Decorative element showing Pantone color swatches.

Fundamentals of color: What is color theory?

october 6, 2023

Color is an essential part of life. It can draw your attention or create a specific feeling. Color can communicate clearly without using words and can influence emotions in both subtle and profound ways. You can use color to communicate more effectively or just to make your designs look better.

For many years, artists and designers have been using color theory to create designs which use color with purpose. Color theory encompasses the art and science of using color and helps us understand how we perceive and react to color. So why should you care about the fundamentals of color theory as an entrepreneur? Understanding more about these elements will provide you with knowledge to use color to define your brand and to evoke the feelings and reactions you want.

Along with varying visual impact, different colors also cause different emotional reactions:

RedTypically associated with power, passion, or energy, red can help encourage action. Red draws attention like no other color.
OrangeEvokes feelings of joy and enthusiasm, making it a good choice for positive messaging. Optimistic and uplifting, orange encourages social communication and creativity.
YellowThe color of the sun, yellow is cheerful and energetic. Sparking happiness and intellect, it brings feelings of fun and joy.
GreenOften connected to growth or ambition, green can help give the sense that your brand is on the rise but also represent harmony and health. Green balances emotions and brings hope.
BlueNo matter the shade, blue evokes tranquility and confidence. Lighter shades provide a sense of peace, while darker blues are more confident. Blue is an honest, reliable, and responsible color.
PurpleEvoking luxury or creativity, especially when used deliberately. Purple encourages spiritual growth and often represents mystery and magic.
BlackExuding authority, power, and mystery, black can make us feel secure and protected. It also evokes elegance and sexiness. Using black can help create necessary negative space.
WhiteBringing a feeling of safety and innocence, white is a great choice to help streamline your visuals. It's associated with cleanliness, simplicity, and perfection; it promotes self-reflection and open-mindedness.

Each color can be modified to achieve different effects by altering its fundamental elements: value, temperature, saturation, and color harmony.


Color value is the amount of lightness (white) or darkness (black) in a color. In other words, whether the color is closer to white or black in the spectrum of light. Sometimes, the use of a single color with different values can create a controlled and attractive color palette for a homogeneous and refined look.

Image showing a color palette created by using different values of the color yellow.Credit: Hotel Chevaliar


Color temperature is the warmth or coolness of a color or a combination of tones. Warm colors are generally red, orange, or yellow and they're associated with energy, brightness, and action. Cool colors include blue, green, or purple and they're often identified with calm, peace, and serenity. When you recognize that color has a temperature, you can understand how choosing all warm or all cool colors in a logo or on your design can impact your message.

Image showing how the same scene can appear quite different when using a cool or warm color palette.Credit: Stokfella


Saturation refers to the intensity of a color. There are different terms used to describe saturation. Sometimes designers describe a color as being dull or pale. These designers are referring to color that has a decreased saturation. On the other side, you'll hear some colors described as bold or vibrant and this refers to more saturated colors. Altering color saturation can influence the personality of your design.

Image showing the difference in an image when using different amounts of saturation.Credit: Unsplash

Color harmony

Selecting harmonious color combinations begins with understanding how we see colors and considering the relationships of one color to another. A good way to see color relationships is to look at the color wheel. The color wheel can help you find harmonious color combinations by looking at their relative positions on the color wheel. As you probably remember from early school years, the primary colors are blue, red, and yellow. The secondary colors are orange, green and purple and they're created by combining two primary colors. Mixing red and yellow creates orange, mixing yellow and blue creates green, and mixing blue and red creates purple. By continuing to combine each color with its partner on the wheel, we get a few more tonalities resulting in the basic color wheel.

Image of a basic color wheel with 12 colors.

Monochromatic colors

So, how do we combine these colors in a way that looks pleasing? There are a few techniques based on color harmony using the color wheel as a base. The most basic one is monochromatic. This creates a color palette by using only one color and adjusting its color values.

Example of a monochromatic color palette.Credit: Makc

Analogous colors

Analogous colors are three colors next to each other on the color wheel, composed of one dominant color (usually a primary or secondary color), then a supporting color (a secondary or tertiary color), and a third color that is either a mix of the two first colors, or an accent color that pops.

Example of a color palette created by using analogous colors on the color wheel.Credit: Sodavekt

Complementary colors

A complementary color scheme is created by using two colors opposite each other on the color wheel. This type of palette attracts the most attention because of its bold contrast, but that also makes it the most difficult to find a harmonious balance. One way to achieve good balance when using complementary colors is to identify two opposite colors (as shown in the image below) and then create the rest of your palette by creating slightly darker or lighter versions of those same colors.

Example of a color palette created by using complementary colors on the color wheel.Credit: Nolbert

Split complementary colors

A split complementary scheme involves the use of three colors. Start with one color, find its complementary color, and then use the two colors on either side of the complementary color along with the original color. For example, the complement of blue-green is red-orange and the split complement of blue-green would be red and orange.

Example of a color palette created by using split complementary colors on the color wheel.Credit: Michele Bruttornesso

Triadic colors

A triadic color scheme uses three colors, equally spaced around the color wheel. Compared to complementary color schemes, triadic color combinations tend to be easier on the eye. This works well if you want more than one hue to play with, but don't want quite as bold a contrast as a complementary pair would have.

Example of a color palette created by using three triadic colors on the color wheel.Credit: Mr. Kyle Mac

Tetradic colors

A tetradic color palette has a base color and three more colors, all equidistant from the base color on the color wheel. Like any complementary scheme with a wide range of colors, the result is a vibrant palette rich with contrast. Keep in mind though that while you are picking four colors, you should consider not using them in equal parts in your illustration. Consider using one or two colors as accents and using the rest to fill the page.

Example of a color palette created by using four tetradic colors on the color wheel.Credit: Irina Kruglova

It can be intimidating to use color in your work, but it doesn't have to be. Just keep exploring and experimenting. Soon, choosing great-looking colors will feel like second nature and you'll be more effective in communicating the right mood and personality for your projects.

For color palette inspiration, take a look at four color palettes our design team put together featuring the Pantone color of the year 2022.

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