Color Theory



A primary color is a color that cannot be made from a combination of any other colors. A secondary color is a color created from a combination of two primary colors. Tertiary color is a combination of three colors (primary or secondary).



Printers and artists have different definitions for primary colors. The traditionional primary colors that painters have used are red, yellow, and blue. Modern printing press secondary colors are magenta, yellow, and cyan. These two primary color systems obviously do not agree. Additive and subtractive are the two primary methods for reproducing a range of color.


Additive Color


Additive color synthesis is the creation of color by mixing colors of light. Human vision relies on light sensitive cells in the retina of the eye. There are two basic kinds of sensors. These are rods and cones. Rods are cells which can work at very low intensity, but cannot resolve sharp images or color. Cones are cells that can resolve sharp images and color, but require much higher light levels to work. The combined information from these sensors is sent to the brain and enables us to see.

There are three types of cone. Red cones are sensitive to red light, green cones are sensitive to green light, and blue cones are sensitive to blue light. The perception of color depends on an imbalance between the stimulation level of the different cell types.

Additive color processes, such as television, work by having the capability to generate an image composed of red, green, and blue light. Since the intensity information for each of the three colors is preserved, the image color is preserved as well. The spectral distribution of the image will probably be wrong, but if the degree of intensity for each of the primary colors is correct, the image will appear to be the right color.

The three primaries in light are red, blue, and green, because they correspond to the red, green, and blue cones in the eye. Example 1 shows how the light from red, green and blue flashlights would appear if shone on a dark wall.




Red + Green = Yellow

Red + Blue = Magenta

Green + Blue = Cyan

Printers' primaries—yellow, cyan, and magentaare typically used by professional designers and printing presses .


When all of the colors of the spectrum are combined, they add up to white light.

2 parts Red + 1 part Green = Orange

2 parts Green + 1 part Red = Lime

4 parts Red + 1 part Blue + 1 part Green = Brown


Subtractive Color


Subtractive color synthesis is the creation of color by mixing colors of pigment, such as paint or ink in your computer’s printer. This type of color is what is used in the art and design world. When learning basic color theory, art students typically use familiar colors like red, yellow, and blue.


Subtractive color processes work by blocking out parts of the spectrum. The idea of subtractive color is to reduce the amount of undesired color reaching the eye. If, for example, you had a yellow image, you would want to have a dye that would let red and green reach the eye, and block out blue. The additive secondaries become the printers’ subtractive primaries, because each of the additive secondaries will reflect two of the additive primaries, and absorb one of the additive primaries.


The three primaries on the artists’ color wheel are red, blue, and yellow. Example 2 illustrates subtractive color by showing how primary colors mix on a piece of white paper.




Yellow + Blue = Green

Yellow + Red = Orange

Blue + Red = Violet

When all of the colors are combined, they create black pigment.


Additive Primaries/Secondaries Absorption Chart






Red and Green



Red and Blue



Green and Blue



With this information, if we wanted red, we would mix magenta and yellow. Magenta would absorb green, and yellow would absorb blue, leaving only red to be reflected back to the eye. For black, a combination of all three would be used, which should block out all light in theory. Printers use black as well, since the dyes used in printing are not perfect, and some light from other parts of the spectrum gets through.

For printers’ mixing:

Yellow + Cyan = Green

Yellow + Magenta = Red

Cyan + Magenta = Blue


Description of Color


Hue – Is the name of the color itself, the dominant wavelength of light or the choice of pigment.

Lightness (brightness) – Is the lightness or darkness of the color, the amoung of light reflected or transmitted.

Saturation – Is the level of white, black or grey, ranges from neutral to brilliant (pastel to full color).

Tint – Base color plus white.

Tone – Base color plus grey.

Shade – Base color plus black.

Value – How light or dark a color is.

Aggressive - AKA 'Warm'. The yellows, oranges, and reds. These come towards the eye more (spatially) and are generally 'louder' than passive colors.

Passive - AKA 'Cool'. The greens, blues, and violets. These recede from the eye more (spatially) and are generally 'quieter' than the aggressive colors.


Color Schemes


Achromatic  An achromatic color scheme is one that is colorless – using blacks, whites and grays.


Complementary – A complementary color scheme is one that uses colors directly across from each other on the color wheel. This can be accomplished by using two colors or hues that are opposites such as red and green or violet and yellow. In this color scheme any two complements, all the semi-neutrals and the neutral they produce can be used. Black and white can also be used. Since you can choose from varying colors and hues which can give a bold and dramatic effect, this color scheme is  best used for dramatic, strong, or bold statements.


An example of a complimentary color scheme


Monochromatic – A monochromatic color scheme is a one-color color scheme. However, the color can be neutralized by adding its complement to lower the intensity of the color. Black and white can also be used to darken and lighten the value of the color. It is achieved by using one color or hue, utilizing that colors’ various tints, tones and shades. Using a monochromatic scheme with multiple textures creates character and maintains unity.


An example of a monochromatic color scheme


Analogous – An analogous color scheme is any three adjacent primary, secondary, or tertiary colors on the color wheel. These schemes can be warm or cool. Each can be neutralized by use of its complement, and black and white can be used. Analogous colors "harmonize" well and produce a definite mood to a composition. This can create a very harmonious color scheme.


An example of an analogous color scheme


Color Triad – A triadic color scheme are colors that are an equal distant from each other on the color wheel. Any three colors equidistant around the color wheel form a triad and can be used in this color scheme (eg., red, yellow and blue). Semi-neutrals are mixed using two of the colors in the triad and the third can be added to further neutralize the pair. Black and white can also be used. This can create a very balanced scheme.


An example of a color triad


Color Tetrad – A tetradic color scheme is one using four or more colors on the color wheel (eg., green, violet, red and yellow).


Color Diad – A diadic color scheme is one using two colors that are two colors apart on the color wheel (eg., red and orange).


Split Complementary – A split complimentary color scheme is similar to complimentary but instead of just two colors directly opposite on the color wheel, two of the three colors are adjacent to one of the colors that is opposite. More simply, choose one color and use the color on each side of its complement (eg., blue, yellow-orange and red-orange). Any three adjacent primary, secondary, and tertiary colors can be used, plus the complement of the middle hue. This complement is used subordinately and to produce semi-neutrals of the three colors while maintaining color harmony. Black and white can also be used.