The one question that comes up the most about using color is “why do some color schemes work and others don’t?” Maybe you’ve wondered that yourself? Today, we’re going to start tackling that question.
The answer you’re looking for actually comes in three parts. One, it depends on where the colors are on the color wheel in relation to each other. This means you need to know what a color wheel looks like, what’s on it, and what the basic color relationships are. Two, the contrast between colors is important, so you’ll need to know about value and saturation. And three, it’s about understanding how colors react next to each other.
Because each part is a big topic, I’m breaking them up into separate posts. Today, we’re going to start with the color wheel and color relationships.
The Color Wheel
The first thing you need to know is that color is made up of three parts: hue, value, and saturation. Hue is the purest form of a color, what color looks like in its most basic form. Value deals with how light or dark a hue is. Saturation deals with how vivid or dull a hue is. Here’s an example of the different parts at work:
All three parts work together to create a color, but of the three, the one part that absolutely has to be present is hue. A color can’t be a color without a hue, because hue is the biggest visual indicator of, and the starting point for, color.
That’s why color wheels use bright, fully saturated, undiluted hues. If you’re not familiar with the color wheel, this is what one looks like:
Most artist color wheels will have 12 basic hues on it – 3 primary colors, 3 secondary colors, and 6 tertiary colors. You already know half of them by name, if not category – the primary colors of red, blue, and yellow, and the secondary colors of orange, green, and purple.
The primary colors are called “primary” because they can’t be made or mixed; they exist as is, and different combinations of them create all of the other colors in the traditional artist’s color model. For example, combining two primary colors together creates a secondary color. Combining one primary and one secondary color creates a tertiary color.
Makes sense, right? And you could keep combining them, but most color wheels will stick to the primary, secondary, and tertiary colors to keep things simple. These 12 colors are also the simplest forms of individual colors; further mixing would only create various hues of these 12. Think of them as the larger categories that all other colors will fall into.
Since the primary and secondary colors are pretty familiar, let’s talk about the tertiary colors real quick. You may know them by fancier, jazzier names like “aqua” or “lime green”, but to keep things straight, color theory refers to them by the two colors that make them up, with the primary color going first. They are red-orange, yellow-orange, yellow-green, blue-green, blue-purple, and red-purple.
As far as arrangement goes, all the colors sit around a circle (hence the “wheel” part), with the secondary and tertiary colors sitting between the two colors that made them on the color wheel. So, green will always sit in between blue and yellow, and blue-green will always rest in between blue and green, no matter the shape of the wheel or which color is on top (I prefer red, but it varies).
This is done to show how colors are made, which is the first purpose of a color wheel. Here’s what they all look like together again, this time with labels:
Now that we know how colors are made, the second purpose of a color wheel is to explore color relationships.
Color relationships are set methods of choosing colors that relate in some way to each other and look good together. Eighteenth century scientists wanted to create an easily repeatable method of creating and using color that anyone could do. From that desire color theory was born, and a lot of study has been devoted to finding quick and easy ways to put together appealing color schemes over the centuries. That’s why we have color relationships today.
Knowing that, let’s ask the question again: why do some color schemes work when others don’t? A big part of “why” has to do with what color relationship is at work in that color scheme. Your eye knows when something is working and when it’s not. So, if you’re looking to replicate a “good” color scheme, you’ve got to be able to identify what relationship you’re looking at.
There are seven color relationships – monochrome, analogous, complementary, triad, tetrad, neutral, and random – so let’s go through them one by one.
Monochrome is the first and simplest color relationship. It uses just one color, but different variations and shades of that color. One example would be shades of blue – light blue, medium blue, dark blue, dull blue, etc.
Why it works: Monochrome relationships work because it’s clean and simple. There’s a sense of unity to the piece because all of the shades are derived from one color. Visual interest can be added and focus can be directed to a particular section or area by choosing different shades with different values and saturations. Take a look at the six swatches above – where does your eye wander to? It should end up back on swatch #2, because that is the most vibrant blue of the bunch. That’s a perfect example of how to create visual interest and focus in a monochromatic color scheme.
When to use it: Use a monochrome relationship when you want your piece to feel cohesive. This is especially true if you have a lot of details that compete with each other that you’d like to blend together. Focusing on just one color will help unite all of the parts of your piece. This is also great for beginners learning how values and saturations work (which we’ll cover in depth in a later post).
Analogous relationships use two or more colors that sit next to each other on the color wheel. Examples would be orange/yellow-orange/yellow or yellow-green/green/blue-green. You can choose as many colors to use here as you like, but generally you want to stick to two, three, or four.
Why it works: Analogous relationships work because the colors transition into one another in a way that makes sense to our brains (thanks to the secondary and tertiary colors, which help connect the dots). This goes back to learning the colors of the rainbow as children – we know that green comes before blue, and blue comes before purple. So, if we use blue-green, blue, and blue-purple together, it makes sense to us. There is a natural flow because blue is used to create the other two colors.
When to use it: Use an analogous relationship when you want more than one color, but still want a sense of unity. Because the colors sit next to each other on the color wheel, using analogous colors will help your piece feel blended together and purposeful. Using a brighter, more vibrant shade of a color can help direct attention to a specific part of your piece, while still working with that natural flow of colors. Generally speaking, analogous relationships have less contrast to them than a complementary relationship, because of how the colors flow into each other.
