21 Color Theories
John Spacey, January 17, 2017 updated on January 30, 2023
Color theory is a body of scientific and artistic knowledge about color. This includes principles related to the physical properties of light and human color perception. Color theory also includes art, design and fashion traditions regarding color. The following are common color theories.
Spectral ColorSpectral colors are the different wavelengths of light that are perceived by humans as colors.
HuesHues are the set of all colorful colors that haven't been tinted with white or shaded with black. This includes all spectral colors and all combinations of spectral colors except those combinations that produce white or greyish colors.
Primary ColorsPrimary colors are colors that are selected by a color system to simulate all other colors. It is common for children's educational materials to imply that red, yellow and blue are the only primary colors and that these create all other colors -- both of these statements are untrue. Red, yellow and blue create a gamut of colors but not all colors. There are other sets of primary colors that are more useful for creating a larger gamut. Spectral colors are a foundational element of nature but primary colors are based on things like technologies and artistic traditions for mixing colors. For example, cyan, magenta, yellow and black are the primary colors of the CMYK color model commonly used by printers.
Color WheelsA color wheel is an illustration of how colors can be mixed based on a set of primary colors. This includes secondary colors produced by mixing any two primary colors and tertiary colors that are mixtures of a full saturation of one primary color with half saturation of another primary color. Color wheels are useful to understand how different colors on the color spectrum mix but should not be confused as the only set of colors that exist. The following is a color wheel based on the RGB color model used by most digital screens.
Saturation LossAnother use for color wheels is to identify saturation loss whereby mixing two colors results in grey or brown that isn't colorful. Colors directly opposite each other on the wheel experience heavy saturation loss when mixed. This is why there is no such thing as a greenish magenta or a reddish cyan.
Complementary ColorsComplementary colors are colors that have high contrasted with each other. These are generally opposite each other on a color wheel and result in saturation loss when mixed. Different color wheels based on different primary colors produce different sets of complementary colors. This is another reason that primary colors and color wheels should not be viewed as a universal rule but rather as one system of many systems.
Color ContrastColor contrast, such as pairs of complementary colors, are commonly used to draw human attention. For example, a life jacket that's orange to contrast with the blue of water.
Color PerceptionColors are based on the properties of light but there are significant differences between color perception and the actual properties of light. For example, white is a mix of many wavelengths of light that is essentially too complex for the brain to process so your brain maps this to a simple concept -- white. This could be described as a survival mechanism whereby the unbelievably colorful sunlight that saturates the world is perceived as a plain background color.
Cultural Perception of ColorColor perception is greatly influenced by culture. For example, some cultures perceive the colors of the rainbow as red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple. All colors are in the rainbow including large families of color such as cyan. However, culturally people just decide that cyan is simply a greenish blue. Historically, the Japanese simply viewed green as a variant of blue. This has changed in modern Japan due to Western influences still persists to some degree. For example, green traffic lights are described as aoi 青い which means blue. It should be noted that green traffic lights in Japan, as in many other countries, are actually more of a cyan.
Color SymbolismColor symbolism is meaning that people attach to color due to references from nature and culture. Color is commonly used to communication and develop symbols of things and these can attach much meaning to a color. For example, colors in the flags of nations that symbolize that nation to its populace.
Warm ColorsPeople tend to feel that reds, oranges and yellows are warm or hot. This is likely due to their association with pervasive elements of nature such as sunlight and fire that produce these colors.
Cool ColorsPeople tend to feel that blues, whites and greens are cool or cold. Again this is likely due to colors of the elements of nature such as water, sky, ice and vegetation.
Analogous ColorsAnalogous colors are colors that are perceived as similar. This includes colors from similar wavelengths of light such as yellow and orange. Analogous colors also include colors that have very different wavelengths of light such as purple and violet that are perceived as similar due to oddities of color perception.
Tints, Shades & TonesA shade is a color that has been mixed with black and a tint is a color that has been mixed with white. As you might expect, shading makes a color darker and tinting makes a color more washed out and pastel-like. A tone is a color that has been mixed with both black and white. These are extremely common as pure hues of color are quite bright such that they are often toned down with black and white.
Achromatic ColorsAchromatic colors are white, black and every grey in-between. Greys are perceived as dull and lifeless but have much culture and lore attached to them. For example, black and white photos that feel historical or a grey suit that feels somewhat formal but also more laid back than a black or white suit.
Neutral ColorsNeutral colors are any color that are perceived as uncolorful such that they do not attract attention and can serve as a background. These include black, white, greys, browns and beige.
Black as a ColorIt is commonly argued that black isn't a color because it represents the absence or absorption of light. This is a bit like arguing that zero isn't a number. Color is a human perception as opposed to a property of light itself. As humans commonly perceive black as a color, it is a color in any pragmatic sense.
Color HarmonyColor harmony is a set of colors that are thought to match. This is more of an art than a science as there are many cultural associations involved. For example, green and red don't match because they look too Christmasy.
Color SchemesA color scheme is a set of colors that is selected for a design or brand. These often have some theme based on color theory such as a scheme of complementary colors for high contrast safety designs or scheme of neutral colors for an interior design.
Color WeightColor weight is the perception that one color is heavier than another. Dark colors are heavier than light and saturated colors heavier than dull colors. This is relevant to asymmetrical balance whereby you want both sides of an artwork or design to look visually balanced.
Color DominanceThe use of a bright or high contrast color to direct the audience's attention where you want it. A common technique in media, design and art.
Color TheoryThis is the complete list of articles we have written about color theory.
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ColorsA large collection of color palettes.
Color PerceptionThe characteristics of color perception.
Color SpaceAn overview of color space with an example.
ColorimetryDefinitions of colorimetry.
Complementary ColorsColors that cancel each other out.
HueThe pure colors of color theory.
Spectral ColorA list of the spectral colors.
Tints And ShadesThe difference between a tinted and shaded color.
ColorThe definition of color.
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