Color Theory Basics: An Introduction to Color Theory

Color Theory Basics: An Introduction to Color Theory




An Introduction To Color Theory

Color theory is a body of practical guidance to color mixing and the visual impacts of specific color combinations

Wikipedia (color theory)

We’ve all seen it/felt it – It might have been a logo, a website or even the clothes you were wearing – but when you looked at it something was just… off. Color is one of those things that may not draw much attention when its right, but it certainly makes an impression when its wrong. While some people have a natural nack for it, there is a lot of science behind matching up hues in a color scheme – that’s where a little understanding of color theory comes in handy.

Color Theory

Color theory is essentially just a structured way of organizing and using color in design, but in order to better understand color theory it might help to learn a bit about its origins.

Color Theory Basics: Starting at The Beginning

Color Theory BasicsThe long and sometimes controversial history of color theory has been influenced by some of the most notable names in science and art.  The earliest concepts related to color theory emerged during the Renaissance when Leonardo da Vinci & Leone Battista Alberti postulated on ‘optics’ (the study of the behavior and properties of light) among other things.

However, full fledged color theory didn’t really emerge until much later with Sir Isaac Newton’s own experimentation into optics where he discovered the color spectrum.

The Color Spectrum

Newton's Color Spectrum
Through his various experiments Newton demonstrated that white light, when separated using a prism, was really a spectrum (or an array) of various colors combined. His experimentation exposed the existence of the visible spectrum of light, which he  studied extensively dividing it into 7 distinct color bands – red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. It has since been argued that indigo, being relatively undetectable to the human eye, shouldn’t be considered a separate color. Goethe’s own color model for instance opts for only 6 distinct color bands, neglecting Indigo.

The Color Wheel

To help visualize color relationships, Newton developed the color wheel. A simplified model of the color spectrum, the color wheel starts at red and cycles clockwise through the hues to violet. The key to the color wheel is observing how one band of color relates to another band based on its proximity or position.

While Newton’s original color wheel had 7 distinct hues, Goethe’s Theory of Color introduced a symmetrical 6 hue color wheel (with-out Indigo). Goethe’s color wheel positioned colors directly opposite of one another, allowing each color to be “diametrically opposed” to its color counterpart – our first scientific peek into the contrasting & complimentary nature of color relationships.

Color Theory Recap

While the term Color Theory itself can sound a bit lofty, keep in mind, it’s just a simple, structured way of organizing colors and understanding color relationships. The basics are simple & can be applied by even the most novice of artists/designers. Hopefully, armed with a little color theory knowledge we can make smart color choices that improve our design efforts.

But Color Theory is just the beginning – continue reading the Color and Design series to discover more about how color can influence your design for the better. Also, be sure to check out the 3rd party resources listed below for more on Color Theory. And as always, your comments are encouraged and appreciated.

Color Theory Resources



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