A variation on an analogous relationship is split-analogous, which would still use two or more colors, but you’d choose every other color on the color wheel (assuming your color wheel has 12 swatches like mine does above). So, a split-analogous example would be blue-green/blue-purple/red-purple, red/orange/yellow, or blue/purple/red.
Complementary relationships are done in pairs, and those pairs sit directly opposite each other on the color wheel. Red and green, orange and blue, yellow and purple are all complementary colors.
Why it works: Complementary colors are powerful because they naturally play off each other, thanks to their color wheel positioning; red never looks more red than when it’s against green, and vice versa. Additionally, complementary colors will have one warm color (red, orange, yellow, and their variations) and one cool color (green, blue, purple, and their variations). Because the colors sit opposite each other, and a warm color is paired with a cool color, there’s a natural tension to this color relationship, which is intriguing to our brains. Whether we do it consciously or unconsciously, our brains are constantly searching for harmony, and color is no exception. So, when we see natural tension between complementary pairings, it forces our brain to stop and look.
When to use it: Use complementary colors when you want to emphasize the colors, when you want lots of contrast, or when you want to draw attention to multiple areas at the same time. Change the value and saturation of at least one of the pair for a more sophisticated color scheme, like a bright red against a soft sage green.
The variation on a complementary color is called split-complementary. You’d start with one color, then pick the two colors that sit on either side of its complement. So, instead of red/green, you’d choose red/yellow-green/blue-green for a split-complementary color scheme.
Why it works: Split-complementary colors play off the complementary relationship, and also makes our brains stop and look (but for a different reason). Where red and green makes us pause because they are exact opposites, we’re pausing with red/yellow-green/blue-green because they aren’t exact opposites. There’s enough tension and visual interest to keep our brains engaged while it puzzles out what it’s seeing. And while our brains are engaged, we’re still looking, which is always a plus when it comes to art.
When to use it: All of the suggestions for complementary colors apply here, too. Additionally, you could use split-complementary colors when you don’t want to be obvious about the color scheme, when you want to add a little more drama, or want an extra color to play with.
The triad relationship uses three colors, and these are chosen by picking every fourth color on the color wheel. The name comes from the shape that occurs between the colors, if you’re curious, and the split-complementary relationship could also act as a variation of a triad relationship. Triad examples include red/yellow/blue as well as red-purple/yellow-orange/blue-green.
Why it works: Triads work because there’s equal distance between the colors on the color wheel. Even if a viewer isn’t familiar with the color wheel or color theory, their brains see the relationship as a balanced one, and “balance” equals “harmony” to our brains and eyes.
When to use it: Use a triadic color grouping when you’re looking for a more complex color scheme, something that’s intriguing without being obvious.
The tetrad relationship uses four colors that are chosen from every third color on the color wheel. Like the triad relationship, the name tetrad comes from the shape made between the colors. Orange/yellow-green/blue/red-purple is just one example.
Why it works: Despite having one more color than the last color relationship, tetrads are remarkably similar to triads. They work for the same reason triads work – there’s a balance to this relationship because of the way the colors methodically chosen.
When to use it: Like a triad, use a tetrad grouping when you want a more complex color scheme that still feels balanced and harmonious.
One variation on a tetrad relationship would be to use double complements, no matter the positioning of each pair. Instead of orange/yellow-green/blue/red-purple, you could do red-purple/red-orange/yellow-green/blue-green. So long as each pair is a complementary pair, your color scheme will work no matter if the second pair sits 90 degrees away from the first, or if they sit side-by-side. Since it still uses four colors that create a rectangular shape, this falls under a tetrad relationship.
The sixth relationship is called a neutral relationship because it uses variations of just black and white. Since black and white aren’t really colors (they don’t have hues), I like the accented neutral variation instead. Think of it like a cross between a monochrome relationship and a neutral relationship. You’re still using black and white, but you’re bringing in a few shades of a single color for added interest.
Why it works: This relationship works for all of the reasons a monochrome relationship works – you’re using just one color, so there’s a sense of unity to it. The added benefit of an accented neutral relationship is that you’re also bringing in whites, blacks, and grays, neutrals that help ground or brighten the color scheme.
When to use it: This is a great option when you want to draw attention to a specific spot, while making everything else fade back. Generally speaking, you’d want to use only one or two shades of your chosen color and rely on the neutrals for additional shades, rather than multiple shades of your color like a true monochrome relationship. You’d then use that pop of color on a particular spot to pull attention to it, while the majority of your piece remains neutral.
The last relationship is usually called clashing, but I prefer random (it sounds nicer). This is when your color scheme isn’t methodically chosen; there’s no direct relationship to the colors, and no set way of picking them.
Why it works: These can feel intimidating, but they don’t need to be. Think of red and blue; those two colors aren’t next to each other, or directly across from each other. They have no real relationship to each other that makes sense, but they still look good together. There’s nothing clashing about them – our eyes still find them pleasing. That’s the very definition of a random relationship that works.
When to use them: I’ve found that a lot of random color schemes that I’ve used were happy accidents. Because they don’t fit into a pattern like the other color relationships do, there’s going to be a lot of visual interest and contrast with random colors, simply because our brains want to classify or puzzle out a relationship that isn’t there. So, use these when you want a more complex color scheme that is inherently interesting or a lot of contrast.
There’s a lot of info here to digest, so I hope this begins to clear up the mystery of why some color schemes work. If you’ve got a color scheme that really catches your eye, try to use what we’ve talked about here to break down and classify what relationship it is.
If you liked this post, I cover all of this and more in my book, Understanding Color. You can grab a copy for yourself right here.