Color Theory

This discussion of color theory is intended to give a brief overview of colors and their relationship with one another without getting to complex. Included are some commonly used terms to describe color dimension.

Paint Color Wheel
primary, secondary, and tertiary colorsThe most basic painters color wheel consists of three primary, three secondary, and six tertiary colors. This comprises twelve color gradations.

Primary Colors
The primary colors are Red, Yellow, and Blue. They are evenly spaced at 120 degree intervals around the paint color wheel.

Principles of color theory suggest that all other colors can be produced by mixing different combinations of these three colors. When a certain amount of the three primary colors are mixed together, the result is a deep blackish brown color.

Secondary Colors
The secondary colors are the ones seen on the paint color wheel between the primary colors. These three colors are made from mixing the proper proportions of any two primary colors.
Red + Yellow = Orange
Yellow + Blue = Green
Blue + Red = Violet

Tertiary Colors

The tertiary colors are the ones, seen on the paint color wheel, between the primary colors and their adjacent secondary colors. These six colors are made from mixing the proper proportions of any primary color with an adjacent secondary color.
continuous color spectrum

Red + Orange = Red-Orange
Yellow + Orange = Yellow-Orange
Yellow + Green = Yellow-Green
Blue + Green = Blue-Green
Blue + Violet = Blue-Violet
Red + Violet = Red-Violet

A more accurate paint color wheel contains the entire spectrum of colors. The primary, secondary, and tertiary colors are part of a continuous band with an infinite amount of hues.

Complementary Colors
A complementary color is found directly across the color wheel from its base color. In other words they are opposite colors spaced 180 degrees apart. They are also the colors with the greatest contrast from each other. For example if you choose blue as a base color, its complementary color is orange. Color theory proposes that complementary colors contrast well with one another. A complementary color can be a basis for an accent color.

Did you notice that primary colors always have secondary colors as their complementary color? Mixing the proper proportions of complementary colors produces a neutral gray color.

Split Complimentary Colors
Split complimentary colors are the adjacent colors to the complimentary color. They are located 150 degrees and 210 degrees from their base color. For example if you choose blue as a base color its split complimentary colors are Red-Orange and Yellow-Orange. Split complimentary colors soften the visual contrast found in complimentary colors and offer more nuances.

Hue is a term used to differentiate between one color and another. A hue is any point in the color spectrum or rainbow. A basic concept of color theory suggests that all hues can be mixed from the three primary colors.

Color Value
Value is a measure of how light or dark a hue is. A light color has a high value and a dark color has a low value. You can keep the hue a constant but change its value. Higher values are formed by adding white to a color while lower values result from adding black. Take the color blue. If this hue has a high value it is light blue. If the value is low it is a dark blue.

Saturation (Chroma)
Saturation (chroma) is a term used to describe the relative strength or intensity of a hue. It measures the range between a color’s purity and a neutral gray. The level of intensity is determined by how much or how little gray is added to the color.

Pure colors are saturated while muted colors as they approach gray are de-saturated. The level of saturation is the only variable on a chroma scale. The colors value remains constant.

hue, tint, tone, shadeTinting – mixing a saturated (pure) color with white to lighten the value
Toning – mixing a saturated color (pure) with some value of gray to reduce the intensity.
Shading – mixing a saturated color (pure) with black to darken the value

Color Temperature
Color temperature is a quality of color that we associate with our environment. It is a more subjective dimension of color. Red, Orange, and yellow are typically regarded as warm colors. Conversely green, blue, and purple are considered cool colors. The tertiary colors, Red-Orange and Blue-Green may be the warmest and coolest colors respectively. Most house paints are not pure spectral colors so it takes a good eye to determine color temperature.

As a sidebar, blue is actually a hotter color than red. A blue flame of fire is hotter than a red or yellow flame and a blue star is hotter than a red one.

Color Combinations
Color combinations can be created based upon variations of the different color dimensions as outlined in color theory. Here are a few color combination concepts to consider.

  • Complementary colors
  • A low value and a higher value within the same hue
  • A de-saturated color with a saturated color within the same hue
  • A low value and low saturation with a higher value and a higher saturation within the same hue
  • A low value and a higher saturation with a higher value and a lower saturation within the same hue

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