What Is Color Theory? (Definition and How To Apply It)

Updated February 3, 2023

Color theory encompasses a variety of design principles that apply to the context and use of color. Design professionals and artists may use color theory to create spaces and artwork that evoke a particular feeling within the viewer. Understanding color theory concepts, including color associations, can help individuals design appealing and aesthetically pleasing marketing campaigns, interior design layout and web pages.   

In this article, we explore what color theory is and discuss the various aspects of this concept, including harmony, color association and color use.

What is color theory?

"Color theory" is an art and design principle that encompasses the ideas, principles and applications of color. Color theory includes three distinct concepts that you can apply to create logical structures and appealing visual elements within your designs: the color wheel, color harmony and color application or context.

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The color wheel

The color wheel is a visual representation of all the colors humans can see and professionals can use in their designs. This concept of color theory visualizes the placement of color in a circular chart. This chart represents the relationships between colors, and whether they’re similar or contrasting. The color wheel splits apart the colors into distinct types, which you can use as a foundation for creating logical flow, balance and harmony in design and fine art applications. These types of colors include:

Primary colors

Primary colors include red, blue and yellow. Artists and designers use these three colors as the base hues for mixing all other shades within the color wheel. This means it’s impossible to obtain primary colors from any other colors. 

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Secondary colors

Secondary colors come from mixing two of the primary colors. For example,  red and blue make purple, red and yellow make orange and yellow and blue make green. So the secondary colors on a color wheel are purple, orange and green and each color appears between the two primary colors that create it.

Tertiary colors

Tertiary colors result when you mix a primary color with a secondary color. For example, red mixed with orange will yield a red-orange hue. Tertiary colors appear between their respective primary and secondary colors on the color wheel.

Complementary colors

Complementary colors are colors that sit opposite to one another on the color wheel. For example, blue appears across from orange on the color wheel, making it the complementary color to orange. Complementary colors create the highest visual contrast when used in a design project, which can be aesthetically pleasing to viewers.

Analogous colors

These colors sit adjacent to one another on the color wheel. Analogous colors are colors that are alike in some way. For instance, a design with red, orange and yellow applies analogous colors where red will be the dominant hue, orange will be the supporting hue and yellow will be the accent in the design.

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Colors and their associations

Understanding how to apply color theory means understanding how viewers perceive color. For instance, many people have associations that they form about color, such as perceiving some colors as more calming than others. Consider the common associations of color when applying color patterns and schemes in your designs:

Warm colors

Reds, oranges and yellows are all hues that people commonly perceive as warm or hot. Warm colors generally evoke a feeling of energy, activity, heat and warmth. Warm colors are also more active and busy as opposed to cooler tones. For instance, a fitness center may apply the use of warm tones throughout their facility to promote an energetic and active mood and keep visitors engaged.

Cool colors

Blues, violets, purples and greens are the common hues you'll find in a cool color scheme. Many people consider these tones to be calming and relaxing, and cool tones are generally less active than warm tones. Many design elements apply cool tones to invoke a sense of tranquility in the viewer. For instance, a massage therapist might have blues and greens in their office design to provide their clients with a calm and relaxing environment.

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Neutral tones include white, gray, brown and black and variations of these hues. Neutral colors are unique because they can fit into any color scheme to create a sense of balance. For instance, white can serve as a balancing point between two cool colors or two warm colors. Neutrals can also balance complementary colors to create a distinct theme or design, such as red and green balanced with white to create a seasonal color scheme.

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What is color harmony?

"Color harmony" refers to the arrangement of colors within a design, such as a painting, web page or brand logo. Harmony works by creating a pleasing visual experience for the viewer through the use of form, order, structure and other design fundamentals to create an overall balance. With the application of color theory in design and art, you can have two extremes: a boring and bland visual experience or a chaotic and overwhelming visual experience. Achieving color harmony means finding the median of these two extremes by applying just enough visual stimulation to engage the viewer without being overwhelming.

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How to create color harmony

The following steps illustrate how you can apply the foundation of color harmony and to create balance and order with color:

1. Use color schemes and patterns

Apply patterns to your design by combining only two or three hues from the color wheel. For example, a business logo for a pool and spa supply store could apply a cool color palette with two or three cool hues to create a sense of harmony and balance within the logo design. This can help them associate their brand with a particular mood or feeling that aligns with their target audience. 

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2. Complement opposing hues with neutrals

If you're using complementary colors or opposing color schemes—like a warm hue and a cool hue—try a neutral tone in the design to bring the opposing colors together. For instance, adding in white to accent a yellow-orange and blue-violet design would create a more balanced visual experience for the viewer rather than the two opposing colors alone. This can help create harmony while still benefiting from the aesthetically pleasing elements of contrasting colors. 

3. Avoid using too many colors

Achieving color harmony within a design is fairly simple. However,  it's important to avoid using too many hues at once, as this can create a chaotic and disorganized visual experience for viewers. For instance, in business applications like resumes, letters, marketing materials and promotional materials, using too many colors can create an overwhelming visual appearance for the viewer.

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How to apply appropriate use of color

The following steps provide an approach for applying appropriate color use:

1. Consider the context in which you're using color

The colors you choose for your design will ultimately depend on what you're using them for. As an example, suppose you want to create a brand logo for a health and wellness product retailer. Since you're creating a logo for a business, your color use will need to reflect the overall theme, mission and perspective of the brand. In this case, a color palette that uses two color hues and a single neutral hue may be the most appropriate choice for the logo.

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2. Identify the overall effect you want the design to achieve

Consider the effect you want the design to have on viewers. Using the previous example of a health and wellness brand logo, consider the quality you would want the logo to have for viewers. In this case, the logo's purpose would be to engage potential customers enough to remember the brand, retail store and logo. Once you know the effects you want to achieve with your design and what its purpose is, you can choose colors that support your desired outcomes.

3. Choose a color palette that supports your design's purpose

The colors you include in your design will depend on the purpose and overall visual effect you want to achieve. For example, if you’re creating a health and wellness logo the colors you choose for the overall design can make the logo and overall brand more meaningful and easier for consumers to remember.  The logo you create for the health and wellness retailer may include the business name and a small leaf design. Using appropriate greens and neutrals are more likely to achieve the logo's purpose.

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4. Plan your design using common color associations

Similar to the effect and purpose of your design, the common associations people have with colors can be a useful tool in applying color theory, too. For example, with the health and wellness logo example, the overall purpose would be to attract customers to the brand, which sells natural health and wellness products. Therefore, the retail brand may associate its logo, mission and product inventory with the color green, giving you a foundation to use when creating the logo design.

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