Color Theory: A Beginner’s Guide to the Basics

By Anthony Matiya

Color Theory Terms, the Color Wheel, and Color Harmony

Color theory is the conceptual bedrock of any chromatic design activity. From artists and web designers to architects and photographers, understanding color is essential to any visual composition. However, the implementation of color in design can often seem esoteric and mysterious to the layman. Some visually pleasant color schemes just “look right” to the casual observer. However, color choice is rarely arbitrary. By learning the basics of color theory, anyone can gain a grasp of why certain hues and palettes work. Perhaps more importantly, any designer can learn which color combinations to avoid.Color Theory

We recently published an article about the many web design tools available online for executing color theory in practice. Many of these great tools allow designers to automatically create color palettes based on sound principles of color theory. However, understanding the reasoning behind why certain colors compliment each other provides greater depth of knowledge. Once you learn color theory, you can appreciate any design with heightened perception. You won’t merely be able to enjoy a visual composition. Finally, you will understand why you enjoy it. Read on for a crash course in color theory, a critical component of any design education.

Essential Terms of Color TheoryColor Theory

Any logical exploration of color theory should begin with definitions of the basic terms used within this field of knowledge. Perhaps a good place to start is The Munsell Color System, which was a major development in the history of color theory and colorimetry. To the right, you will find a basic illustration of The Munsell Color System, which is a diagrammatic color space that specifies colors based on three mainfactors: hue, value, and chroma. When describing or identifying colors, these three terms form the foundation of understanding in the world of color theory.


The term “hue” refers to pigment in the realm of color theory. This technically defined as “the degree to which a stimulus can be described as similar to or different from stimuli that are described as red, green, blue, and yellow.” Hue can essentially be thought of as the basic color, tint, or shade as defined by the color wheel.


Value is synonymous with “lightness” when used in regard to color theory. This is basically a representation of variation in the perception of a color’s overall brightness. If the hue of a color is “blue”, then the value determines if the color description could be “light blue” (high value) or “dark blue” (low value).


Chroma, commonly referred to as “saturation”, refers to the perceived intensity of a specific color along the color wheel. A higher chroma will result in greater “colorfulness” or richness of the color as perceived by the end user. Lower chroma thus results in a more subtle, dull color.

The Color WheelColor Theory

Isaac Newton created the first “color circle” all the way back in 1666, and color theory has never been the same. While there is some debate about the correct ordering of hues along the color wheel, most popular variations can be considered logical and correct. To the right, you will find the basic modern color wheel most commonly used today. This breaks up color hues into primary colors, secondary colors, and tertiary colors.

Primary Colors: Red, Yellow, and Blue

In classical color theory, primary colors are the three hues that cannot be formed by any combination of other colors. Thus, the defining element of primary colors is that they cannot be created by combining any other pigments on the color wheel.

Secondary Colors: Green, Orange, and Violet

Used in design and color theory just as often as primary colors, secondary colors can be created by mixing two primary colors together.

Tertiary Colors

There are six main tertiary colors on the modern color wheel. As defined by modern color theory, these are yellow-orange, red-orange, red-purple, blue-purple, blue-green & yellow-green. Each tertiary color has a hyphenated name because they are created by mixing one primary and one secondary color together.

Color Harmony

Color harmony

Color harmonies. Image via Zeven Design

With an understanding of essential terms and the various hues defined by the color wheel, we can begin to employ color harmoniously. In color theory, harmony refers to different color combinations that can be utilized in an aesthetically pleasing manner. This is where color theory is finally put into practice through design and composition. You may have heard the term “complementary colors” before. However, this should not be confused with the idea of colors that “compliment” each other well. In color theory, “complementary” is a specific term referring to combined hues used in a design scheme.  

Complementary Colors

A design with complementary colors employs two pigments that are directly opposite each other on the color wheel. By using two colors with the greatest visual contrast, each hue is made more vivid as a result. This simple form of color harmony is the most commonly understood in color theory and widely used in visual composition.

A subset of complementary color harmony is the “split-complementary” design. In contrast to complementary colors, this color scheme is defined by one of the two contrasting hues being split into analogous colors for greater color variation.

Triadic Colors

Color triads use three colors that are equidistant to one another on the color wheel. These designs are more complex than complementary colors but are based on the same principle. By employing 3 hues that are farthest away from each other on the color wheel, a striking visual contrast is created. Examples of color triads include primary colors and secondary colors.

Analogous Colors

Analogous, or related color harmonies, are defined by the implementation of one main “root” color and two or more colors that are close in proximity on the color wheel. This is a very basic and reliable way to create a visually appealing composition. Furthermore, analogous color designs can be combined with complementary colors and a myriad of other harmonies for diverse chromatic effects.

Armed with this basic knowledge, you can begin to understand the use of color in composition and design. If you have any comments or questions, please leave us a message below! You can also contact our expert design team for help with creating your own beautiful website color palettes.