Colors shape the way we see the world. They influence what we do and how we act. They have relationships and have meanings. Knowing those meanings and relationships will allow you to take control of color theory and frequently use it to your advantage.
Here are some tasks that color theory will help with:
- Designing a new profile picture
- Choosing what to use in your next craft or art project
- Figuring out what to wear tomorrow
- Decorating your home
In part one of Easily Understand Color Theory, I went over the definitions of hue, value, and saturation, as well as the meanings of several colors. In this part I’ll cover the relationships between colors, explain different color palettes, and show you how I build my own color palettes.
Yes, colors do in fact have relationships. But the relationships aren’t specific to just a couple of colors. They actually have to do with positions of the colors on the color wheel, not the particular hues.
You may have heard of a few different relationships already: monochromatic, complimentary, or analogous. If you haven’t heard of them, don’t fret, I’ll be covering them as well as other types of relationships.
This is the simplest relationship, only one hue to worry about. But it can also seem a bit intimidating. How do you make one hue look interesting? It’s fairly simple: you play around with the values and saturation levels. In the picture above, the greens don’t all look the exact same. They have different values and saturation levels, but they’re all the same hue.
With oranges, it’s a bit easier to make a monochromatic color palette seem interesting. That’s because brown is just dark orange, but it’s treated as its own color, without any relation to orange. When people see brown and orange together, they usually see them as distinct colors, unlike light green and dark green.
Sometimes people mistake analogous color schemes for monochromatic. Strictly speaking, monochromatic is just one hue. But people like to bend the rules, and so they’ll sometimes use analogous colors and call them monochromatic.
Analogous colors are different hues that are beside each other on the color wheel. The hues can look very similar, which is another reason why some people will mistakenly call analogous colors a monochromatic palette.
Some analogous colors that are commonly use together are:
- Red, orange, and yellow
- Yellow, green, and blue
But you can play around with these and make them look interesting and fresh. For example, in the pictures above and below I have played around with these commonly used colors.
Complimentary colors, also known as contrasting colors, are colors that are directly opposite each other on the color wheel. Red and green are complimentary colors. Orange and blue are complimentary colors.
Using complimentary colors with the same value and saturation can be predictable, and at times a bit jarring to look at. Play around with value and saturation to keep things interesting. For example, in the color palette below, I have purples of different values and saturations, and yellows of different values and saturations. They look more interesting together than if I had just used the same saturations and values.
Split complimentary is similar to complimentary. The difference is that you don’t use two colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel. You use one color and the two colors beside the first color’s complimentary color. For example, instead of using red and green, you’d use red, yellow-green, and blue-green.
If you have trouble making a complimentary color palette work, but still want to have a high amount of contrast in the hues, try a split complimentary.
Double Split Complimentary or Tetradic
This is much like split complimentary, except instead of using one color and then the neighbors of it’s contrasting color, you use the colors that are on each side of the contrasting colors. So instead of using red, yellow-green, and blue-green like in the example for split complementary, you’d use red-orange, red-purple, yellow-green, and blue-green.
When doing a split complimentary palette, you might want to choose one or two main colors and let the other colors become secondary. In the example below I have chosen red-purple, blue-purple, yellow-orange, and yellow-green. Red-purple and yellow-orange take dominance as I play around with their values and saturations.
A square tetradic relationship is different from a double split complimentary relationship, because all four of the colors are equally spaced apart on the color wheel. If you’re using a wheel with twelve colors, that would put two colors in between each that you choose.
Like with double split complimentary palettes, you might want to choose one or two colors to dominate the palette.
Triadic color schemes use three colors that are equally spaced apart on the color wheel. If you’re using a wheel with twelve colors, it would be every fourth color. Triadic color schemes are very common, and they’re fairly easy to work with. They provide a nice level of contrast, but also allow for more simplicity than tetradic color palettes.
Achromatic color palettes are rarely ever discussed in color theory, probably because they have no color. These color schemes are purely value, so they’re only made up of blacks, whites, and grays. This makes them very easy to work with.
Color Palette Examples
Even though I gave plenty of palette examples when I was talking about the relationships between colors, I’m going to be showing you 4 more color palettes. The first two on their own are a bit simplistic, so I’ll show you how to jazz them up a bit.
The primary colors you learned about in your youth. These colors are fun, bright, and have been used by the comic book industry for years to decorate heroes. Superman and Wonder Woman wear red, yellow, and blue. Captain America wears red and blue (and white). Iron Man wears red and yellow.
These three colors are great for using with kids if you want a bright and playful aesthetic. If you’re decorating a kids’ playroom, think about choosing light yellow or light blue to use as a main color (bright and saturated colors would be overwhelming as a main color), and accenting with bright reds, yellows, and blues.
For a more mature look, try lowering saturation levels and values, and warm up the yellow a bit. Choosing a dark red as the main color, and then accenting with a nice gold and desaturated blue will look very nice.
These colors are often used by Disney to denote villains, most often with purple and green. Think Dr. Facilier from The Princess and the Frog, or Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty. Probably the most classic villain who uses all three colors from this palette is brought to us by DC: the Joker.
But just because these colors are used by villains, doesn’t mean they’re evil. Class up this color palette by going with rich dark greens or purples, and light, airy oranges. Want to make this color palette more fun and friendly? Try pumpkin orange, a very light purple, and a leafy green.
This color palette pictured above is roughly the color palette of Whiterun, a fictional hold in the game of Skyrim. This color palette is analogous, and each color has its own meaning.
The yellow on the left is the color of the guards’ tunics, shields, and of the hold’s banners. The yellow-green color is similar to the color of the grass in the area, and the next green represents the deciduous trees that dot the landscape. The last color, a desaturated blue, is the sky, rivers, and streams that cross the land.
This color palette is roughly the color palette of the Rift, another fictional hold in the game of Skyrim. Like with the palette for Whiterun, each color has its own meaning in relation to the game.
The Rift is a beautiful place, trapped in eternal autumn, and so the yellow-orange is used in the leaves of the trees and the foliage of the plants, as well as the banners representing this hold. The yellow-green is for the grass, as it is for Whiterun. The purples are the colors of the guards’ tunics and shields, and is also used in the banners, as well as being the colors you start to see as night falls.
How I Build A Palette
First I choose a color, any color on the color wheel. For this example, I’ll choose a nice red-orange.
Next step is to figure out what kind of relationship to use. I’m going to go with an analogous relationship. This means that the other colors I’ll use are red, red-purple, and purple.
Time to choose dominant colors. Since the color we started out with was red-orange, I’m going to go with that. I’ll also make red a dominant color.
Now to play with values and saturations. I want to keep my red-orange fairly bright, and I want a very light purple and desaturated red. I like reds that are a bit dark and desaturated, and I think I’ll do the same with my red-purple, but to a higher degree.
And there we go! A lovely color palette, very warm and perfect for autumn.
So now you know the relationships colors can have, and you’ve seen some color palette examples. You’ve also seen how I choose my color palettes. If you haven’t already, check out part one of Easily Understand Color Theory, and if you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment.