(Last updated on March 29th, 2021)
Have you been using color theory in your graphic designs? Are you aware of color theory and know how to use it? Read on to learn all about color theory and why it’s such a crucial component of graphic design.
In most graphic design projects, one of the essential aspects is color. The right color can perfectly convey a tone and intent with artwork that better communicates the project’s message. Having the wrong colors may send the wrong message.
Color theory is one part science and one part art. There’s a scientific aspect to consider in how we take in colors and associate them with certain sensations. Understanding why specific colors mix well and which ones are more appealing can go a long way in creating compelling designs.
In terms of art, color theory is also about apt choices in which ones to use for your graphic design projects. For instance, you may be aware of which colors will work for a particular poster, but it’s ultimately up to the artist to decide how and where to use those colors.
Color theory is not very daunting in that you only have to be aware of the theory categories organized on a color wheel. There are primary colors, secondary colors, and tertiary colors. If you’re aware of all of these, they are relatively easy to spot once you know their association.
What is Color Theory?
Perception is the name of the game when it comes to understanding color theory. This goes back to the more scientific, sure, but it need not be as analytical. Part of understanding our perceptions of color is something we kind of know instinctively as human beings.
We just don’t often think about how our brains pick up light through our eyes and tell us what colors we are seeing. We do, however, find easy associations. We’ve looked at the sky enough times to know it is blue or the grass enough to know it is green.
The same theory applies to graphic design as well. If we went to the grocery store looking for Sprite, our eyes would quickly draw to something green. If we went looking around our neighborhood for a mail delivery box, we’d be tempted to something blue.
It’s essential to understand color to this degree as it breeds association and attention. Going back to the grocery store, we may be looking for Sprite but then see another soda with a green label we might want to try.
A focus on color can make or break whether or not a product attracts customers. This is one of the many reasons why it’s essential to take note of color for more commercial graphic design projects. Firm handling of color theory can do wonders for a brand
It helps to think of colors more as light, considering that we’re essentially seeing. If you mix different lights, you can create different variants of color. This is called the additive color mixing model, and it’s how we get various colors by essentially mixing core ones.
The most common form of the color mixture falls under the RGB model. As the anagram implies, it’s the model that uses red, green, and blue. These three colors are then mixed and matched to create different kinds of colors. When they’re all added together, you get white.
If RGB seems familiar, you’ve most likely seen it being used in monitor displays and graphic formatting. It is the standard color formula used in everything from computer monitors to television screens, creating the key colors we see in everything from Powerpoint presentations to movies and television programs.
The assembly of RGB to create stunning imagery is thanks to the patented Bayer filter. This color array balances out the assortment of colors to be 50% green, 25% blue, and 25% red. When all these patterns combine, they begin to form clear and attractive displays.
You may be wondering why green is more prominent than blue or red. This is due to how common we see green in various light patterns and how our eyes register the color. Green will often look crisp, whereas blue and red can look and loud noise.
The Bayer filter has become the most common form of assembling color in single-chip digital image sensors. This means just about everything from movie-production cameras to the camera on your phone contains some Bayer filter version, utilizing RGB.
CMYK differs from RGB in that it is more favored for print than digital. It’s why CMYK graphics can look muddy in a web browser and why RGB graphics look off when printed. This form of color theory is known as the subtractive color mixing model.
Subtractive color mixing differs from additive color mixing in that it is subtracting light rather than adding to it. Think of it like working with paper where the color of that paper is white. It already has a color with the added elements, and now we’re pulling it back by adding different colors, effectively taking away some portion of the red, green, or blue that would make white.
CMYK refers to the colors of cyan, magenta, yellow, and key/black. Printers use this collective of colors when printing as it allows for a broader range of variants in how an image can be printed. For this reason, print projects are consistently formatted for CMYK for the best range of quality.
Printing a project using the RGB color method will produce many different results. You may notice a blue looks too dark or a red looks too pink. CMYK provides products far more accurate than what you would see on your computer screen.
The subtractive method has proven to be effective for many years in printing, which’s important to note when reading a print design. The last thing you want to do is get the results back from the printer and spend the extra time and money to get the colors just right.
Considering how expensive printing can be, it’s important to note the correct color formulas and recognize just how much depth you want your graphic designs. CMYK allows for better results and fewer prints, which will mean much fewer headaches for you and your client.
Understanding the Color Theory Wheel
We all become aware of the vast array of colors at some point in our lives. Sometimes it’s when we witness the wonders of a rainbow or marvel at the many shades of crayons in a box. As such, we also learn the harmonies of how different colors work together.
What can help us better understand how such colors play off one another is to look at the color wheel. The color wheel will not only help you see the full spectrum of possibilities. Chances are you’ve either seen some variant of this wheel either in a studio, classroom, or creative application.
The color wheel has been in use with a design for quite some time. It dates as far back as 1666 when Sir Isaac Newton himself. Since his creation, the color wheel has become of great use for designers to discern harmony and mix colors.
The wheel consists of the three color models mentioned previously. There are primary colors that comprise red, yellow, and blue. Then there are secondary colors consist of primary mixtures to make green, orange, purple. Finally, tertiary colors mix both to create such variants of blue-green and red-violet.
Color wheels can also be separated into tones as well. A proper color wheel should showcase warm and cool colors if you simply draw a line down the center. You should notice one side will have warm hues of red and yellow while the cool colors will be blues and greens.
Differentiating between the colors should be pretty self-explanatory given their temperature differences. Warm colors are generally associated with something hot and energized. Cool colors are better meant for portraying cold and easy-going sensations.
A perfect example to see just how different a mood these two color palettes can create can be seen in Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell. Oshii has directed two versions of this film. His 1995 original theatrical cut and his alternate cut of Ghost in the Shell 2.0 from 2008.
In the 1995 cut, the film has a cool color palette of greens and blues, seen in everything from computer-generated screens to the rooms’ lighting. But his 2008 cut shifts dramatically to warmer colors, where the screens and overall lighting are now tinted with bright orange.
This example is remarkable because both films are essentially the same story with the same scenes. But with a mere changing of the color, there’s a different sensation that significantly changes the film’s overall tone. The change is more of how our eyes process the visuals rather than how our mind interprets the narrative.
Oshii’s exciting choice, considering his recut version, seems to be of his evolving artistic intent. The warmer colors reflect that same palette he favored for his 2004 sequel of Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence. It’s intriguing to watch as the director changes his mind about how he wants to portray his films so different in style.
Because a choice in warm or cool colors can be this unique and distracting, it’s essential to make the choice in which colors you favor most. Finding the proper selection can play a heavy part in the message you want to convey and how pleasing it’ll appear to the eyes.
Shades, Tints, and Tones
The original color wheel only has about 12 colors. But if we look at a big box of assorted crayons, you’ll notice there are far more than a mere 12 colors present. Most big packs come with 64 different kinds of colors!
So how did we get from 12 to 64? It all has to do with variations that go beyond just the mixing of colors. This can be accomplished through the innovations of shades, tints, and tones to create a wider variety of color concoctions.
Tint essentially makes a color look brighter by adding in white. This is how we get from red to pink by merely adding a certain amount of white to the mixture red to bring about a lighter and fleshier color.
Shade works in the opposite way, where we would add black rather than white to color. Adding black will make the color darker and lead to such creations as a deep crimson when black is added to red.
Finally, there’s tone, a mixture of white and black to add gray to the equation. This creates a sort of midrange between tint and shade, where there’s more of a subtle change in color rather than a dramatic altercation.
It can help to differentiate between different groups of colors by using schemes. Instead of just listing individual colors to be used within the design, schemes can help with easy organization. There are plenty of themes to consider to communicate whatever type of project you’re designing efficiently.
- Monochromatic: Instead of shiting through various colors, monochromatic is easily accomplished by relying on one color with multiple shades and tints to create variances.
- Analogous: Analogous uses three colors but only the three colors that appear next to each other on the color wheel. A fire, for instance, may have an analogous scheme of red, orange, and yellow.
- Complementary: This is a pairing of opposite colors to create a unique contrast. The most common example is that of the Christmas colors for red and green.
- Split-Complementary: This is similar to complementary but opts for less contrasty colors to create a different flow.
- Triadic: As the name implies, this scheme involves three different colors on different ends of the color wheel. Try placing a triangle on a color wheel and see where the three equal-sided points go to get an idea of this scheme.
- Tetradic: This denser assortment of colors relies on two complementary pairs and one dominant color. With the right balance, this can lead to vibrant design palettes.
- Square: This is the same deal as Triadic, except it uses a square to find four colors on equally opposite ends of the color spectrum.
