The Basics of Color Theory

 In Art, Design

Today I’ll  be some discussing some color theory basics including color types, the color wheel, color relationships and color palettes.

Color Types

As you may already know, there are three primary colors: red, yellow and blue, from which all other colors are derived. Green, orange and purple are the secondary colors that are formed by mixing the primary colors. When you mix a primary color and a secondary color together, the result is a tertiary color. Examples of this include blue-green, red-violet, and yellow-orange.



Color Relationships

Colors opposite each other on the color wheel are complementary colors, such as orange/ blue, yellow/purple, and red/green. Colors next to each other on the color wheel are analogous colors, such as blue and green, or red and orange.

Color Modes

RGB is the additive combination of red, green, and blue to make white where black is the absence of light. In the CMYK model, which is subtractive, black results from a full combination of colored inks, while white is the color of the paper. A computer can display a lot more colors than a printer can. Computer monitors give off colored light, which is RGB, while CMYK is colored ink. Because of this, usually anything made for the web should be in RGB color mode and printed material should be in CMYK, however there are exceptions depending on the printer. If you start with an RGB image, it’s best to edit first in RGB and then convert to CMYK when you are done editing.

Color Psychology

Color psychology is based on cultural connotations, as well as things we see in the world around us. For example, red has developed associations with danger and energy, perhaps largely because both fire and blood are red. Also, sometimes, a color derives meaning based on the meaning we give it; a red light means stop, a yellow light means caution, and a green light means go. Additionally, iconic brands can give color meaning; the color blue now has social connotations, due in large part to Facebook’s branding being blue.


Here are some words associated with the color red: excitement, danger, impact. You will notice as we go through these that every color has both positive and negative connotations, though brands usually try to capitalize on the more positive associations. There are also object associations that come to mind when thinking of a color; for red, we often think of stop signs, fire, blood, or certain fruits. It seems that a lot of the brands that choose to use red are more on the fun side and emphasize passion and intensity such as Mitsubishi, Puma, and ESPN.


Orange is creative, friendly, impulsive and secure all at the same time. Though it may seem like orange has some contradictory qualities, color psychology isn’t an exact science. Orange has associations with autumn, construction cones, and basketball. Orange’s creative side is seen in the brand Nickelodeon and its secure side in MasterCard, while Harley Davidson is a more impulsive use of orange.


Yellow is all about optimism, energy, and intelligence, which explains why IMDb and National Geographic chose yellow for their branding. Yellow strikes associations with light bulbs, tennis balls, rubber ducks, and the sun.


Green has associations with tranquility, nature, and growth. Green is the easiest color to process by the human eye, so that explains why it’s associated with tranquility. Green is also associated with money, vegetables, grass, and plants. Gas and energy companies as well as companies that are trying to emulate nature choose green for their brand for obvious reasons.


Blue emphasizes trust, stability, and wisdom. Because blue emulates these qualities, several banks and businesses choose to use blue in their brand, and CMG is no exception. Because blue supposedly suppresses the appetite, not as many food companies use blue in their branding, so you probably won’t see it in the grocery store as much.


Purple deals with wealth, dignity and ambition. For this reason, a lot of beauty products as well as universities use purple in their branding. Purple is associated with jewels, flowers, wine, and fruit.



In summation, warm colors are active or stimulating and cool colors are typically more passive or calming. Color is a strong signifier and can have many meanings. When developing a brand, it’s important to pay attention to what those different meanings are, and how they may or may not relate to the brand.

Color Palettes

Choosing a color scheme is an integral part of branding, and in some cases can make or break a new brand. Here are some steps to get you on the right track.

The first is to use what you’ve learned by looking back at the color wheel. Analogous colors and sometimes complementary colors (with the exception of red and green) can work well together. Another option is to sample colors from photos or designs you like. This works well because photos that you like are probably already using colors in a pleasing way that can inspire you further. Another piece of advice is to keep it simple by sticking to a few colors, around 3 or 4 colors at the most usually works. No need to incorporate the whole rainbow! A few  iconic brands use just one primary color to represent their brand, such as Target’s red or Twitter’s blue, which is a bold move but it works for some. Lastly, learn from interior design by sticking with 60% dominant color, 30% secondary color and 10% accent. This is helpful because it gives you a guide on how frequently to use each color in a palette, which can be a delicate balance and keep things in check.

Unless you’re trying to achieve a very particular mood, it’s usually best to incorporate both warm and cool colors into a given color palette to maintain harmony.  It’s also best to have a range in value as well if possible, with both bright and dark colors. It’s also important to make sure that none of your colors look like they’re competing or visually jarring when placed next to each other.

Concluding Thoughts

Use color wisely, because it can be a strong signifier. As mentioned, color theory isn’t an exact science. Not everyone sees color the same way—such as people with synesthesia who can feel, taste and hear colors or people with color blindness. Also, different cultures may have different connotations for certain colors. And finally, remember you’re never too old to use a coloring book!



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Carly Fox is CMG’s Visual Composer. Originally from Pittsburgh, PA, Carly will graduate from the University of Michigan next year with a Bachelor of Fine Arts and a Minor in Business. She is excited about combining functions of the left and right sides of the brain by studying the interplay between business and creative practices. Other areas of interest include fashion, writing, painting, and yoga.

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