Color Theory 101

10.19.2020

The basics of color mixing and color combinations.

Posted by

Josh Medina

Color plays a vitally important role in the world in which we live. Whether we realize it or not, the right application of color can change how we think, feel, and interact with the world at large. Throughout history, humans have naturally assigned meaning to different colors in their culture, symbolism, and art. It can generate emotions and even influence your decision making.


In marketing and design, choosing the right color scheme is essential for branding and ad promotion. For the painter, color has the ability to turn a decent painting into an impressive one. If you are in a profession where color matters, you can spend an entire lifetime learning how it works and how to apply it. For painters and designers, becoming aware of just a few aspects of how this system comes together can dramatically improve your art!

The human eye naturally contains only three types of color receptors, which makes our vision trichromatic. Each color receptor responds to different ranges of the color spectrum.

Red, yellow, and blue are our primary colors.

  • They can combine to make a useful range of the other colors throughout the spectrum of the rainbow. These are the only colors that cannot be made by mixing others and can produce all different shades in combination with white and black.
  • Note: when you are looking for supplies, make sure always to stock up on the big three!

The three secondary colors are green, orange, and violet; they are each a mixture of two primary colors.

  • Red + Blue = Violet
  • Blue + Yellow = Green
  • Yellow + Red = Orange

In addition to primary and secondary colors, there are six tertiary colors. You may know them as; red-orange, red-violet, yellow-green, yellow-orange, blue-green, and blue-violet.

When looking at our color wheel, notice how some hues appear to be warmer or cooler than others. The warm colors consist of different shades of reds, oranges, and yellows, while the cool colors consist of blues, greens, and violets.

Just knowing the names of different hues is not enough. It's essential to understand how they work together to create a comprehensive system known as "color harmonies" or color schemes.

Types of color schemes:

Monochrome includes only one color in a different value (the lightness and darkness of a color) and intensity (the brightness or dullness of a color).

  • An example of a monochrome color scheme could include any color mixed with white, gray, or black. For instance, red, rose, and pink (red mixed with white) are monochrome.

Analogous colors, also known as adjacent colors, use hues that neighbor each other on the color wheel. An example is a scheme that includes various values and intensities of yellow and green.

Complementary colors are colors that are opposite of each other on the color wheel.

  • Ex. green and red, or blue and orange. (If you have trouble remembering them, think of famous sports teams!)

To keep things simple, we'll focus on these for now, but know that more color schemes and color combinations exist.

Lastly, white, gray, and black are technically not "true" hues. We consider them to be neutral, achromatic colors. When mixing white or black into your other colors, you can change their value (how light or dark a color appears.)

  • To make a color lighter in value, add white to the mixture. (The lighter you want a color to appear, the more white you have to add.)
  • To make a color appear darker in value, add black to the mixture. (Remember that black goes a long way. If you don't want to dramatically change the shade of a color, use a trace amount of black in your mix.)

One practical way to get familiar with the color wheel is to try mixing your own by just using the primary hues and black and white. Stay tuned to learn more about color theories and how you can better use them in your art!

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