Color theory 101


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Introduction to Color Theory - by Laurie Smithwick of LEAP Design

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  • Color theory is basically a set of rules that explains how to create colors and color combinations, as well as the visual (and emotional) impact of the different types of color combinations.
  • Primary colors are those that cannot be made from mixing other colors. Instead, primary colors are the source of other colors. The primary colors are red, blue, and yellow.True to its name, art and design created using this color scheme tend to be pretty elementary and basic.
  • Secondary colors come from mixing the primary colors together. So, Red + Yellow = OrangeYellow + Blue = GreenBlue + Red = VioletBecause of their “mixed” nature, these colors are a little more sophisticated than their primary cousins. So art and designs created using the combination of Orange, Green, and Violet tend to be a little more “designery.”
  • Last but not least, the Tertiary Colors are created by mixing the primary and secondary colors together. These colors are much more versatile than their primary and secondary cousins because of the subtle variations you can achieve.Red-OrangeYellow-OrangeYellow-GreenBlue-GreenBlue-VioletRed-Violet
  • RYB vs. RGBBefore we go on, let’s talk for a minute about the color wheel vs. RGB color.Up til now we’ve been looking at the RYB Color Wheel, which is the basis for what is called “Subtractive” color. This means that it absorbs light (or subtracts it). This would refer to any color that you put on something. Crayons on paper; paint on a wall; any printed materials; art in a museum. All Subtractive.There there is “Additive” color, where color is created by mixing the visible light emitted from differently colored light sources. This would refer to colors on a screen -- computer, television, iphone, etc. -- as well as the color in a photograph. RGB color -- which is what you work with on your computer -- is Additive.But since we don’t make colors out of light, we’re going to continue working with Subtractive color since it’s what we learned in kindergarten :) and it matches our vocabulary best. I just didn’t want to *not* mention RGB.
  • TEMPERATUREThe color wheel can be divided into two halves: warm colors and cool colors.Cool colors are calm and peaceful.Warm colors jump out at you. They’re vivid and energetic.I’m going to show you some examples using famous paintings, so you can feel the temperature in a more explicit fashion. But the same mood is imparted in graphic or interior design as you will see in the paintings.
  • In this famous Claude Monet “Water Lillies”painting, the cool water and lillies depict a calm, peaceful, almost lazy scene.
  • While in this painting, Monet is clearly intending to give us the impression of energy and movement. With the vibrant, lower half of the painting in direct, energetic contrast with the calm top half.
  • So that’s the gist of how you make colors out of other colors. Now let’s talk a minute about how to make colors out of tints, shades, and tones.First of all, did you know that those weren’t interchangeable words? They describe very similar processes, but with specific distinctions. Here’s a quick explanation of each:Tint - adding white to a colorShade - adding black to a colorTone - adding grey to a color
  • You may be familiar with this sort of color picker -- from Photoshop and other photo editing applications.Moving left to right adjusts the tint; Moving up and down adjusts the shade; and moving diagonally from bottom left to top right is tone.This shows you how easy it is to create tones and shades of colors to create (next)Color harmonies.
  • Color harmonies are exactly what you think they are, colors that work harmoniously together. Knowing what they are, will give you shortcuts to creating color palettes you would like to use.The simplest color harmony is the Monochromatic color range.This is achieved simply by lightening (tinting) or darkening (shading) a single hue to create steps of color. These colors work together to form a harmonyThese color schemes can be a little simple or one-dimensional, but they have a very unified, harmonious feel -- all the colors in this group are guaranteed to look good together.
  • Here’s a gorgeous monochromatic photo. All blues, ranging from the blue-white of the clouds, all the way to the dark blue at the horizon.
  • Complementary schemes are created by combining colors from opposite sides of the color wheel. In their most basic form, these schemes consist of only two colors, but can easily be expanded using tones, tints, and shades. A word of warning, though: using colors that are exact opposites with the same chroma and/or value right next to each other can be very jarring visually (they’ll appear to actually vibrate along their border in the most severe uses). This is best avoided (either by leaving white space between them or by adding another, transitional color between them).
  • Check out the giant pops of color in this beach scene. The orange umbrella in the blue sky is complementary. As are the red towel and green water.
  • Analogous color schemes use colors that are next to each other on the color wheel. They usually match well and create relaxed, comfortable designs.Analogous color schemes are often found in nature and are harmonious and pleasing to the eye.Make sure you have enough contrast when choosing an analogous color scheme.Choose one color to dominate, a second to support. The third color is used (along with black, white or gray) as an accent.
  • Here’s a lovely stack of fabrics, arranged in an analogous color scheme: Yellow-green, Green, Blue-green, Blue.
  • The split-complementary color scheme is a variation of the complementary color scheme. Instead of using colors that are opposites, you use colors on either side of the hue opposite your base hue.This color scheme has the same strong visual contrast as the complementary color scheme, but has less tension.The split-complementary color scheme is often a good choice for beginners, because it is difficult to mess up.-----------A triadic color scheme uses colors that are equally spaced around the color wheel.Triadic color schemes tend to be quite vibrant and are at the root of some of the more diverse color schemes.
  • Tetradic color schemes use four colors arranged into two complementary pairs.These rich color scheme offers lots of possibilities for variation. They work best if you choose one color to be dominant.You should also pay attention to the balance between warm and cool colors -- these harmonies work best when they are mostly one or the other, either cool or warm.
  • WHY TINTS, SHADES, AND TONES ARE IMPORTANT:The pure hues on the previous slides all have similar values and saturation levels. This leads to color schemes that can be both overwhelming and, at the same time, a little boring.To create more sophisticated color harmonies, incorporating tints, tones, and shades in your color schemes is vital. Plus, it expands the basic color wheel into an infinite number of colors that you can use. 1. One of the simplest ways to do this is to take a few tones, tints, and shades of a given color (avoiding the pure hue), in this case, red-violet.NEXT
  • 2. Then add in another pure hue (or close to pure) that’s at least three spaces away on the color wheel (part of a tetradic, triatic, or split-complementary color scheme) as an accent color. NEXT
  • 3. Last but not least, add a neutral color (grey, ivory, brown, etc) to round out the full palette.
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