made up of orange, green and violet. This scheme can aslo be energitic, and fresh.
Tertiary Triad: This ones a bit complicated and hard to conceptualize: but basically there are two schemes of three tertiary colors that are equidistant (Draw a equilateral triangle on the color wheel.) A basic Triadic scheme is when three colors are equidistant on the wheel.


Thank you taking the time to read this tutorial/article, and I hope it helped you in some way.

This tutorial was created by Chris Arlidge of