How to Use Colour

Published June 23, 2016 by estherknit

Colour theory is a huge subject. So, where do we start?  Well, there are three basic categories of colour theory which you will find useful.

  • the colour wheel
  • colour harmony
  • the context of how colours are used

Colour theories create a logical structure for colour. For example, if we have an assortment of fruits and vegetables, we can organise them by colour and place them on a circle that shows the colours in relation to each other.

The Colour Wheel

A Colour Wheel or colour circle is an abstract illustrative organization of colour hues around a circle that shows relationships between primary colours, secondary colours, complementary colours, etc. A colour wheel is a 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.

Colour Wheel 2


Primary Colours

Red, yellow and blue are the primary colours. In traditional color theory (used in paint and pigments), primary colours are the 3 pigment colours that can not 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 are the secondary colours.  These are the colours formed by mixing the primary colours.

Tertiary Colours

Yellow-orange, red-orange, red-purple, blue-purple, blue-green and yellow-green are the tertiary colours.  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.

3 Colour Wheels 1


Colour Harmony

Harmony can be defined as a pleasing arrangement of parts. So, 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.  Colour harmony delivers visual interest and a sense of order.

Some Formulas for Colour Harmony

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

  • 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.
  • A colour scheme based on complementary colours – complementary colours are any two colours which are directly opposite each other, such as red and green and red-purple and yellow-green. In the illustration above, there are several variations of yellow-green in the leaves and several variations of red-purple in the orchid. These opposing colours create maximum contrast and maximum stability.
  • A colour scheme based on nature – nature provides a perfect departure point for colour harmony. In the illustration above, red yellow and green create a harmonious design, regardless of whether this combination fits into a technical formula for colour harmony.

Colour and Tone

Here are some general rules which apply to colour:

  • Bright colours generally best if set against a large area of cool colours
  • Warm colours appear to ‘leap forward’ so these are best placed to appear at the front (from a perspective view)
  • Light or pale colours appear larger than they are as they tend to diffuse. Deeper colours tend to look smaller.
  • Yellow always catches the eye and therefore must be handled with caution otherwise it will dominate, even in small quantities.
  • Small area or dots of colour will merge together in the eye of the onlooker which may or may not be the desired effect.
  • Bands of colour placed next to each other merge together and appear different where they meet.
  • The after-image of a colour is in its contrast. For example, prolonged staring at a circle of one colour when the eye is taken away, will produce an after-image.
  • Strong differences in value of two colours in equal amounts can create a dizziness and jumping effect on the eye.
  • Strong differences in value in small areas will diffuse and create dullness.
  • The nature order of colours is more relaxing and familiar to the eye – from dark colours to light and from light colours to dark. A hotchpotch arrangement can create problems.
  • A related colour scheme is composed of neighbours on the colour wheel e.g. red, yellow, orange, or blue, blue green and purple blue. The common factor here is either ‘warm’ or ‘cool.   Related colours have a soothing effect on the eye and mind, giving a feeling of unity and belonging.
  • Harmonious colours are those connected by the equilateral triangle on the colour wheel. The colours go well together in an outfit.  They are mood colours which are pleasing and restful.
  • Accent colour are colours used in a relatively small quantity. They are a highlighter, for example, to enhance the main colour or colours or to accentuate a particular detail.
  • Colours will change depending on the lighting used. Daylight and artificial light will produce different effects.  Winter light will give a grey effect.   Summer light will produce a yellowish effect.  Artificial light will also produce a yellowish effect.
  • Different colours will appear different in size.

Colour Context

How colour behaves in relation to other colours and shapes is a complex area of colour theory.  Take a red square.

  • Red Square

Now, compare the contrast effects of different colour backgrounds for the same red square. 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.

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.

Explore colour – use colour – love colour!



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