Color Theory 101

THE BASICS

The phrase "color theory" may sound like something art students would care about and not much else, but I think any one who ever plans on even looking at paint colors should have an understanding of some basic color theory.

If you have a basic high school education, you probably know that there are six colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple. (Science makes the distinction between blues, adding in indigo as a seventh color, but we're going to stick to Art's six colors for this conversation.)

There are cool colors - blue, green, and purple - and there are warm colors - red, orange, and yellow.

Red, yellow, and blue are called primary colors because they combine to make all the secondary colors - green, orange, and purple.

There are also tertiary colors: red-purple, red-orange, yellow-orange, yellow-green, blue-green, and blue-purple. This is when a secondary color has more of one primary color than the other.

(color wheel courtesy of pixabay)

(color wheel courtesy of pixabay)

HUES V. TINTS V. SHADES V. TONES

Hue: a pure color

Tint: a hue with white added

Shade: a hue with black added

Tone: a hue with grey added

PAIRING AND COMBINING COLORS

There are many different ways colors can be paired and combined.

Complementary colors are the most basic combination of colors. Complementary colors sit directly across from each other on the color wheel. Basic examples of complementary colors include: red and green; blue and orange; yellow and purple.

Analogous colors are 3-4 colors who sit adjacent to one another on the color wheel. For example, blue-purple, purple, and red-purple. Analogous colors give off a harmonious feeling.

Split-Complementary might be a bit confusing, so follow me on this one: the main color and the two colors adjacent to the main color's complementary color. So say your main color is red. It's complementary color is green, so red's split-complementary colors would be yellow-green and blue-green. (Now might be a good time to scroll back up to the color wheel.)

Triadic colors are 3 colors that are equally spaced around the color wheel. This one can get confusing depending on the color wheel you look at because everyone spaces things a bit differently, but just as a basic reference, the primary colors (red, yellow, blue) are also a triadic pairing, as are the secondary colors.

THE NEXT STEP: COLOR PSYCHOLOGY

Now to the important stuff - colors express emotion. This might seem like a "duh" moment, but not everyone is aware that colors have as strong of an effect as the do. So the following sections will go into a bit of detail about what each color can symbolize and some of the physical effects they may have. (Keep in mind that this is specifically as these colors relate to Western Culture.)

activating, adventurous, anger, antagonistic, assertive, country, courageous, cultivated, danger, demanding, desire, dramatic, dynamic, earthy, elegant, energy, established, exciting, expanding, expensive, heat, hot, impulsive, love, magnetic, mature, motivating, overly-aggressive, passion, powerful, provocative, refined, rich, robust, spontaneous, stimulating, stirring, strength, sturdy, sumptuous, tasty, temperamental, violent, warlike, warm, warning

It is best to use red minimally, as it physically stimulates the heart, raises blood pressure and heart rates, and makes the viewer feel a sense of urgency almost lending to anxiety.

active, affordable, animated, childlike, communicative, confidence, courage, energizing, expansive, fire, food, friendly, frivolous, fruitful, fun, glowing, good-natured, gregarious, happy, harvest, hot, ignorance, jovial, juicy, loud, optimistic, persuasive, raucous, self-assured, sluggishness, sociable, spontaneous, success, sunset, tangy, vital, warmth, whimsical

Orange is friendly and inviting, and it depicts movement and energy. Viewing orange will stimulate the logic center of the brain, but too much of it can cause anxiety.

abundant, autumn, awareness, betrayal, bright, buttery, caution, cheering, comfort, cowardice, creativity, easy, energetic, enlightening, friendly, fun, happiness, hazard, hospitable, hot, illuminating, innovative, intellect, irresponsible, jewelry, joy, lively, luminous, mellow, multi-cultural, nourishing, optimism, original, perky, pleasing, radiating, soft, stimulating, sunbaked, sunshine, surprise, sweet, tasty, unstable, warm, wheat

Yellow gives the impression of happiness and cheerfulness. The purest yellow is seen as child-like, while darker shades are considered more antiquated. Like orange, yellow can stimulate the logic center of the brain, but again, beware of long-term exposure leading to anxiety.

acidic, artsy, balance, bold, calm, camouflage, citrusy, classic, cool, drab, earth, environment, envy, fertility, finance, forest, fresh, gaudy, grass, growth, guilt, harmony, healing, health, hushed, jealousy, jewel-like, life, lightweight, lively, luck, lush, luxurious, military, mold, money, natural, neutral, new, new beginnings, prosperity, pungent, quiet, reassurance, refreshing, rejuvenating, reliable, renewal, restful, safari, sharp, sickening, slimy, soothing, spring, startling, stately, tacky, tart, traditional, trendy, trustworthy, up-scale, youthful

