Colours are important to making things look good, whether it’s the clothes you wear or the presentation you give at work. But not everyone instinctively knows that orange and blue is a perfect combination. If you can’t trust your own judgement, understand and rely on the basics of colour theory to always pick the right colours.
Learn The Colour Wheel
This is the basic colour wheel and it will guide you in making colour choices. You’ve probably seen it in school, but here’s a quick refresher just in case you’ve forgotten.
Red, blue and yellow are primary colours. When you mix red and yellow, you get orange; mix blue and yellow, you get green; mix red and blue, you get violet. Orange, green and violet are hence called secondary colours. Tertiary colours like red-violet and blue-violet are derived by mixing a primary colour with a secondary colour.
All colours have tints and shades. A tint is the variation of that colour when mixed with white; a shade is the variation of that colour when mixed with black. But generally, you don’t need to worry about tints and shades for basic colour schemes, says Color Wheel Pro:
According to colour theory, harmonious colour combinations use any two colours opposite each other on the colour wheel, any three colours equally spaced around the colour wheel forming a triangle, or any four colours forming a rectangle (actually, two pairs of colours opposite each other). The harmonious colour combinations are called colour schemes — sometimes the term ‘colour harmonies’ is also used. Colour schemes remain harmonious regardless of the rotation angle.
In the colour wheel, there’s yet another separation that you need to be aware of so that you can understand colour schemes better: warm and cool colours. Each has its own purpose to convey emotions. Warm colours exhibit energy and joy (best for personal messages), while cool colours convey calmness and peace (best for office use). The wheel itself can be divided easily to get an idea of which colours are warm and which ones cool, as demonstrated by Kissmetrics:
Master The Basic Colour Schemes
Based on the wheel, there are a few basic rules to match colours. And they’re actually pretty simple.
Complementary colours are any two colours opposite each other on the wheel. For example, blue and orange, or red and green.
These create a high contrast, so use them when you want something to stand out. Ideally, use one colour as background and the other as accents. Alternately, you can use tints and shades here; a lighter tint of blue contrasted against a darker orange, for example.
Split complementary colours use three colours. The scheme takes one colour and matches it with the two colours adjacent to its complementary colour. For example, blue, yellow-orange and red-orange.
This scheme is ideal for beginners because it is difficult to mess up. That’s because you get contrasting colours, but they aren’t as diametrically opposite as complementary colours, says Tiger Color.
Analogous colours are any three colours next to each other on the wheel. For example, orange, yellow-orange, and yellow.
With analogous colours, it’s best to avoid hues as they can be jarring. Instead, focus on tints of analogous colours. Another tip Color Wheel Pro shares is to avoid combining warm and cool colours in this scheme.
Triadic colours are any three colours that are equally apart on the colour wheel. For example, red, yellow and blue.
The Triadic scheme is also high-contrast, but more balanced than complementary colours. The trick here, Decor Love says, is to let one colour dominate and accent with the other two.
Tetradic or double complementary colours uses four colours together, in the form of two sets of complementary colours. For example, blue and orange is paired with yellow and violet.
This is the hardest scheme to balance, notes TheArtClasses:
It offers more colour variety than any other scheme (but) if all four colours are used in equal amounts, the scheme may look unbalanced, so you should choose a colour to be dominant or subdue the colours. Avoid using pure colours in equal amounts.
Understand Black And White With Monotones
After you know the basic colour schemes, you can step it up a notch with tints and shades. As we have already discussed, tints come from adding white to hues while shades come from adding black to hues. And this goes on till you get pure white or pure black. Apart from tints and shades, there are also tones, which is mixing the hue with grey.
Blacks and whites are used for “monochromatic colour schemes”, which are further divided into monotone chromatic and monotone achromatic. Colors On The Web has a great explanation of what this means:
A monotone colour scheme is just one single hue and its variations in terms of tints, shades and saturation. Using saturation and tint/shade variations of a colour is always good. However, in most cases I would advise against using a fully monochromatic scheme, as there is a risk of monotony. Using it with pure white or black can be efficient, though.
A monotone achromatic colour scheme is a special instance of the monotone scheme which consists of only neutral colours ranging from black to white. A scheme like this can be efficient, but it can very easily look boring. Using an achromatic scheme with just one bright colour for highlight can be very effectful.
Use Popular Colour Palettes And Apps
While the basics of colour combinations are now clear to you, that doesn’t mean you will always nail it. But as with anything, there’s an easy way out!
Public speaking expert Zach Holman says you can use web sites where designers suggest colour palettes, like ColourLovers. This portal shows popular colour schemes, which you can quickly and easily incorporate for any need.
While that helps when starting from scratch, what do you do when you have a colour in front of you but need to know what are its complements or triads? SwatchMatic for Android identifies any colour you point your camera to (no need to take a photo), and suggests what you can match it with using the basics of the colour wheel.
I couldn’t find a similar app on the iPhone, but ColorSnap is a good option. You need to take a photo and the app then identifies various colours in it. Tap one and you’ll see a palette of matching colours from paints company Sherwin Williams, which made the app. You can ignore that part and just use the palette for reference.
Finally, Color Matters says you needn’t always rely on the colour wheel and take inspiration from nature, or other elements around you:
Nature provides a perfect departure point for colour harmony. In the illustration above, red yellow and green create a harmonious design, regardless of whether this combination fits into a technical formula for colour harmony.
Apply Colour Theory In Everyday Life
Now you have a basic idea of colour theory, but what does that mean for your daily life? Essentially, these concepts help you figure out how to make things look better.
A common application is in the clothes you wear. Some people always seem to be able to dress well, while others wear clothes that clash or don’t match. Print out the colour wheel and stick it to your wardrobe’s door. The next time you pick out one clothing item, just refer to the chart to see what colours in your closet will best complement it; and use the basics of warm and cool colours to convey the emotion you want to project. Of course, colours are only a part of learning to dress better. Style blog Kinowear has a few tips on how to use colours in clothing:
As a general rule of thumb you don’t want to have more than three colours in your outfit. Use the right colours for your skin tone and coloration. Try different colours against your skin and learn which palettes look best on you. Also, get a second opinion. Never use holiday colours like red and green unless it is close to that holiday. Avoid matching grey colours with bright colours such as yellow.
Similarly, colour theory can help you out in the office, whether it’s jazzing up your resume for a job hunt or making your presentation and slides pop out. Again, the general rule of thumb is to restrict yourself to three colours or less. You should also check this colour psychology chart to figure out what vibes your chosen colours will give out. And remember, it’s going to be on a digital projector, so your colours need to be safe for that, as Holman points out:
Usually I look for bright colours that go well on projectors. That means colours with a lot of contrast. For example, choose a dark, a light, and an accent. That way you can layer the dark on the light and still read it from in the way back of the room you’re giving the talk.
And of course, colour theory is super useful when you are looking to paint your house or any major item in it. There are plenty of websites and plenty of professionals who will help you pick the right colours, but these three tips from Apartment Therapy are worth remembering at all times:
Three Rules To Keep in Mind:
• More than one colour in a room can look great, but if you go in that direction, keep it to three colours maximum. If you are going with two bold colours, the third should be a neutral to give your eye a break.
• When choosing your colours start by choosing your boldest colour, and then choose the others with the first colour in mind.
• Don’t be scared! Paint is not permanent and you can always change it.
Of course, these aren’t the only uses for colour theory. Colours and their combinations come up in life quite often and knowing these basics will serve you in picking a scheme that looks good to you as well as everyone else.