Combining Colors to Make Powerful and Eye Catching Designs

Color plays a huge role in how art and designs are perceived by an audience. It is usually one of the first decision when making a design, as color sometimes sets the tone for a piece. There is quite a bit of science and math that goes into selecting the right colors. While the color wheel only focuses on the twelve colors, the possibilities for color pairing, can seem endless. Nothing is more frustrating than accidently picking two incompatible colors, make a mess of project late in the game. It’s important to have a comprehensive understanding of hues and their relationships to each other, in order to make a proficient palette. In this blog post, I’ll go over the typical color harmonies, and the basics of the color wheel. 

The Basics of Color Theory

Primary colors set up the whole color wheel – every color stems from the primary colors. These three colors are red, yellow, and blue.

Secondary colors are created by combining two of the primary colors together. These three colors are orange, green, and purple.

Tertiary colors are made by mixing one primary color and one secondary color. These six colors are yellow-orange, yellow-green, blue-green, blue-purple, red-purple, and red-orange. Some of these colors have names, for example, blue-purple is often referred to as violet. But for learnings sake, I’m going to call them by their mixed hues.

Types of Color Schemes

A monochromatic palette, is actually one of my favorite types of palettes, because of its simplicity, but also because of its large capacity to vary. It consists of a single hue, with various tints, tones, and shades to complement it. (If you’d like to learn more about tints, tones, and shades, check this post out) While it leaves behind a very clean and refined look, it can be difficult to find the right amount to contrast to make it eye-catching. This is also a good palette for those who aren’t extremely comfortable mixing those high contrast colors.

Analogous color schemes are quite beautiful, and are designed by combining one focal color with two peripheral colors, seated next to each other on the color wheel. This type of combination is generally tension-free, making it an easy choice for those who have a difficult time matching colors. This particular blue-green color palette I made reminds me of the ocean, the colors have a sense of fluidity, while still having contrast.

Complementary colors are easily identifiable, as they are directly across from its partner on the color wheel. The example above features my favorite combination of colors: mint and peach/pink. Complementary combinations generally have the highest contrast between them, which makes them harder to balance. Usually, one of the colors needs to be tinted or toned in order to stabilize the scheme. Just like the mint green and peach pink combo above, usually a good complementary color pair involves a lot of experimentation with different tints, and shades.  A good rule of thumb to follow for proportioning these largely contrasting colors is as shown:

Green & Red- 1:1              Blue & Orange- 3:1             Purple & Yellow- 5:1

A split complementary scheme is very akin to the complementary scheme when it comes to contrast, but offers more variability and can be easier to balance than it’s counterpart. Picking one central color and its two colors, who are directly adjacent to the dominant color’s complement, creates this unique palette. This creates a more distintive color palette while still preserving the contrast of colors. While generally easier than a complementary palette, it can still be a little difficult to find the right balance between the colors.

Triadic color schemes offer high contrasting color schemes while retaining the same tone. Triadic color schemes are made by electing three hues that are correspondingly spaced in lines around the color wheel (like a triangle, shown below). Triadic color schemes offer high contrasting color schemes, and can be tricky to balance just right.

The tetradic palette offers a lot of variety and boldness, but it is said to be the most challenging palette to choose successfully. I’ve seen two types of this scheme. One, in which they are not spaced equally between (forming a rectangle, as shown to the right), and are essentially two pairs of complementary colors. The other, is one in which they are spaced out equally, and form a perfect square as shown to the left. Regardless of which one you choose, the results of these palettes tend to be diverse, and fairly high in contrast. It is said that these work best when one color is allowed to dominate the design, and use the others as accents. While being one of the more difficult palettes to create, it can create some beautiful combinations.

It’s safe to say, the color choice is critical to the overall feel of a design. But choosing colors that work well together can be a daunting and tedious task. There are a lot of resources online, including pictures of already made palettes, and certain programs to help you make your own like Adobe Color. I hope you learned something about color relationships, and don’t forget to check out my next blog covering the psychology of color!