Color Theory : An overview

color theory

What is Color theory?

The color theory is a collection of rules and guidelines used by designers to analyze different colors, and study the effects these colors have on each other and then mix different colors to get the right color combinations and use them effectively to create a design that communicates effectively with its consumer. 

The theory of color was first propounded by Sir Isaac Newton in his book Opticks published in 1704. He made his observations of color after noticing that when a ray of light passes through a glass prism it separates into different colors. He recognized that color is a result of different wavelengths of light. This discovery and consequent studies by eminent men have led to different guidelines that help us to present color in a visually pleasing and effective way.

Importance of colors & color theory

The color theory is particularly important for designers. They study the color wheel thoroughly and decide on the best color combinations after analyzing the colors. There are many reasons for this.

Colors can communicate non verbally – without saying a word it can tell you a lot. For eg. Blue color is used by a lot of brands to communicate reliability. When Green color is used in marketing it nonverbally communicates a brand’s commitment to sustainability. When you wear a red dress you know that you will get attention – you are asking for it. 

Colors can affect our moods. The colors are known to invoke certain feelings in the onlooker. For example, the color red invokes danger or passion or excitement, or energy. The color green on the other hand brings a sense of calmness and peace. The colors are said to affect us psychologically as we all have our preferences for colors. Certain colors appeal to us whereas certain colors affect us negatively – this is usually very individual and may be influenced by past experiences or associations. For eg. when I see my turquoise coffee cup I feel happy and uplifted because I associate it with my beachside holiday from where I bought it. 

Colors also play a significant role in our social and cultural lives. There are variations in the way the same color is perceived between different countries and cultures. The color black is the color for mourning in the West whereas, in China and some other Asian countries, white is the color for mourning, but in Thailand and European countries this is purple. For the native American Indian tribes black was the color of victory and success whereas in India black is largely considered the color of evil and negativity.

Color is constantly on our minds when we dress. Some colors compliment our skin tones or our personality. We regularly wonder if a particular color will suit us, or the occasion. We instinctively stay away from colors that make us appear dull or disproportionate.

Colors have a large role in branding and marketing. Be it an item of clothing or an item of food, the market tries to capture our attention with the use of colors. From the product to its packing, color plays an important role. 

In designing colors can create divisions, hierarchies, structure – colors can make some parts more prominent than the others, it can divert attention, it can project confidence in the design, change the previous perceptions. 

So it makes sense to study the visual effect of color and how to achieve the best color combination for your design be it fashion, website design or product design and that is precisely what color theory does. Color theory studies the effect of colors and how to get the right color with different color combinations based on the color wheel.

Color wheel

colortheory and color wheel
Color wheel

The color wheel is a visual representation of what color theory proposes. In the color wheel colors are arranged in a circle in a particular sequence. A conventional color wheel has 12 colors.

12 colors of a color wheel

The color wheel helps to learn about the different colors and their relationships with each other. 

The color wheel is a representation of colors according to their wavelength and helps us to understand the relationship between colors. 

2 color theories and the 2 types of color wheels

The color wheel was invented by Sir Isaac Newton in the late 17th century. After this many variations of this basic color wheel have come out. According to the 2 main types of color wheel, you can say that there are 2 color theories – the traditional color theory and the modern color theory. 

The color theory expounds the relationship between the primary, secondary, and tertiary colors. These are described through the Itten wheel proposed by the Swiss artist Johannes Itten.

But you have to know that the primary colors can be different depending on the medium used. Primary colors are the most basic colors of a color wheel – Red, blue and yellow. For printing the primary colors are cyan, magenta, and yellow.

For mixing colors for painting the red blue and yellow color wheel is used.

Red Yellow Blue color wheel

RYB color wheel (Red-Yellow-Blue) – This is the traditional color wheel according to which colors red yellow and blue are the most important colors.

This is the color wheel mostly used by painters and other artists to learn about color harmony and relationship.

color theory
Red Green Blue color wheel

RGB color wheel (Red Green Blue) – This is the modern color wheel used by computer users. The primary colors of an RGB color wheel are Red, Green, and Blue.

The primary colors are 3 colors which cannot be reproduced by mixing other colors. They can be mixed in different combinations to get all the other colors of the color wheel.

When these primary colors are mixed with other colors in the color wheel you get secondary colors and tertiary colors. Secondary colors are orange, green, and Violet.

Red + Yellow – Orange
Yellow + Blue – Green
Red + Blue – Violet

When you mix a secondary color and a primary color you get the tertiary color. 

Yellow + Orange – Yellow-Orange
Orange + Red – Red-Orange

Red + Violet – Red-violet
Violet + Blue – Blue-Violet

Blue + Green – Blue-Green
Green + Yellow – Yellow-Green

Then there are complementary colors split complementary colors, analogous colors, triadic colors, etc. These are all color schemes that you can use in your projects according to your preference and the message you want to communicate. You can learn more about the categories of different colors here. You can find some of the Colour combination for clothes.

How are colors used based on color theory?

You have many choices when using colors –

1. Using the color in its full intensity or

2. Mixing it with other colors to make different colors, or

3. Mixing with white or black or grey.

Color properties according to the color theory

Some very important aspects that you have to note about using colors properly are to ensure proper use of intensity/ saturation of each hue and mixes, and maintaining the values correctly.

Value is referred as the lightness or darkness of a color. When white or black is added to a color its value increases /decreases, creating lighter or darker versions of the same color. When you add grey to a color you change the tone of the color.

Then there are brighter and darker versions of a color. This is referred to as the intensity of a color. This is the same as the term saturation – used by designers of online visuals.

When using more than one color in a design checking the saturation level of different hues is very important – you have to ensure that the saturation level of the hues is coordinated.  Similar saturation levels are preferred for a harmonious and cohesive design. When you want to give a part of a design some prominence you will have to increase the saturation level of the hue used in that part to make it stand out. The same effect can be achieved if you use colors that contrast with each other ie which has different values ( lightness or darkness)

Since the color theory was first thought of, there has been an influx of many different colors – not that they didnot exist before – but they have come to our notice and we love them and use them extensively in our projects. Some of them have very peculiar names like Livid Blue, Folly and Coquelicot. You can find most of the famous color names in this post

More details about color theory in the website here.

Updated on November 13, 2022 by Sarina Tariq


Hi, I love sewing, fabric, fashion, embroidery, doing easy DIY projects and then writing about them. Hope you have fun learning from sewguide as much as I do. If you find any mistakes here, please point it out in the comments.

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