Color Theory Basics

Our perception of color is linked with feelings and emotional states. We can’t help but be influenced by color, even if it is in the background of our thoughts and awareness. From marketing to interior design, fashion, architecture and nature, color makes an impact. The following are some of the basics of color theory:

The Primary Colors

The primary colors are red, yellow and blue. These three colors, along with black and white, can create any other color. (Color theory differs when referring to light, where cyan, yellow and magenta are primary; however, both sets have similarities.)

Secondary ColorsColor Theory Diagram

The next level of basic colors formed from the three primary hues are called the secondary colors – orange, green and purple. They are created as follows:

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

Tertiary Colors

Tertiary colors refer to “two-name” colors that are variations of the secondary colors. Some examples of tertiary colors include red-orange, yellow-green, and red-purple. For tertiary colors, more of one primary color is used in the blend instead of equal amounts. The result is a color that is closer to the primary shade, yet still a variation.

Pure Colors vs. Shades, Tints and Tones

If black and white are kept out of the mix, then the above color blends are considered saturated or “pure” colors. The effect is bright, intense and attention-getting. Pure colors are often used in kids’ rooms or in toy design, tropical interior design, and bright summer fashions.


A “shade” is created by adding black to a pure color. This addition dims the brightness of a pure color and subdues it visually. Depending upon the amount of black added, the result can be a slightly darker tone to a moody effect to nearly black.


Tints feature white added to pure colors. The effect can range from just slightly lighter to a pastel shade to extremely pale, depending upon the amount of white added.


Still another color variation from saturated color involves the addition of both black and white – also known as gray. When gray is added to a pure color, the result is a tone. Varying levels of black and white added to a color can create a variety of visual effects. Overall, the intensity level is dropped and the color is automatically subdued. This can be ideal if a more relaxing effect is desired.

Cool and Warm Colors

Colors can also be described and organized in terms of their warmth and coolness. Generally, most forms of red, orange and yellow are considered warm, while blue, green and purple colors tend to be cool. However, the addition of more of a warm or cool tone to any of these colors can tip the balance toward one or the other. The addition of black, white or gray can also have a cooling, subduing or lightening effect.

The use of cool colors in marketing, interior décor and fashion design can create a calming, soothing effect on viewers. The addition of black or gray can further subdue the tone.

Warm colors are cheerful, energizing and uplifting. The less black and white is added to warm colors, the more bold and intense the effect will be.

Complementary Colors

Complementary colors refer to tones on opposite sides of the color wheel from one another. The basic complementary colors are as follows:

  • Red and green
  • Orange and blue
  • Yellow and purple

Using complementary colors can have a jarring, clashing effect in some cases. However, used purposefully, they can cause an extremely compelling contrast and visual vibration. For example, a red flower painted strategically in a landscape painting of a rolling green field can provide the ideal focal point. Yellow flowers printed on a purple dress can make for a stunning, cheerful summer outfit.

So now you have the basics of color theory. We’ll leave you with one more interesting color fact: when people all around the world are asked for their favorite color, the majority of them say “blue.”

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