Basic Colour Theory

Understanding a little about colour theory can help you to decide which colours to choose for art or craft projects. The success of a project, whether it be woven cloth or a watercolour painting, can be determined by choosing the best colour relationships.

Primary Colours

The primary colours red, yellow and blue are the only colours that cannot be made by mixing together other colours. They can be mixed in different combinations to create other colours in the spectrum.

Primary Colours on the colour wheel

Secondary Colours

Secondary colours are made by mixing any two of the primary colours in equal quantities:

red + yellow = orange
yellow + blue = green
blue + red = violet

There are now 6 colours on the colour wheel which include the 3 primary colours and the 3 secondary colours.

Secondary colours

Tertiary Colours

By combining the neighbour of any of the primary or secondary colours in equal quantities, we can add a further six colours to the colour wheel. These are called tertiary colours.

yellow + orange = yellow-orange
orange + red = red-orange
red + violet = red-violet
violet + blue = blue-violet
blue + green = blue-green
green + yellow = yellow-green

Colour theory - tertiary colours

Tints, Tones and Shades

What are huesFurther hues of a colour can be created by adding black, grey or white.  In colour theory, black and white are not considered to be colours. Colours are created by the reflection and emission of light and defined by how the eye and brain interpret them. Black means there is no light and white is pure light.

Adding black to a colour will produce a shade of the original colour, making it darker. White will lighten a colour and create a tint. Tones are made by mixing colours with grey (black & white).

NOTE: Painters can mix white to dilute the colour to get to a pastel shade. For dyers white is substituted by using clear water to dilute the colour.

Another way to darken a colour is to add some of its complementary colour (see next paragraph).

Shades, Tints & Tones

Choosing Colours for Design – Colour Relationships

Colour theory can also help you to decide which colours to use in design. The colour relationships below will help with choosing combinations that are pleasing to the eye.

Complementary colours are pairs of colours that contrast with each other more than any other colour, and make each other appear brighter when placed next to each other. These complementary colours appear opposite each other on the colour wheel i.e. blue and orange.

Each of the pairs of complementary colours contain one cool colour and one warm colour. When placed side by side, the warm colours of oranges, reds, and yellows create a simultaneous contrast with the cool colours of blues, greens, and purples.

Complementary Colours

Other colour relationships include monochromatic, which is shades and tints of the same colour, and analogous which are colours located next to each other on the colour wheel. The Pocket Colour Wheel is a useful tool for finding other harmonious colour relationships.

Colour theory is a complex subject and barely covered in this post. We recommend Shirley Williams’ website Color Wheel Artist and Janet L Ford Shallbetter’s website for further information on this fascinating subject.

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