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Color Theory - Color Wheel

Color TheoryColor Theory is a set of principles used to create harmonious color combinations. It analyzes only the relationships of pure colors; it does not take color lightness and saturation into account. While your color scheme can use any tints, shades and tones, color theory pays attention only to the hue component. Color relationships can be visually represented with a color wheel - the color spectrum wrapped into a circle. This is a visual representation of color theory.

According to color theory, harmonious color combinations use any two colors opposite each other on the color wheel, any three colors equally spaced around the color wheel forming a triangle, or any four colors forming a rectangle (actually two pairs of colors opposite each other). The harmonious color combinations are called color schemes that remain harmonious regardless of the rotation angle.

Classic Color Schemes Supported by the Color Wheel

  • Monochromatic - The Monochromatic color scheme uses variations in lightness and saturation of a single color. This scheme looks clean and elegant. Monochromatic colors go well together, producing a soothing effect.
  • Analogous - The analogous color scheme uses colors that are adjacent to each other on the color wheel. One color is used as a dominant color while others are used to enrich the scheme.
  • Complementary - The complementary color scheme consists of two colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel. This scheme looks best when you place a warm color against a cool color for high contrast.
  • Triadic - The triadic color scheme uses three colors equally spaced around the color wheel. This scheme is popular among artists because it offers strong visual contrast while retaining harmony and color richness. It is not as contrasting as the complementary scheme, but it looks more balanced and harmonious.

History of Color Theory

Sir Isaac Newton invented the first color wheel. He split white sunlight into red, orange, yellow, green, cyan and blue beams; then he joined the two ends of the color spectrum together to show the natural progression of colors. Newton associated each color with a note of the musical scale.

A century after Newton, Johann Wolfgang Goethe began studying the psychological effect of colors. He noticed that blue gives a feeling of coolness and yellow has a warming effect. He created a color wheel showing the psychological effect of each color. He divided all the colors into two groups - the plus side (from red through orange to yellow) and the minus side (from green through violet to blue). Colors of the plus side produce excitement and cheerfulness. Colors of the minus side are associated with weakness and unsettled feelings.

  • RED is the color of fire and blood, so it is associated with energy, war, danger, strength, power, determination as well as passion, desire and love.
  • ORANGE combines the energy of red and the happiness of yellow. It is associated with joy, sunshine and the tropics. It represents enthusiasm, happiness, creativity, attraction, success, encouragement and stimulation.
  • YELLOW is the color of sunshine and is associated with joy, happiness, intellect and energy. It produces a warming effect, arouses cheerfulness, stimulates mental activity and generates muscle energy.
  • GREEN is the color of nature and symbolizes harmony, freshness and fertility. It has great healing power and a correspondence with safety.
  • BLUE is the color of the sky and sea and is often associated with depth and stability. It symbolizes trust, loyalty, wisdom, confidence, intelligence, faith, truth and heaven. It is considered beneficial to the mind and body and slows metabolism to produce a calming effect.
  • PURPLE combines the stability of blue with the energy of red. Purple is associated with royalty and symbolizes power, nobility, luxury and ambition. It is associated with wisdom, dignity, independence, creativity, mystery and magic.
  • WHITE is associated with light, goodness, and innocence. It is considered to be the color of perfection, and means safety, purity and cleanliness.
  • BLACK is associated with power, elegance, and mystery. It denotes strength and authority and can be considered formal.

Saturation of color tells us how a color looks under certain lighting conditions. For instance, a room painted will appear different at night than in the daylight. Value refers to the property of color, which tells us how light, or dark a color is based on how close it is to white. An important thing to remember about color is that if white is added to a color the lighter version is called a tint; if the color is made darker by adding black it is called a shade and if gray is added each gradation gives you a tone.