What Is Color Theory and How Does It Work?

by | Colors

Color theory is the science of how to use color, it is also the art of using color. With color theory, we can begin to understand how we perceive color, and what colors look visually appealing when mixed or put next to each other.

How Do We See Color?

Color is all about perception. Remember that awful blue/black or white/gold dress debate? Whichever you saw, was based on your perception. Everything in our world reflects light, and what color you see is based upon the wavelength you are seeing it in. For example, if you mix red, green, and blue light together, it actually creates white light. Using those three colors comes from RGB color mixing, but it’s only used for digital color theory. When mixing colors for print, or other physical art, you would need to use CYMK.

How Do We Use RGB In Color Theory?

The use of RGB in color theory is more confusing to me. How does one get white out of mixing red(R), green(G), and blue(B)? Well, when using RGB, you’re mixing light, not physical colors. Using RGB color theory is the process of mixing light, or in other words, it’s additive color mixing. Additive color mixing is where the more light you add, the brighter the color. RGB is used in the digital world, for example, our computers, televisions, phones, and neon signs use RGB color theory.

Additive color mixing image from 99designs.com

How Do We Use CYMK In Color Theory?

Using CYMK in color theory is the advanced version of what you learned in elementary art class. CYMK color theory is what we use for prints. When you mix cyan(C), yellow(Y), and magenta(M), you get black(K). The CYMK color theory is subtractive. This is because you are removing light, by adding more color. This is why using CYMK instead of RGB is important in printing. One is subtracting light, while the other is adding light. If you’re still confused, feel free to watch this great video that explains the differences.

Subtractive color mixing image from 99designs.com

What Happens If We Use RGB For Prints Instead of CYMK?

If you wind up using RGB instead of CYMK for prints, you will end up with a color that is different from what you thought you used. For example, if you have this wonderful bright green on your website, but then get a flyer printed, it would come out a darker green, different from that original bright green you thought you had.

Understanding The Color Wheel

The color wheel is what you used in elementary school to understand colors. In the color wheel, you have primary, secondary, and tertiary colors. The primary colors are red, yellow, and blue. When you mix these colors, you get your secondary colors. The secondary colors are orange, green, and violet. Once you mix your secondary colors with your primary colors, you get the tertiary colors. The tertiary colors consist of red-orange, orange-yellow, yellow-green, green-blue, blue-violet, and violet-red.

Color wheel image from bluekeyinteractive.com

When looking at the color wheel, you can divide the colors into two categories, warm colors, and cool colors. From here, it’s easier to understand color theory and how it works.

So How Does Color Theory Work?

There are five basic color combinations you can use. Analogous, complementary, monochromatic, split complementary, and triadic. You’re most familiar with complementary color combinations. Red and green is the most popular complementary color combination.

How Do We Create Color Combinations On the Color Wheel?

Analogous – use three colors that are next to each other. For example, yellow, green, and blue, or violet, red, and orange.

Complimentary – use two colors that are opposite of each other on the color wheel. For example, red and green, or blue and orange.

Monochromatic – use one color, but have different saturation and brightness in your color combination. For example, violet, lavender, and lilac, or navy, cyan, and royal.

Split Complementary – use one color from the color wheel, look at its complementary color, and use the two colors adjacent to its complementary color. For example, using yellow, it’s complementary color is purple. So the split complementary combination would be yellow, pink, and blue. Another example would be orange, purple, and teal.

Triadic – use three colors on the color wheel that are equally spaced apart. For example, orange, pink, and green, or red, yellow, and blue.

What Is Hue, Saturation, and Brightness?

The color wheel is more than just the 12 basic colors that I mentioned before. The color wheel consists of hue, saturation, and brightness.

Hue – pure color

Saturation – pure color with white (also know as tint)

Brightness – pure color with black (also known as shade)

So Why Is Color Theory Important?

Color theory is important because it gives us the basic knowledge that we need in order to succeed. The use of color theory in business will go a long way. The knowledge of color theory will help us decide how we want to represent our company, and help us understand the representation of our competitors.

Do You Need Assistance?

We’re here for you! Contact us to start strategizing the right color combination for your business. We understand that color theory can still be confusing, but we’ll be with you every step of the way.

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