What is Color Theory?

What is Color Theory?

Even if you’re new to design, you’re probably already aware of how important color theory is. How a brand’s colors react to the world around them influences how clients see brands, and how they remember them. 

Of course, just because its importance is obvious doesn’t mean that understanding color theory is easy; it has its own complexities that can make it difficult to understand. The standard human eye can perceive millions of different colors, so there’s not much of a limit to how vast color really is.

The Basics

Here’s a few tips to help you understand where color theory stems from: 

Primary Colors are red, yellow, and blue. They’re the three main colors of the spectrum, and where all other colors come from. If you need to create a color but aren’t sure where to start, start with a combination of these guys.

Next are Secondary Colors. Orange, purple, and green make up this set, and they all come from the primary colors. It’s simple, two primary colors make up one secondary color: 

red + yellow = orange, yellow + blue = green, and red + blue = purple

These primary and secondary colors are all fixated on what we call a color wheel, which is essentially a visual representation of how colors are “ordered.” (In a sense, it is a circle after all.) 

The wheel is what helps artists and designers pair colors together. For example, need two colors that’ll stand out against each other? Colors that sit diagonally across from each other on the wheel are known as complementary colors. When used correctly, they’re great for drawing the eye.  

The wheel also features cool and warm colors, another category of colors that artists and designers rely heavily on when choosing color palettes. 

Cool colors generally range between blue and green, with some variations of purple. On the other hand, warm colors include variations of red, yellow, and orange.  Combinations of warm colors create more warm colors, just as combinations of cool colors create more cool colors. Visually, warm colors “feel” warm. The same applies to cool colors, because of the emotional connection that they carry.

Colors Carry Emotions

This is one of the biggest reasons that color theory is important: colors carry emotions. As I mentioned above, viewing a warmer cooler generally conveys happier, more light-hearted emotions, rather than cool colors, that usually portray calmer feelings (or in some instances, sobering). 

The emotional attachment that we place on colors often affects our own emotions (whether we know it or not). Color plays a big part in how we feel. 

Perhaps the best example of this is attached to one of the most recognizable brands in the world. McDonald’s uses red in its branding because red is actually a stimulator for hunger, while yellow conveys friendliness and happiness. Combining these bright colors creates a logo that is both easy to see and remember, and portrays exactly what the company it represents is: fast food in a welcoming environment.

It’s why so many other food chains often chose to use red as well. There’s a reason there’s a sea of red fast food brands. Companies go with what works.

Art and Design

Companies aren’t the only ones. Again, artists and designers utilize color theory in their work to create successful pieces. Color theory can make or break a piece.

Take Vincent van Gogh. Even if you’re not familiar with art, you’re likely to know his name. He’s widely regarded as one of the greatest painters of all time, but why? Van Gogh understood how to convey emotions through his work, and a large part of that was his mastery of color. If you look closely at his pieces, particularly his portraits, they’re created through layers of colors that you might not expect to see. Because he understood how color worked, he was able to create magnificent, colorful illusions that are still popular today.

Color theory is one of the biggest components of any successful piece of art or design. It’s worth taking the time to understand it. Need help deciding what colors your brand should be? Click here to contact us, we’d love to help!


Sources: Smithsonian | RIT_MCSL | Color Wheel Artist | The Spruce | Indy100