“In nature, light creates the color. In the picture, color creates the light.” – Hans Hofmann
Color to design is like the weather to the day – It has a huge impact on the mood of the designer and the viewer. They could either be made to feel like they’re basking in the sun’s glory or like they’re cradling a hot cup of tea on a rainy day. And to invoke those emotions, designers and artists alike use the famed color wheel.
What exactly is a color wheel, you wonder? Well, just like music, colors have patterns and combinations that can make us feel different things. And the color wheel represents all the possible combinations that the artist could use.
Taking the analogy of music further, color patterns that look good together are commonly known as color harmonies. And with regard to those harmonies, you’ll learn about a number of color theory terms such as complementary colors, analogous colors, triadic colors, and so on.
In this article, we’ll get you acquainted with various color schemes, split complementary colors, and the complementary color wheel.
Again, like music, to learn the best ways to express yourself through colors and design, you must understand color theory. As per its definition, color theory is a branch of philosophy that deals with aesthetics and investigates and classifies colors in relation to one another.
Let’s dig deeper into some of these concepts below.
Color theory and the color wheel
To understand complementary colors, we first need to look at the color wheel and its theory.
Color theory is the art and science of using color to express and perceive emotion. It is the study of how colors mix, match, and contrast with each other to express certain thoughts. It also involves understanding what colors go well together and how to use different color combinations to capture different moods. By making good use of all the color combinations it contains, designers will always have a friend in the color wheel.
To start off, let’s talk about what color actually is. We’ve all studied in school that color is the name given to the wavelengths of light that the color receptors in our eyes grasp. The objects we see absorb and reflect different wavelengths of lights, and then those combinations are picked up by our eyes, which transform them into what we call color. But when it comes to art, there’s a bit more to it than that!
Related: Learn How To Create A Brand Identity Using Complementary Colors
The colors in a color wheel
The color wheel consists of 12 hues of pure colors. These are then broken down into three subsets of colors, namely, primary, secondary, and tertiary colors.
What are primary colors?
There are three primary colors, namely, red, yellow, blue.
At least, these are the primary colors for artists and designers. Physicists would say the primary colors are red, green, and blue instead!
The reason for this is that there are two different color theories. One for material colors used by artists and designers and another for colored lights. If you’re interested in geeking out over colors, go crazy with the howstuffworks explanations.
But regarding what we are dealing with here, all you need to know is that Isaac Newton was the one who discovered that we could use prisms and mirrors to combine red, green and blue (RGB) to create white light. Hence the name ‘primary colors’, as they are the basic ingredients make made up pure white light.
What are secondary colors?
There are three secondary colors (that is, the colors created by combining primary colors). These are green, orange, and purple.
How, you ask?
Well, yellow mixed with blue gives green, yellow mixed with red gives orange, and red mixed with blue gives purple.
There are six tertiary colors in all. These are the colors you get when you mix primary and secondary colors together, which is why they are known by two hued names. The tertiary colors are blue-green, red-violet, yellow-orange, red-orange, red-purple, blue-green, and yellow-green.
Pure Color + Tints + Shades + Tones
The variations of hues or ‘pure colors’ on the color wheel are known as tints, tones, and shades. In simpler terms, to obtain a tint, you simply add white to the hue or pure color. For example, to get a red tint, add white to the hue, which will give you pink.
A shade, on the other hand is when you add black to a hue. For example, if you mix black with a pure red, you get the shade of burgundy.
And a tone is when you add grey to a pure color or hue. This will darken the original hue and make the color less intense. This trick is best employed to create a subtler effect, then.
Another thing you need to know about navigating the color wheel is that there are warm and cool colors on the color wheel. If you draw a line through the center of the color wheel, you can separate the warm and cool colors.
The warm colors are namely the reds, oranges, and yellows, and are generally used to express energy, brightness, and action.
On the other hand, the cool colors are blues, greens, and purples, and are usually used to express calm, peace, and serenity.
Are you feeling a bit more confident with the color wheel now? Good. Let’s see what colors have the potential to work well together, as per color theory.
Related: Feeling the Blues: Hex Codes, Complementary Colors & Meaning of The Hue in Design
What colors work well together?
There are many types of color schemes that you can develop using the color wheel. However, in this article, we’ll mostly be focusing on complementary and split complementary color schemes.
Complementary colors is the name given to opposite colors on the color wheel. Take a look at the color wheel image again and you’ll understand what we mean. An example of complementary colors or opposite colors on the complementary color wheel is red and green. The sharp contrast between two complementary colors makes designs and works of art pop.
Split complementary colors
Now, what are split complementary colors, you might be wondering? If it’s leaving you in splits, don’t worry. We’ll break it down for you.
A split-complementary color scheme is basically a variation of a complementary color scheme. But rather than being a mixture of two opposite colors, split complementary colors are a combination of three colors on the complementary color wheel.
When you mix one primary color and the two colors adjacent to its complement, you get split complementary colors. This way, you get a greater contrast than if you’d used just standard complementary colors.
So, if you’re on the hunt for split complementary colors, start with a base color, combine it with two colors adjacent to the opposite color on the color wheel and leave the complementary color out.
For example, if you take orange to be your base, combine it with blue-purple and blue-green to get your split complementary. Make sure you don’t end up with an image that’s too busy or over contrasted, though.
To make it simpler, here are 12 basic split-complementary color schemes you can work with:
- Red + Blue-Green + Yellow-Green
- Orange + Blue-Purple + Blue-Green
- Red-Orange + Blue + Green
- Red-Purple + Yellow + Green
- Yellow-Orange + Purple + Blue
- Yellow-Green + Red + Purple
- Yellow + Blue-Purple + Red-Purple
- Green + Red-Orange + Red-Purple
- Blue + Red-Orange + Yellow-Orange
- Blue-Green + Orange + Red
- Blue-Purple + Yellow + Orange
Working with complementary color palettes on Simplified
On Simplified, there are hundreds of free templates, assets, images, and more for you to use while you are experimenting with complementary colors . Whether you’re working on your own or as part of a team, there’s something here for everyone.
Don’t forget to play around and have fun while you’re at it. The color wheel is a great guide, but don’t be afraid to put your own spin on things.