Color Theory and How to Use Color to Your Advantage

Color Theory and How to Use Color to Your Advantage

So you want to learn about color theory, do you? Excellent. But where to begin with such a complex subject matter? Color inherentlyhas a very real mental and physical effect on people; thus, it should be used with intention and care. Everything else being equal, color alone can set or change a mood, attract or deflect attention, energize or soothe, or even become the focal point all on its own. The ability to use color conscientiously in your décor will help to bring about wonderful effects no matter your style.

It’s no wonder that “color can be your most powerful design element if you learn to use it effectively”

So now that we’ve established the importance of color itself, let’s look at how we can create logical structure for color use, or in other words, let’s look at color theory. Color theories aim to put order in the use of colors – Why do certain colors look well together when others do not? How can I know which colors will be most impactful? What can I do to choose the right colors in my design?


Since the 1700s, around the time of Isaac Newton’s theory of color, the color theory tradition has been in study and in practice, even through today. In this article, we will discuss the Color Wheel, Color Harmony, Color Meanings, and Color Use.

As with anything that is studied and dissected repeatedly, the color wheel has undergone many variations by scientists and artists over the past several centuries. In fact, these variations continue to cause debate.

Color-tertiary-wheelHowever, because the most common version of the color wheel is still based on the 12 colors of the traditional RYB color model, this is the wheel we will focus on. After all, really “any color wheel which presents a logically arranged sequence of pure hues has merit”.

On the color wheel are found three distinct “layers” of colors: (1) primary colors, (2) secondary colors, and (3) tertiary, or intermediate, colors.


The primary colors are red, yellow, and blue. They are called “primary” for two reasons: (1) they are hues that cannot be created by mixing any combination of other colors, and, conversely, (2) all other colors are created by the mixing or combining of these three colors.

Secondary-Colors-Wheel-1024x1024The secondary colors on the RYB color wheel are green, orange, and purple (sometimes called violet). They are the colors that fall right between two of the primary colors – between blue and yellow is green, between yellow and red is orange, and between red and blue is purple.

The tertiary colors, also known as intermediate colors, are the colors that fall between each primary and secondary color.



Now that we understand the basic color levels on the color wheel, let’s discuss how those colors work together to create color harmony. Several color combinations have traditionally been considered particularly aesthetic. These combinations, involving at least two colors with a fixed relationship within the color wheel, are called color harmonies (or color chords).

When we think of “harmony,” we think of something with a pleasing arrangement of parts. Thus, color harmony connotes something that is visually pleasing or appealing. Generally, things that are visually appealing have some sense of order and balance – color harmonies are neither bland nor chaotic, but rather have an innate interesting and structured appeal. In other words, color harmony is a dynamic equilibrium.

Complementary Colors


By definition, complementary colors are any two colors on the color wheel that are directly opposite each other. Red and green (for example, this green peacock Cappellini chair against a red wall), blue and orange, and purple and yellow are complementary color combinations. On their opposing color wheel locations, when paired together, these colors have very high contrast. This characteristic brings with it its challenges in design that will be discussed later.






Efforts to determine and define the meanings of colors has produced so much information it would be impossible to reproduce it all here. For starters, a color’s meaning largely depends upon the culture and circumstances in which it is displayed. The same color can also be interpreted multiple ways depending on the mood, paradigm, and emotional state of the observer.


White – It’s not a surprise that white is associated with the color of angels and heaven; its meanings lean toward the ethereal to be sure. Meanings of white include purity, completeness, perfection, innocence, and wholeness.



Grey – Neither white nor black but somewhere decidedly in between, grey is the color of compromise. Meanings of grey include non-emotionality, detachment, and indecisiveness.



Black – The essence of darkness, black excels at keeping secrets bottled up. Meanings of black include secrets, unanswered questions, sadness, and mystery.



Pink – Associated with babies, it’s no surprise that the meanings of pink include nurturing, unconditional love, immaturity, silliness, and girlishness.


Red – One of the most powerful colors, red has a variety of strong meanings. These include energy, ambition, action, determination, anger, and passion.



Brown – Well represented throughout the natural world, brown is considered a highly approachable and versatile color. Meanings of brown include friendliness, seriousness, security, protection, comfort, and wealth.



Orange – A social, genuine color that promotes positive communication and optimistic outlooks. Interestingly, other meanings of orange are exactly opposite in their superficiality and pessimism.




Yellow – This color is among the happiest of the colors on the spectrum, having a large influence of the mind and intellect. (Speaking of intellect, isn’t this yellow folding hanging chair brilliant?) Meanings of yellow include optimism, cheerfulness, impatience, and cowardice.





Green – The color of growth and balance, green can represent both sides of the emotional spectrum. Meanings of green include self-reliance, freshness, life, envy, and possessiveness.


Blue – “True blue” is a phrase that connotes the meaning of the color itself: peace and trust. Along with integrity and loyalty, however, meanings of blue include frigidity and also conservatism.


Purple – It certainly isn’t just a color for flowers and princess dresses, although purple is the color for all things imaginative. Meanings of purple include creativity, individuality, immaturity, and impracticality.


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