Color Theory Basics

Basic Color Wheel

In this section we will learn the basics of Color Theory, including color hue, value, contrast, saturation and intensity.

The color wheel is a basic tool for identifying and combining colors. There are a number of color combinations that are traditionally considered to be especially pleasing. These combinations are called color harmonies or color chords and they involve combining two or more colors with a fixed relation in the color wheel.

Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Colors:

Primary colors (red, yellow and blue) are the building blocks for all other colors. By combining these colors with each other, or with combinations of these colors, all other colors in the color wheel can be achieved.

Secondary colors (green, orange and violet) are colors resulting from the mixing of two primary colors (i.e., yellow and blue make green).

Tertiary colors (red-orange, yellow-orange, yellow-green, blue-green, blue-violet, and red-violet) are combinations of primary and secondary colors. An easy way to remember these names is to place the primary name before its secondary counterpart. For example, the tertiary color produced when mixing the primary color blue with the secondary color green is called ‘blue-green.’

Color Hue, Value, Contrast, Saturation and Intensity:
Simply put, hue is just another word for color, and value is the relative brightness or darkness of a color. Contrast of value separates objects in space; the higher the contrast, the more separation you’ll achieve.

Hue, or color, can also have a value. For instance, when contrasting hues are made similar in value, the spatial effects are de-emphasized. Strong value and hue contrasts draw the eye. Similar values and hues seem closely connected in space; none will stand out from the others.

Saturation is how pure the color is. A fully saturated color is the truest version of that color. A color’s intensity is defined as its brightness or dullness.

Tints, Shades, and Tones
If a color is made lighter and brighter by adding white, the result is called a tint. If black is added, the darker version is called a shade. And if gray, or a color’s exact opposite on the color wheel (its complementary color) is added, the result is a different tone.

Hue Color Wheel

Value Color Wheel

Intensity Color Wheel

Warm Cool Color Wheel



Color Temperature

The color wheel can be divided into warm and cool colors.Warm colors are energetic and intense, and tend to move forward in space. Cool colors are calm and soothing. White, black and gray are considered to be neutral. The less saturated a color is, the more toward neutral it becomes.








Complementary Color Wheel


Complementary Color Combinations: Warm colors are energetic and intense, and tend to move forward in space. Cool colors are calm and soothing. White, black and gray are considered to be neutral. The less saturated a color is, the more toward neutral it becomes.

Complementary colors are those found opposite each other on the color wheel (i.e., red and green).

The high contrast of complementary colors creates a dynamic, energetic and vibrant look, especially when used at full saturation. Be judicious in your use of this color combination, as a little can go a long way. If mismanaged, the effect can be jarring and/or visually exhausting.






Analogous Intensity Color Wheel



Analogous Color Combinations:
Analogous colors are three colors, found directly next to each other on the color wheel. These colors match well and are both harmonious and serene.

When choosing an analogous color scheme, make sure to have enough contrast, or the effect will be too one-dimensional. Choose one color to dominate, a second to support. The third color is used, along with a neutral color (white, black or gray) as an accent.






Triadic Value Color Wheel



Triadic Color Combinations:

Triadic colors are three colors, found evenly spaced in a perfect triangle around the color wheel. Like complementary color combinations, triadic colors tend to be very vibrant, even if you use unsaturated and pale versions of the hues. To use a triadic combination successfully, let one color dominate and use the other two as accent colors.








Monochromatic Value Color Wheel

Monochromatic Color Schemes

Monochromatic color schemes use variations in saturation and lightness of a single color. Clean and elegant, monochromatic color combinations are soothing, easily balanced, and integrate well with neutral colors, such as white, black or gray.

Take extra care to establish appropriate focus and color contrast when using this color scheme, as it’s not as vibrant as some of the other color combinations. Using shades, tints, and tones of the primary color is the secret to enhancing this color scheme.

Now that we’ve learned a bit about Color Theory, let’s start applying it!  We’ll start with Color Analysis.