Green is representational of balance and harmony, stability and affluence. In fact, it even stimulate harmony in the brain, between the body and the emotions, which can aid in making decisions quickly and strongly.

aids concentration, aloof, aquatic, authoritative, basic, brisk, calming, clarify thoughts, classic, clean, coldness, compassionate, confident, conservative, constant, contentment, convivial, cool, cordial, creativity, credible, dependable, depression, distant, dreamy, electric, energy, envy, exhilarating, expansive, faithful, fear, femininity, flags, gemstone, genial, healing, heavenly, high spirits, impressive, infinity, integrity, introspective, lightweight, lively, loyalty, masculinity, melancholy, oceans, open, patient, peaceful, protection, quiet, reassuring, refreshing, reliable, restful, sadness, security, serene, sky, soft, sophisticated, spiritual, sprightly, stirring, strong, tasteful, thought-provoking, traditional, tranquility, transcendent, tropical, true, trust, vibrant, water, young

Blue is the best of both worlds - it's calm and friendly but also social. It can curb appetite and stimulate productivity.

abundance, aloof, ambition, contemplative, creativity, curative, dignity, distant, dramatic, enchanting, expressive, fanciful, imagination, intensely exciting, introspective, intuitive, lightweight, luxury, meditative, moodiness, mysterious, nobility, nostalgic, peace of mind, prestigious, protective, rich, romantic, royalty, sensual, sentimental, soul-searching, spiritual, subduing, thoughtful, thrilling, visionary, wealth, wistful, witty

Deep purple is considered to be evidence of wealth and luxury, while paler purple is spring-like and romantic. Purple stimulates the problem solving area of the brain and aids in creativity.

(includes peach and coral) action, affectionate, attention-getting, compassionate, composed, cozy, danger, delicate, delicious, desire, dusky, embracing, exciting, feminine, festive, flexibility, flirtatious, fragile, fruity, fuzzy, gaudy, gentle, happy, healthy, high-energy, hot, immaturity, innocent, intimate, inviting, life force, modest, nostalgic, physical comfort, playful, romantic, sensual, sentimental, soft, stimulation, subtle, sweet, tactile, tender, theatrical, tropical, vibrant, weak, wild, youthful

NEUTRALS

(includes taupe) authentic, basic, bland, boring, classic, compromising, conservative, crisp, dependable, discreet, dull, flexible, inconspicuous, modest, neutral, organic, outdoor, practical, quality, rugged, rustic, tasteless, timeless, versatile, woodsy

appetizing, comfort, conservative, delicious, dogmatic, durable, earthy, experience, friendly, grounded, longevity, natural, outdoors, practical, reliable, rich, robust, rooted, secure, sheltering, solid, stable, steady, supportive, traditional, warm, wholesome

accountable, balance, basic, classic, conformist, conscientious, conservative, corporate, deliberate, detached, dull, dutiful, efficient, enduring, formal, fundamental, gloomy, intelligence, lack of energy, logical, mature, methodical, modest, neutrality, practical, professional, quality, reliability, reserved, resolute, responsible, restrained, sad, security, sober, solid, sophisticated, staunch, steadfast, timeless, unobtrusive

basic, bold, classic, classy, death, depression, dramatic, elegance, empowering, evil, expensive, formality, heavy, intimidation, invulnerable, magical, menacing, modern, mourning, mysterious, nighttime, oppression, powerful, prestigious, protection, sober, sophisticated, strong, stylish, suppression, underworld, wealth

airy, arctic, bridal, bright, clarity, classic, clean, clinical, cold, comforting, creamy, easy, efficient, emptiness, ethereal, fresh, good taste, goodness, hope, innocence, isolation, lightweight, natural, neutral, openness, pristine, pure, silent, simplicity, smooth, soft, spotless, sterile, subtle, warm, winter

White can spark a sense of creativity as it is often viewed as a clean slate.

METALS

bling, divine, dreamer, egotistical, expensive, gaudy, glowing, greed, intuitive, luxurious, opulent, prestigious, prosperity, radiant, rich, self-righteous, traditional, valuable, wealth, wisdom

classy, cool, dreamer, dull, glamorous, graceful, high-tech, indecisive, insecure, modern, non-committal, sleek, stylish

RESOURCES

If you are interested in learning more about color theory and the psychology of color, Pinterest has a lot of great infographics, your local library will more than likely have books on the subject, and you can check your local art school or community college for color theory classes.