Knowing about Color theory can be helpful for all kinds of creatives whether they are graphic designers, artists, fashion designers or interior designers. Color theory lays down a foundation of general guidelines and principles to follow that can help in choosing the right colors for your work.
If you are a beginner designer, you know how hard it can be to figure out which colors to use. You might wonder which colors could go well together or why some colors might look better than others.
Understanding colors through color theory can help answer those questions. In this article, I’ll try to go through the basic definitions, history, importance, and practical uses of color theory for better designs. This would be helpful for most of you out there trying to learn more about colors in general.
What is Color Theory?
Color Theory is a set of fundamental rules and guidelines for colors, color combinations and color schemes that are used in design and art for visual appeal or communication. Color theory is also used to achieve color harmony which happens when a combination of colors are put together in a way that is pleasing to the viewers.
Designers and artists are picky with their color selections and for good reason. Choosing the wrong colors can ruin a great piece of design by either making it unappealing or wrongly communicate its message. Color theory is used to avoid that by helping designers pick the right colors for their brand, message, or visual.
Although there are many definitions, uses, and insights you can find on color theory we will stick to these basic headings:
- History of color theory
- Additive vs Subtractive Coloring
- The Color wheel
- Color harmony
- Colors in context
I’m confident that after learning the above you would know everything you need to get started with colors.
Brief History of Color Theory
Our world has been filled with bright vibrant colors since the start but Isaac Newton can be credited as the first one to develop a formal theory behind colors. He experimented with sunlight and a glass prism. By holding the glass prism in front of sunlight, he demonstrated that the sunlight split into 7 different colors (the colors we see on the rainbow). Newton was the first man to arrange these colors in a wheel showcasing the different colors of the spectrum.
“…if the sun’s light consisted of but one sort of rays, there would be but one color in the whole world…” – Sir Isaac Newton, Opticks
This led to the creation of the color wheel, which is still used till date to identify primary, secondary, and tertiary colors. We’ll learn more about the color wheel later in this article.
Importance of Understanding Color Theory
There must be a reason that color has been so extensively studied and researched by many of the top mathematicians, philosophers, and artists. The color wheel has brought us many possibilities of combining colors and achieving harmony within them. This is usually the main goal of a designer or artist as having a harmonious color scheme helps improve the aesthetic of a design or art piece.
Learning how to use and deal with colors can also be absolutely crucial in product design. Having a harmonious color scheme can not only beautify the user interface (UI) but can also greatly improve the user experience (UX). Take a look at these statistics:
- Users form an opinion about a product within 90 seconds. People base that assessment mostly on its color. (Source: University of Winnipeg)
- Colors alone are responsible for 60% of users’ acceptance or rejection of a product. (Source: University of Winnipeg)
- According to 90% of small business owners, colors help customers remember presentations and documents better. (source: Xerox)
Having contrasting colors can improve legibility and readability of your text and designs. If people cannot properly see your product, design, artwork, or text why would they want to continue looking at it?
A growing population of internet users have also opened doors to another benefit of color theory – accessibility.
Accessibility is the concept of making a product or service accessible to everyone – This especially includes people with disabilities. Visual impairments might be more common than you think, consider the following statistics from WebAIM:
- About 4% of the population have low vision, whereas 0.6% are blind.
- An estimated 8% of men and 0.5% of women are affected by color blindness.
With accessibility in mind, designers would not look at color theory as just a way of choosing colors but choosing the kind of colors that would be appealing to every viewer. Although this isn’t 100% achievable we can get pretty close using color theory. Color theory would help us in choosing good color combinations by avoiding bad color combinations such as, brown and green or blue and purple.
Having a better, well-thought out plan on how and where to use certain colors can greatly improve the UX. Not to mention you would also have a bigger reach as your designs would now be accessible to a larger number of people.
Additive vs Subtractive Coloring
When we talk about color wheels we are essentially talking about traditional color theory however there are more modern types of color models – namely additive and subtractive coloring.
The additive coloring model refers to mixing red, green, and blue light together to give you different colors. As a designer, who may have worked on photo-editing or graphic design software you might be familiar with this as the RGB color mode.
It is called Additive coloring as you keep on “adding” various intensities of RGB light waves until you get your desired color.
Additive coloring is used for digital screens, TVs, and projectors. RGB colors are used for digital screens as these electronic devices are dark (black) which is why light is needed to display something on the screen. Millions of red, green, and blue colored dots come together to emit light through these devices including the one you’re using now.
