If you’re looking to learn how to use color like a pro in your design projects, you’ve come to the right place. Grab the crash course on color & picking the perfect pairings below.

Understanding Color & How To Use It In Your Designs Like the Pros

Ever wonder how graphic designers seem to pick the perfect color palettes for every project? I did too when I first started designing. But the honest truth includes 2 things – color theory, and practice applying it.

What is Color Theory?

Color theory is a little bit of art and science – and the result is colors that work well together and provide plenty of contrast. The first color wheel was introduced by Sir Isaac Newton in the 17th century when he discovered the visible spectrum of light. The color wheel is the the corner stone of color theory and awesome color palettes because it shows the relationships between colors.

The color wheel is comprised of all the colors of the rainbow and can be divided into groups – primary, secondary & tertiary colors.

Primary Colors

Primary colors are those that can’t be mixed from other colors – red, yellow and blue.

Secondary Colors

Secondary colors are those that come from mixing two primary colors – purple (red mixed with blue), orange (red mixed with yellow) and green (yellow mixed with blue).

Tertiary Colors

Tertiary colors are created when you mix a secondary color with a primary color – red-orange, yellow-orange, yellow-green, blue-green, blue-violet, red-violet.

Colors that Go Well Together

Designers use their knowledge of the color wheel to pick color palettes that go well together. There are several named color combinations that you should know and try to recreate if you’re wanting to create color palettes like the pros.

Complementary Colors – are 2 colors that are on opposite sides of the color wheel. They provide high contrast and pairing them together often make designs appear brighter and more prominent.

Example – Red & Blue or Purple & Yellow (often sports teams and schools pick complementary colors for their uniforms and school colors)

Complementary Triad – include 3 colors that are evenly spaced on the wheel. This combination still provides plenty of contrast, but not quite as much as the complementary pairing. This slightly less bold color group makes it a bit more versatile for branding and design projects while still providing plenty of vibrancy.

Example – green, orange & purple (the FedEx Air and Ground logos) or red, yellow & blue (Burger King or Sonic logos)

Tetradic Colors – 4 colors evenly spaced on the color wheel. This combination is most impactful when you choose a single color to be dominant in the design while the others work as accents.

Example – many bloggers and brands use these color palettes.

Analogous Colors– three colors that are next to each other on the color wheel. This is where we often hear the words warm and cool when referring to colors. Colors that have blue and green in them are cool, colors with red and yellow are warm. Analogous colors can also go outside of just warm or cool, and contain both – such as yellow, green and blue.

Example – An analogous color palette might include three blues or a mixture of green, blue and purple. The MasterCard, PayPal, Tostitos or BP logos are good examples of analogus color palettes.

Monochromatic Colors – are three shades, tones or tints of a single color on the color wheel. Read on to learn more about shades, tints & tones.

Tip- When picking a monochromatic color palette, select a single hue and then add white in different proportions to create the other tints. Sometimes it’s fun to select the hue and then create 1 tint and 1 shade to complete your palette.

Shades & Hues

You can create shades, tints & tones of a color by mixing the color with a certain amount of white or black. Shades are created when you add black to your base color. Adding black creates a deeper, richer color which we often call jewel tones. Tints are created by adding white to the base color – more white gives the color more light and takes the color into pastel tones.

Hues are essentially any color on the color wheel. When you’re using graphic design software to select colors you can (usually) adjust the saturation and luminance of a hue. Saturation refers to the purity of a color. The color green (middle color) in the image above is the purest hue. As we move to the left we add more black and lose saturation of the hue. As we move to the right, we add more white and gain more luminance or the amount of brightness or light in a color.

Want to learn more about colors and what they all mean? Colors play a huge role in branding and each color holds specific meanings. You can learn more about brand psychology and the influence of color here.

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