Color theory, terms, and effective color combinations

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Understanding color theory also means understanding the different terms and combinations used to make up color theory. In this article, you will find a quick summary and enlightening images to help you forwards in your endeavor to understand color and color theory to the next level. Let me run you through the different terms and show you what they're all about!

Hi! My name is Tessa, I’m a Dutch artist, art director, and creative project manager. I love to share my passion for this craft, nature, art and fantasy, and do that by creating this archive and community, alongside my company Tez Art & Design.

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Color theory, terms, and combinations

When learning color theory, one of the most important things to understand is the different terms. These terms describe a specific color combination or a specific feature of a single color or set of colors. All these terms can make it hard to understand what it’s all about. Some words are used interchangeably, while others may have more than one meaning depending on the context. Not to mention that you probably were not aware of many of these terms before you landed here. It’s a little grind to learn all these words, but when you finally have a hang of them, they are greatly beneficial. A big part of art, and especially understanding color theory, is to become aware of what we see and give it a name. With this awareness, you can start using them as tools, and color theory suddenly becomes a playground.

Additive color (RGB)

As you can see, CMYK (regular printing pigments) have a far smaller reach than RGB (the light spectrum used in digital devices).
Image by: Ferlixwangg, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The natural color profile of light is also used in digital displays we use to this day. The RGB color profile allows for a larger color range than the CMYK (printer or subtractive) color profile. Because of this, it’s best to use the RGB color profile by default. So always set your color profile on RGB when you draw digitally. You can always convert to CMYK which will convert the colors to a printable version. But the other way around won’t add vibrancy to your work.

RGB is called an additive color profile because when you combine the 3 colors that are the basis of RGB, which are Red Green, and Blue, you end up with the color white.

Subtractive color (CMYK)

Subtractive or CMYK colors are colors created by pigments. They have a smaller color range than that of light. When you add the colors together, which are Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow, you end up with the color black. This is why CMYK is called a subtractive color profile.

Primary color

Primary colors are, just like any of the following color profiles based on the colors Red, Yellow, and Blue. These three colors can when combined create any color in the color wheel. It’s common practice to add green as a primary color too, but as green is the result of yellow and blue combined, it is actually a secondary color. Primary colors are colors you could consider as ‘pure’ or ‘source colors’.

Secondary color

Secondary colors are colors that occur when you mix two primary colors equally. These are:

  • Red + blue = Purple
  • Blue + yellow = Green
  • Yellow + red = orange

Tertiary color

Tertiary colors happen when you mix a primary color with a secondary color, these are:

  • Red + purple = Magenta/fuchia
  • Blue + purple = Indigo
  • Blue + green = Turquoise
  • Green + yellow = Lime green
  • Yellow + orange = Apricot/sepia
  • Orange + red = Redorange/rust


The hue is the kind of color that’s not desaturated by whites (tints or pastels) and not by grays (tones) or blacks (shades). In this color wheel the hue is the 3rd color from the outside.
Image by: Tessa Geniets

Hue is a different word for color. It represents all the fully saturated colors of the color wheel. These can be primary, secondary, tertiary, and anything in-between. When you want to change colors in a digital program you want to look for hue or color balance to shift them out. They will only affect the actual pigment of the color you’re playing around with.

Tint or pastels

Tint is the hue + white. These are also known as pastel colors. These colors can be your local color (the basic color of an object) or a color that is illuminated. You will not find tints or pastel colors in shaded areas, they are tones and shades instead. Only materials, light sources, or illuminated objects will display tints.


Tone is tint + gray. Tones are usually desaturated versions or slightly darker versions of your local color. You will find them in areas that are in shadow, but not really in darkness, and/or objects that naturally have grays in them.


Shade is hue + black, these colors are very dark and can usually only be found in areas that have little to no light reaching in, or in materials that are very dark themselves. Adding black to color doesn’t always make black, it makes dark to a degree that can be controlled. These shades can in fact feel really colorful and saturated when paired with even darker colors, or really desaturated ones.


Contrast when it comes to color can refer to two things: Light and darkness (tint, tone, shade, and hue) or how two colors contrast with each other. This contrast is very low if you use analogous colors (colors that are close to each other on the color wheel) or very high light with complementary colors (colors that are the opposites of each other).


Saturation is a broad description of color intensity. Hue would describe a high saturation, while any other type (tint, tone, and shade) describes a lower saturation. The more white, gray, or black added, the lower the saturation.

Image by: Tessa Geniets

Complementary colors

Complementary colors are two colors on the opposite sides of the color wheel. They are colors that create a big contrast and attract attention. They should be a conscious choice when you put them next to each other because they will determine how your audience will feel about your artwork and most likely create a focal point.

Analogous colors

Analogous colors are three colors that are next to each other on the color wheel. Combined they can create really interesting but subtle color shifts that go naturally together. Often times the warmer colors of the trio can be used in the illuminated areas of the artwork, whilst the colder colors can be used in the shaded parts.

Monochromatic colors

Monochromatic colors are in fact one color combined with either white, grays, or black. They come in a trio that starts with saturated color and then gets desaturated with whites, grays, or blacks. When you just start out, this is what you probably use when you want to shade and brighten up the artwork, and as you can see, compared to other color combinations, this is a very limited one. It can be really useful, and it’s good to be aware of it, but this isn’t really a go-to if you want to make really interesting and/or realistic artworks.

Triadic colors

Triadic colors are colors that are in a triangle opposite to each other, adding three relative opposites to your color palette. This combination attracts attention as well but is a bit more friendly to the eye compared to complementary colors. Just like any color, but especially opposites like these, you should tread carefully and well thought through to use these colors in your artwork. Sometimes desaturating the colors, or letting one of them dominate the artwork can be a really neat solution.

Tetradic colors

Tetradic colors are the next step after triadic colors. These are the colors you would get if you put a square inside your color wheel and use the colors at the four edges of this square in your color wheel. This square could also be turned into a rectangle. This color combination tends to be ‘in your face’ because it uses every spectrum of color there is. These pieces are usually very colorful and should be intentionally so. If your artwork sports these colors but they shouldn’t be screaming at you, you could decide to add whites, grays, or blacks to subdue them.


Brightness is the relative lightness or darkness of a particular color. Black is no brightness at all, white is very bright. Black and white originate from a specific color hue, which could be anything and would be the most saturated part of the brightness scale. Brightness is not a color combination, it just refers to a specific brightness range of a specific color. See the image at the chapter saturation above.


Luminance is a tricky one, it describes the relative brightness of an object compared to that of another one. A 50% gray surface may look really light next to black, but really dark next to white. A gray-ish red may look very bright red or even shift colors when next to gray, or a subdued blue for example. So luminance isn’t exactly a thing you have or don’t have, it’s relative and the same object can do different things when combined with other objects.

More reads

This is not the only article available about color theory. Have a stroll through the archive to enhance your knowledge even further!

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