Much of what makes these schemes work will ultimately depend on what type of temperature you’re going for with your design. Are you aiming for warm or cool colors? Realizing this can help you better select which scheme fits your project best.
No one scheme will fit all. You’ll have to experiment and find a certain balance of which colors to use. Something incredibly simplistic may need only a Monochromatic scheme, while something more intricate may require a Tetradic approach.
Look around at different companies and products. You’ll notice that all of them have a specific scheme they’ve embraced. Try picking out each color you notice within a logo or packaging to see just what colors are being utilized.
An easy example of a square color scheme can be seen with the Google logo. It’s a simple enough text logo with individual letters using different colors. We can spot that this logo uses a collection of primary colors with blue, red, yellow, and green.
Also, keep in mind what you believe the brand is communicating by using these colors. Are they cool enough to express a sensation of easiness, or are they warm enough to create a sense of invitation? Every logo is saying something like this with the choices being made in color.
Going back to the Google logo, we can make some assumptions based on the colors chosen. The primary colors are bright and playful, trying to invite others to utilize the search engine and its applications. It’s why we see this scheme in everything from Gmail to Chrome.
Don’t Overcomplicate It
If all of this is seeming like an intimidating approach to color, you need to relax. Color theory is more of a handy guide to finding out why certain color combinations and tweaks within graphic design stick out so well. It’s not exactly a strict rule that requires complete memorization of Hex numbers and alpha channels.
I think what helps is to recognize what color is at its very core. The shocking truth is that color doesn’t exist. It’s a mere product of the electromagnetic spectrum based on how our eyes and mind perceive the world of its many hues.
Knowing this information may make color theory seem far more intricate. In cases with video editing, doing color correction can become that detailed. Many video editing programs on the market contain tools for recognizing the spectrum and making tweaks accordingly.
Color Theory in Video
Adobe Premiere has a tool for color correction known as the Lumetri Color Panel. Opening this up will reveal the Lumetri Scopes that display the wave patterns for red, green, and blue colors. The tools for adjusting these patterns can be found in some sliders, usually located on the right side.
Try playing with the sliders, and you’ll notice the patterns start to alter and shift. Maybe the red gets slightly more chaotic, or the green gets calmer. Understanding why colors fluctuate this way can be a handy bit of info if you decide to pursue the vibrant world of color correction.
Red, green, and blue are the most prominent colors on these scopes because those are the key colors we pick up with our eyes. The eyes register energy patterns, and then our brain translates that information to let us know that an apple is red and the grass is green.
This is why anything digital or video is built with the RGB method. Our eyes will register these colors easily, that having them combined via the Bayer filter will make it seem so crisp and accurate. It’s the perfect method to manipulate the eyes.
And our eyes are relatively easy to manipulate. The way we process the many hues is unique in that we only recognize what the final form looks like. We can’t tell the difference between a display showing orange and a mixture of red and yellow to create orange. We just see orange.
But Don’t Overthink It
All of this is not being stated as though the color theory is somehow some dense study that requires a metaphysical aspect to its very understanding. The point of this info is to understand why we see colors the way we do. Our mind associates the colors, and it’s up to us to figure out how to properly push and pull them when it comes to design.
For this reason, many people who are color blind don’t realize they are color blind. Their eyes and brain have been telling them how to associate colors since their first blinks. So it’s not so much that a color-blind person doesn’t see color but rather a different interpretation of energy perceived by our mind.
It’s not like you need to take some pill from The Matrix or read a dozen books on the subject to grasp the color theory. All you have to do is use your best judgment of how you perceive color. As stated previously in this article, color theory is all about perception.
So just don’t overthink color in your work. Select the colors you feel work best for your project, try them out, and tweak them until you’re pleased with the message being communicated. You’ll find it’s far less intimidating than trying to comprehend the energy we keep staring at with our perception-altering eyes.
Frequently asked questions
The numerous color theories involve RGB and CMYK colors to create iconic and eye-catching designs.
The seven color schemes include Monochromatic, Analogous, Complementary, Split-Complementary, Triadic, Tetradic, and Square.
Color theory can be best learn by taking note of how colors are formed and which ones work in certain contexts.
Understanding color theory can you better articulate how to use certain styles within your own graphic design work.
Mark McPherson has been working as a video editor and content writer for over ten years. His background started in animation and video editing before shifting into the realm of web development. He also branched out into content writing for various online publications. Mark is an expert in video editing, content writing, and 2D/3D animation.