top of page

The Colour Theory

Updated: Feb 26


In the world of art and design, colour is not just a visual sensation; it is a language that speaks to our emotions, perceptions and aesthetics. Colour theory, the science and art of using colour, guides creatives in understanding the principles behind colour combinations, contrasts and harmonies and how they shape our visual experience.


A colour circle, based on red, yellow and blue, is traditional in the field of art. Sir Isaac Newton developed the first circular diagram of colours in 1666. Since then, scientists and artists have studied and designed numerous variations of this concept. Differences of opinion about the validity of one format over another continue to provoke debate. In reality, any colour circle or colour wheel which presents a logically arranged sequence of pure hues has merit. 

There are also definitions (or categories) of colours based on the colour wheel. We begin with a 3-part colour wheel.

Primary Colours: Red, yellow and blue

In traditional colour theory (used in paint and pigments), primary colours are the 3 pigment colours that cannot be mixed or formed by any combination of other colours. All other colours are derived from these 3 hues. 

Secondary Colours: Green, orange and purple

These are the colours formed by mixing the primary colours.

Tertiary Colours: Yellow-orange, red-orange, red-purple, blue-purple, blue-green & yellow-green

These are the colours formed by mixing a primary and a secondary colour. That's why the hue is a two word name, such as blue-green, red-violet, and yellow-orange.

At its core, colour theory revolves around the colour wheel, a visual representation of the spectrum of hues. Primary colours (red, blue & yellow) form the foundation, with secondary colours (green, orange, purple) created by mixing them. Tertiary colours further expand the palette offering endless possibilities for creative expression.



Colour Harmony

Harmony can be defined as a pleasing arrangement of parts, whether it be music, poetry, colour, or even an ice cream sundae. In visual experiences, harmony is something that is pleasing to the eye. It engages the viewer and it creates an inner sense of order, a balance in the visual experience. When something is not harmonious, it's either boring or chaotic. At one extreme is a visual experience that is so bland that the viewer is not engaged. The human brain will reject under-stimulating information. At the other extreme is a visual experience that is so overdone, so chaotic that the viewer can't stand to look at it. The human brain rejects what it cannot organize, what it cannot understand. The visual task requires that we present a logical structure. Colour harmony delivers visual interest and a sense of order. In summary, extreme unity leads to under-stimulation, extreme complexity leads to over-stimulation. Harmony is a dynamic equilibrium.

Some Formulas for Colour Harmony

There are many theories for harmony. The following illustrations and descriptions present some basic formulas.

1. A colour scheme based on analogous colours

 Analogous colours are any three colours which are side by side on a 12-part colour wheel, such as yellow-green, yellow, and yellow-orange. Usually one of the three colours predominates. 

2. A colour scheme based on complementary colors

 Complementary colours are any two colours which are directly opposite each other, such as red and green and red-purple and yellow-green. These opposing colours create maximum contrast and maximum stability. 

3. A colour scheme based on nature

Nature provides a perfect departure point for colour harmony.


Understanding colour harmony is like composing a symphony of hues that resonate harmoniously. Complementary colours, found opposite each other on the wheel create dynamic contrasts, while analogous colours, situated next to each other on the wheel evoke a sense of cohesion and unity. By mastering these relationships a language is born that can be used to craft visually compelling compositions that capture attention and convey a certain mood or feeling.


Colour Context

How colour behaves in relation to other colours and shapes is a complex area of colour theory. Compare the contrast effects of different colour backgrounds for the same red square.


©Color Voodoo Publications

Red appears more brilliant against a black background and somewhat duller against the white background. In contrast with orange, the red appears lifeless; in contrast with blue-green, it exhibits brilliance.

Different readings of the same colour

©Color Voodoo Publications

If your computer has sufficient colour stability and gamma correction (link to Is Your Computer Color Blind?) you will see that the small purple rectangle on the left appears to have a red-purple tinge when compared to the small purple rectangle on the right. They are both the same color as seen in the illustration below. This demonstrates how three colors can be perceived as four colors.

Observing the effects colours have on each other is the starting point for understanding the relativity of colour. The relationship of values, saturations and the warmth or coolness of respective hues can cause noticeable differences in our perception of colour.



Colours have profound effect on our emotions and perceptions. Warm tones like reds and yellows elicit energy and passion, while cool blues and greens evoke tranquility and calmness. This emotional impact of colours can be used to communicate specific feelings.


Colours carry cultural meanings and symbolism that vary across societies. Red may symbolize luck and prosperity in one culture, while in another, it may represent danger or warning.

Exploring the cultural connotations of colours adds depth and richness to artistic and design choices.


Colour trends, influenced by cultural shifts, technology, and social movements, continuously evolve. Understanding current colour trends while maintaining an awareness of timeless palettes allows creatives to balance innovation with enduring aesthetic appeal.


Colour theory is not confined on the canvas; it permeates every facet of our daily lives, from interior design and fashion to marketing & branding, the strategic use of colour guides decision making processes, leaving a lasting impression on how we perceive and interact with the world around us.



Colour is a perceptual phenomenon that results from the way our eyes and brain interact with light. In essence, colour is not an inherent property of objects; instead, it is the result of how these objects interact with and reflect light.



Light consists of different wavelengths, and when it interacts with objects, certain wavelengths are absorbed, and others reflected. The colour we perceive is determined by the wavelegths of light that reach our eyes.


The human eye contains cells called cones, which are sensitive to different wavelengths of light. We have 3 types of cones that are most sensitive to short (blue), medium ( green), and long (red) wavelengths of light. The combination of signals from these cones allow us to perceive a broad spectrum of colours.


Colours can be mixed in different ways. Additive colour mixing occurs when colored light is combined, as in the case of electronic displays. Subtractive colour mixing involves combining pigments or filters and is more typical of physical materials like paint.


The brain plays a crucial role in processing visual information and interpreting it as colour. Colour perception is subjective and can be influenced by factors such as lighting conditions, surrounding colours, and individual differences in colour vision.


In summary, while colours do not exist as inherent properties of objects, they are real in the sense that they result form the interaction of light with matter and the way our visual system processes information.

Colour is a perceptual experience created by the brain based on the input it receives from the eyes in response to different wavelengths of light,



Light is a form of energy that exhibits both wave & particle – like behavior. It does not have mass or occupy any physical space, but its effects and interactions with matter creates the environment we perceive.

The connection between light and movement is fundamental to our perception of colours.

The interaction between light and objects, along with the way our eyes and brain process information, creates the rich spectrum of colours we perceive.


Light is composed of electromagnetic waves and each colour corresponds to a specific wavelength. The visible spectrum ranges from shorter wavelengths (violet & blue), to longer wavelengths ( green, yellow, orange red)


When light hits an object, some wavelengths are absorbed and some are reflected. The colour we perceive is the result of the wavelengths that are reflected. For example if an object appears red, it absorbs all wavelengths except red which is reflected.


Movement can impact how we see colours. The movement of the object or the viewer can affect the way light interacts with an object. The motion of the light source or the observer can cause a shift effect in perceived coloru.


The movement of light through certain materials can cause the dispersion of light to its component colours. When white light passes through a prism it separates into a spectrum of colours revealing the different wavelengths that make up visible light.


The brain plays a crucial role in processing the information received from the eyes. Colour perception is a result of the brain’s interpretation of the various wavelengths of light, and it can be influenced by factors such as the intensity of light, surrounding colours and movement.

10 views0 comments


bottom of page