Understanding the Basics of Colour Theory

5 min readMar 13, 2019

Colors have played an important role in our lives since childhood. As children, we all must have enjoyed splashing the mix of colours on our drawing books, not knowing the actual reason why we are using a certain colour. It has a great impact on our mood & behaviour. Therefore, the success of a product is highly dependent on the choice of colours used in the design.

Studies have shown that within 90 seconds, people make subconscious judgments about the design. This, in most case, is due to the colour selection alone. Human beings are exposed to millions of colour shades. Therefore, it is important for designers to make the right choice of colours during their process of design.

It looks simple. But it’s not!

To create a good design & utilize the colours effectively, it is important to understand how they relate to each other which is why all the art schools, colleges & universities study the basic principles of colour theory.

In this article, we would discuss the basics that every designer should understand in terms of colour theory before proceeding with their design.

The Basics- Colour Wheel

Source: https://designtaxi.com

The Colour Wheel is a visual representation of colours showcasing how they relate to each other & how they are combined. It is a combination of primary, secondary & tertiary colours.

- Mixing the primary colours, i.e. Red, Blue & Yellow with each other gives us the secondary colours, i.e Violet, Green & Orange.

- Mixing the primary & the secondary colours give us the tertiary colours.

The Colour wheel was created by Isaac Newton, in the year 1666 in a schematic way. It has been modified multiple times but it still remains the main tool for colour combination.

Understanding the Colour Model

A colour model is a system to create a full range of colours with a small set of primary colours.

There are two types of colour models.
- Additive Model
- Subtractive Model

Additive Model

The additive colour model also abbreviated as the RGB consists of red, blue, and green as the primary colours. Additive colour models use light to display colour. The colour is perceived by the transmitted light. These primary colour are added in order to reproduce a wide spectrum of colour. As the intensity of light is increased, the colour becomes lighter & brighter.

Subtractive Model

The subtractive colour model is obtained by the subtraction of light. This is perceived by the reflection of light. This is also known as CMYK model as it consists of cyan, magenta & yellow. This involves mixing of pigments & inks to create a wider range of colours. The CMYK colour system is the colour system used for printing.

Colour Harmony

Color harmony refers to the most favorable colour mixed together to create a balanced & visually — pleasing design. This helps to create an aesthetically sound design which helps the viewers to feel calm & pleased. The colour balance is important as the perception about a product such as a website or an app is already made by its first look. Colour can be a major influence.

Source: https://oss.adm.ntu.edu.sg

Techniques to Create Colour Harmony

1) Complementary Colours

Colours that are opposite to each other on the Colour Wheel are known as complementary colours. (e.g. Red & Green). These high contrasting colours create vibrant looks which need to be used cautiously, else the designs could be very flashy in an unpleasant manner.

Source: https://www.behance.net/urfd

2) Monochromatic Colours

Monochromatic colour includes various tones & shades of a single colour. These are generally used to create the shadows of an object. For instance; a range of blues in its lighter & darker shades. This is a safe choice & generally, you don’t go wrong with this.

3) Analogous Colours

This includes the adjacent colours of the Colour Wheel. This creates the perfect color harmony where no contrast is needed & the images can blend with the background.

Analogous colours via Studio FLACH

4) Split-Complementary Colours

This scheme works well when you need to show the contrast while it is not as jarring as the complementary colour scheme. E.g. if you choose the colour blue, then split-complementary colour would involve the adjacent colours of the complementary colour of blue, (i.e. red & yellow).

5) Triadic Colors

When the design needs more colour, a tridiac scheme could be chosen. This includes any three colours equidistant at the colour wheel. But make sure to use any one of the colours as a dominant & the rest two as the accents.

6) Tetradiac (Rectangular Colours)

This is the most complex scheme & is most suitable for experienced designers. This include four colours from the colour wheel which are complementary pairs. It is difficult to crack but if used correctly, the results would be stunning.

7) Square Colours

This is similar to the rectangular colour scheme, but with all colours spaced evenly around the coloured circle. This scheme offers the maximum combinations, hence should be carefully used.


It is very important to understand these basics thoroughly before one starts with the process of designing. The design could be exceptional but unless you get the colours right, it would fail the purpose of attracting the viewers. Therefore, one should pay attention to the colour scheme they want to follow for their design & should try to choose the colour palette with the help of the Colour Wheel.