Jun 29, 2021

Colour Theory

Understanding how colors work, the differences between them, and how to combine them is one of the most vital skills an artist has to master

The mission

One of the most important parts for designers is choosing the right color. However, understanding how colors work, the differences between them, and how to combine them is one of the most vital skills an artist has to master.

Back in school, everyone receives basic knowledge: red, yellow, and blue are the primary colors, and the rest are a mix among those three.

However, understand how the colours work, the difference between them and how to combine them. It's one of the most vital skills an artist has to master.


Color theory is a complex subject (A behemoth, one could say.), but with this article, what  I hope to offer some clarity on how to best use color and achieve optimal results. From how color context matters to how the color is composed, in here you can find a brief summary.

By the end of this article, you will have a more thorough understanding of color theory and be better equipped to use color in your designs to create impactful and visually compelling results.


A little bit of history

Don't worry! This will be short. Although color has been studied since the 15th century, involving physics, chemistry, and even math, it wasn't until the year 1920 that the Bauhaus School developed different theories about the transmission of colors and how we view them, especially the studies of Johannes Itten, a Swiss expressionist.


It's thanks to these studies that we could develop modern color theory.

Johannes Itten → Zweiklang 1964
Johannes Itten → Zweiklang 1964

The systems

Have you ever done an image in Photoshop, but when you print it, the colors look different? That's because we have different methods to produce colors, where the primary colors change.


These colors are used by screens and anything that emits light. The wavelengths of the light create the different tones, and when more light is added, the tone is brighter. In this palette, we consider the primary colors to be red, green, and blue (RGB). Here, white is the combination of all, and black is the absence of colors.

Additive Example
Additive Example


Used by anything that reflects light, like books or other print materials, unlike the additive system here, the pigment determines its color to the human eye depending on the light reflected. The primary colors here are cyan, magenta, and yellow (CMY), white is the absence of color while black is the combination of all colors.

It's important to remember that pigments we have at the moment don't absorb the light completely. Because of that, when we mix all the colors, the closest to black will be a dark, dark brown. To fix that, we add a fourth pigment, which we call Key, hence CMYK. This four pigment is essentially black.

Substractive Example
System substractive

Primary, secondary, and a lot more

Once we have explained the different systems, it's time to start explaining the different things that compose a color. Mixing all of this together is when we obtain any possible color.


This marks the position on the color wheel. Usually, on programs like Photoshop, it is referred to in degrees (because it's a wheel). For example, perfect violet is on 270 degrees.


How bright a color is. Usually, it goes from 0 to 100%, with 0% being black and 100% being white.


This component tells us how rich a color is. Less saturation means the color becomes a shade of gray, and a perfect color with full saturation is the pinkest pink, if you will.

Hue brightness saturation

The color as a chameleon

As you can see in the image, you may think that inside each square, there is a square of different colors, but is there?

chameleon colours

An important rule when you are painting is that the color changes depending on its surroundings. This is a well-known optical illusion. The truth is that the color in the small squares is the same.

chameleon colours

If you think carefully, it is not necessary to have a deep knowledge of the theory of color to get beautiful compositions, but it is recommendable, especially in cases like the optical illusion, because one color can ruin a whole composition.

Now I'm going to give a few examples of how to combine colors, the usual ones. All the palettes created here are from Adobe Color.



Monochromatic colour wheel

A single hue extended, changing the brightness and saturation.


Complementary colour wheel

Colors that are directly opposed in the color wheel. This example is a simple one, but you can create a palette with a double complementary, which consists of the combination of two complementary color pairs.


Triadic colour wheel

Three colors that are equidistant on the color wheel.


Analogous colour wheel

A group of colors that is adjacent to each other.


This is just a small introduction to the theory of colors to create a palette. You can use the method you like the most or create one in an intuitive way. In my case, the ones I like the most are the ones created with complementary colors combined with the analogous palette. I think it's ideal to accentuate a part and create a point of attention.

If you want to further investigate how the color can change depending on its surroundings, you can do the same as in the gif I made. You can do it with Photoshop or mixing cartilages of different colors, and it's a good exercise when you are starting painting or designing.

Colour theory conclusion

Laura Usón
Creative Art Director

Passionate about videogames, movies and creatures. Artist by day and superhero at night.

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