When designing, it is important to know about the RGB color mode. If you are designing a logo for a website you should work with RGB otherwise it would display the wrong colors. If you design a logo in CMYK for Facebook or Instagram it will lose its vibrancy and would be dull in color.
The subtractive coloring model is basically the opposite of additive coloring. In additive coloring we start with black and add light with different intensities to display colors – with white light being the brightest as it includes all the primary colors mixed with 100% intensity. In subtractive coloring we start with white and subtract the intensity of colors from it to display the colors we want.
It is called Subtractive coloring as you “subtract” various intensities of RGB light from the white paper. You do this until the paper reflects your desired color.
When it comes to graphic designing or digital designing this method is called the CMYK color mode. CMYK stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Key (black). The CMYK color mode is used for printing – such as, designing brochures, magazines, flyers etc. Nowadays, the designs are made digitally in CMYK color mode so that they display as it is when printed.
The CMYK process is used for printing as the white is already provided by the paper. Cyan is a complement of red thus it absorbs it and reflects it in white light. Just like that, magenta is a complement of green and yellow is a complement of blue. The amount of CMY controls how much of the light would be reflected – leading to a wide range of color combinations with different saturations.
You can learn more about the CMYK and RGB models by checking out my post on RGB and CMYK Color Modes in Graphic Design.
What is Key in CMYK?
In print production, key is black and is the result of mixing together the 3 colors cyan, magenta, and yellow. It is called key as it is the key color that determines all other colors. This black ink is used when printing to reduce or cover unwanted tints and imperfections. It is also used to improve the sharpness of the image.
You should use CMYK when designing for print so the colors appear as they should. If you use RGB for designing print material you’ll get colors that might be of too rich or high in contrast. This would also increase printing costs as you would have to re-print the design in CMYK.
The color wheel was the first major breakthrough in traditional color theory. The color wheel is a circular representation of different hues. These hues are arranged in a logical sequence by showing the relationship between each color. The color wheel is derived from the three primary colors – red, yellow, and blue.
The first color wheel was presented by Sir. Isaac Newton in 1666 and was further researched and developed. There were many debates around the color wheel proposed by Newton which led to newer concepts.
Moving on from history to the modern world, the color wheel can be used to identify the relationship between primary, secondary, and tertiary colors. By knowing which colors go together and don’t go together you can create various color schemes for your design.
The color wheel starts with primary colors red, yellow, and blue. The primary colors are mixed together to create secondary colors green, purple, and orange – that are complementary to the primary colors. Finally, by mixing the primary and secondary colors together we get tertiary colors such as, blue-green, blue-violet, red-orange, red-violet, yellow-orange, and yellow-green. We then have our completed color wheel.
A color wheel doesn’t just show us the relationship between colors. There are other ways to use the color wheel and several other factors that go in when creating our color palette.
Warm and Cool Colors
Color theory suggests that colors can be associated with real-life things and objects. This is how we ended up with “warm” and “cool” colors which are associated with our landscape. The color wheel can be split into two sections by adding a line in the middle.
Warm color includes hues ranging from red to yellow-green in the color wheel. Warm colors are considered warm due to the fact they are the color scheme of daylight or the sunset.
Cool colors on the other hand are associated with night, cloudy or overcast days. Cool colors range from greenish-blue to blue-violet.
There have been many color theories revolving around color and human perception – which is how humans see and perceive color. Goethe’s theory stands out in which he stated that colors are subjective to people’s perception to it. Keeping that theory in mind we can confirm that warm colors such as, red and yellow are much more “active” than cool colors which would be more “soothing” in comparison.
Hue, Shades, Tints and Tones
Hues are colors we see in the color wheel in their natural state such as red, green, and blue-violet. However, shades, tints and tones are variations of these colors. More specifically:
- Shades – Black added to give darker variations of the hue
- Tints – White added to give brighter variations of the hue.
- Tones – Grey added to decrease saturation to make the color less intense.
Artists and painters had been varying their colors for years by mixing black or white into their paints to make more colors. This gave them the ability to increase their color palette and experiment with different color schemes.
Color schemes are a chosen combination of colors used for art and design. With the aid of a color wheel, designers and artists can create a color scheme that would go well for their design or art piece.
There are different kinds of color schemes but the objective is same – pick a color scheme that is best suited for your project. You would be aiming for visual appeal, so choosing a color scheme that is pleasing to the eye or in harmony is also crucial.
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