Color is a key component of any design and there is a lot to consider when choosing colors for your design. Why certain colors work well together while other may seem off is the basis of color theory. Color theory has been around for a long time and the basics haven't changed all that much. Sir Isaac Newton, yes that Sir Isaac Newton, developed the first color wheel in 1704. Today's color wheel's are still laid out the same way with the same colors leading into each other. To understand why, and why physicists have been spending time thinking about colors for centuries we need to talk about waves. 

Newton's Color Wheel

Modern Color Wheel

What is Color?

Fundamentally color is the reflection of electromagnetic light waves off a medium (object). In simpler terms, color is what our eyes perceive as light from the sun. The sun emits a full spectrum of different wavelengths and only a small band of them our eyes can see. 

These wave lengths also explain why rainbows and prisms are organized in ROYGBIV with the longer wavelengths of red

at the top and the higher frequency wavelengths of violet at the bottom. Another key aspect of light is that "white" light has all the colors in it. When you are seeing a object as a certain color you are seeing the refection of the wavelength that was not absorbed. This is why objects that are black retain more heat and get hotter than other objects of a different color. They absorbed all the color waves and light is basically heat from the sun. The varying wavelengths of the different colors also explain why sunsets are red. When the sun is lower on the horizon the light has to pass through more of the earths atmosphere to get to your eyes. During that journey the higher frequency colors have a greater chance to bump into a molecule in the atmosphere and get absorbed. While the lower frequency red light sneaks by everything and gets to your eyes as a pretty sunset. 

The Theory of Color Theory

There are a multitude of ways to group colors together that can work well in a design. Maybe you want to use a warm color or cool color in your design. Maybe you want the design to be all one color but in a different tint or shade. Understanding color theory relationships will allow you to mix and blend colors to develop a color palette and determine why to use certain colors.

Words to Know:

Warm colors: Red, orange, and yellow colors

Cool colors: Green, blue, and violet colors

Neutral colors: Gray and brown colors

Hue: The main color of a color's value

Tint: A hue with white added to it

Tone: A hue with grey added to it

Shade: A hue with black added to it

Saturation: How vivid a color appears

Desaturation: A colors absence of saturation or a color that is dull

Luminance: The brightness of a color due to its saturation

Contrast: How varied two color's luminance are

Primary Colors

The three colors red, yellow, blue

Secondary Colors

The three colors you get when mixing primary colors together, orange, green, purple


Three colors that are equidistant from each other on the color wheel


Three hues that are adjacent to each other


A lighter and darker color of the same hue. 


Two colors on opposite sides of the color wheel that will have a lot of contrast


One main color with two analogous colors with the complement between them

Color Systems

So far we have only been talking about color theory in terms of the color wheel and how we see color. In an art class when you are mixing paints you can achieve all the colors you want by mixing the primary colors and adding white and black, therefore its referred to as RYB or the painting color system.

The screen you are looking at right now though has pixels to produce its colors and the three primary colors used for digital production is red, green, and blue so its referred to as RGB. To explain what color you are looking to attain in the digital medium hex codes (#RRGGBB) are used to covey what color you want. They use letters and numbers to make up a six character color code. 

CMYK is the color system used in printers and physical color production. Is is know as process color and is made up of four hues: cyan, magenta, yellow and black (key). There is also the Pantone Matching system, PMS, where thousands of colors are given a unique code to help standardize the production of colors.