The fundamentals of color theory explained

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Art fundamentals of color theory is a treasure of knowledge that will make your artwork pop. But it can also be a pain in the butt. Color theory is among the hardest to grasp fundamentals of all of them. Even when you know the rules, it might be hard to apply them. This doesn't count for everyone though. Color theory to some people comes naturally, which might make it even more frustrating to those that have trouble mastering it.

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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The fundamentals of color theory explained

In this article, we will discuss art fundamentals of color theory as well as give you some tips on how you can improve your feel for color. Because a large part of color theory is actually just trying and testing. The mistake most people make that can’t get a hold of this art fundamental is that they try to stay on the safe side. They draw what they think something should look like, and they don’t tap into colors they might not see in the first place, but will greatly enhance the artwork.
A good example is when color, say red, is illuminated or shaded, like for example on a cloth. Those that are hesitant or unsure about what colors to use other than red will just add whites for the illuminated parts and blacks to the shaded parts. It can still make for nice artwork, but it doesn’t reach its full potential.

So, what are these color fundamentals? And what can you do as an artist to get a better feel for color theory? In this first article we will start you off with the fundamentals, in the next one, we will give you some pointers on how to apply colors effectively.

A quick run-through of different terms

This run-through will make it easier for you to understand the rest of the article, so make sure you read through them or scroll back to them if something is unclear to you, or take a deep dive into color theory terms right here!

  • Additive color: Red, green and blue, or RGB. Additive colors are made up of these three light sources. When added together they create white.
  • Subtractive color: Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black, or CMYK. Cyan, magenta, and yellow combined together will create black, this is a printing color profile.
  • Primary colors: Based on the color wheel, primary colors are: Red, green and blue, derived from the light spectrum (RGB).
  • Secondary colors: Colors that are the result of mixing red green and blue. They are respectively green (yellow and blue) purple (blue and red) and orange (yellow and red).
  • Tertiary colors: Tertiary colors are the colors that show up when you mix a primary and a secondary color. For example: Green and blue make Turquoise while blue and yellow make Lime green.
  • Hue: Pure color.
  • Tint: Hue + white.
  • Tone: Hue + grey.
  • Shade: Hue + black.
  • Contrast: Light and dark (That is in color theory).
  • Saturation: Describes how pure or saturated the color is. The more whites, grays, or black added, the less saturated the color.

The way people feel about color

Color is a very important part of being a human. Color creates emotion, just by our nature, because of our culture, memories, and you name it. Many colors heavily affect the mood of people because of these associations. Green for example is associated with nature, but also with freshness, possibilities, and rebirth. But more on these specifics in this article, and this one that tackles specifically cultures. Each color has its own properties and therefore its own uses in every given situation. It can be greatly beneficial for you to understand what colors bring on which emotions, while also keeping cultures in mind, depending on your target audience. Cause they will lead your audience to feel in a specific way and perceive your art as such.
If you use really contradicting colors, your art might look nice, but it’s very much possible that people will perceive your art in a way it was not intended to. This is the beauty of the art, of course, the goal is usually to keep your art open to interpretation, but it’s also up to you to lead your audience in at least some direction, and color is a great tool for that.

The true importance of color

A fact for you that will translate the importance of color for you: People decide in 90 seconds time or less if they like a product in a store or not. 90% of these people make that decision solely on the colors of the package. It’s not always that maybe they don’t like the color, but it could also be because the colors give the wrong associations. Organic and biological food shouldn’t be packaged in gray for example. And brands that sport just one color with some text are often (but not always) perceived as cheap, which can be a good or a bad thing.

The same counts for your art. Okay, it’s not exactly a product, but the response is just as emotional, and maybe even more important, because your client will use it for their products, or have it hung on their walls. The power of color is insane, so make sure that you master this art fundamental as well as you can!

This is a color wheel.
Image by: Tessa Geniets

Understanding the color wheel

A color wheel is a basic tool for any artist. It quickly helps out to find effective color combinations. These can be complementary colors, analogous colors or triadic colors, or, in fact, anything in-between. These three however are generally accepted as the basics. But there are more! These are monochromatic and tetradic.

In other words, there are many colors to choose from, and even regular color wheels like the ones to the right don’t show all colors. They do however serve well to give you a good overview and help you to pick the right colors!

Complementary colors

Complementary colors can be any set of opposite colors. In this case, it’s orange and turquoise.
Image by: Tessa Geniets

Complementary colors are opposites on the color wheel, like blue and orange, green and red, or yellow and purple. The color wheel will help you pinpoint these colors with ease. Complementary colors are opposites, using them together will create a contrast that attracts attention, think of Christmas: Reds and greens are to this day the most popular color combinations, and that’s for a good reason. Using these colors can be beneficial for your artwork, but you might want to do so with caution. After all, there needs to be a focal point the eye is dragged to. This might be problematic if you use complementary colors all over the place.

Analogous colors can be by any trio placed next to each other on the color wheel.
Image by: Tessa Geniets

Analogous colors

Analogous colors are three colors that are side by side on a color wheel. These colors are harmonious together. You will often find them grouped together into one single item with even colors in your artwork. Red for example may bleed into oranges when exposed to sunlight, while it may bleed into magentas in the shadows. These colors bring calmness to your artwork and could be used as a contrast to different color sets, either to make them pop out or to subdue them.

Triadic colors can be any trio evenly spaced on the color wheel.
Image by: Tessa Geniets

Triadic colors

Triadic colors are 3 colors at the exact opposites of each other if you were to connect them through a triangle. This color combination is usually very bright and dynamic. Each color will create its own degree of attention but won’t scream combined with the other colors as much as complementary colors would.


Just as an important part of color theory, but also much easier to understand and use. Monochromatic colors are saturated colors that are faded with whites or grays/blacks. This is what most artists use when they first start applying colors to their art. There is no wrong in this, sometimes it’s even a better choice, but more often than not, using chromatic colors will make the artwork look less realistic.

Tetradic colors are 4 evenly spaced opposites, Two opposites could be moved a bit further to the left or right to get other interesting combinations. Any 4 colors can be combined like this.
Image by: Tessa Geniets

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 corners 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.
Another approach could be to assign one color as the dominant color and use the others as accents.

Cool colors

The colors that are marked blue are considered to be cool, the orange ones are considered to be warm.
Image by: Tessa Geniets

Cool colors are usually thought of as shadow colors. This isn’t the right way to think about it though because warm colors can also feel cold when they’re put in the right setting with the right contrasts. But overall, cool colors are generally considered to be the following colors: Blue to turquoise all the way to green and lime green.

Warm colors

Warm colors are on the opposite side of the wheel, they go from purple to magenta, red, orange, and yellow. Although these colors are commonly seen in the illuminated parts of an artwork, they can also be perceived as cool colors when used with the right contrasts into shadow areas of the artwork.


Color is a complex subject that requires a mix of knowledge and ‘feel’ to be used effectively and bring your artwork to a new level. It can be hard to master, but once you do it’s a delight to play around with it! So if this subject is hard for you, I advise that you just bite the bullet and play around with it. Doing these exercises will help you out in getting a better understanding of color.

More reads

You can find most articles below throughout this article, but here’s a quick recap plus some other related topics:

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