Color Theory: Understanding Color Wheels and Color Schemes

February 17, 2022 Zahra Ijaz

Color Theory 101: Understanding Color Wheels and Color Schemes

If you are new to web design, then the Color Theory can sometimes confuse you, however, if you are an expert, you would know how important color theory is in different aspects of web design.
Color Theory is a science and art unto itself, and in some cases, people build their entire careers on it.
Let’s learn more about it in detail.


Color Theory and its Importance in Web Design

What makes you stop and catches your attention while scrolling down the news feed?
In most cases, YouTube videos, pictures, animated GIFs, and other visual content, right?
But what actually makes you pay more attention to these?
Let’s learn more about them.

color theory 2

While text-based content is always important when looking for answers.

But creating visuals like infographics, charts, graphs, animated GIFs, and other images can do wonders to grab the attention of readers and enhance your article.

You might be thinking that color theory is solely for people in design or visual artists, however, it is equally important as a web designer.

Color Theory is the basis for the primary rules and guidelines that surround color and its use in creating visuals.

By understanding this, you can begin to parse the logical structure of the color for yourself to create and use color palettes more strategically.

Thus, resulting in a particular emotion, vibe, or aesthetic.

Let’s learn more about it in detail.

Importance of Color Theory in Web Design

Color is an important aspect, if not the most important aspect of design, and can influence certain factors.

These include the meaning of the test, how users move around a particular layout, and what they feel as they do so.

Moreover, by understanding color theory, you can create be intentional in creating visuals that make a positive impact.

While there are a number of tools to help create the most compelling visual, graphic design tasks require a little more background knowledge on design principles.

color theory 4

For instance, consider selecting the right color combination for your website.

It is something that you find easy at first, however, when you stare down the color wheel, you would probably wish to have more information on what you are looking at.

Understanding how colors work together, the effect they have on mood and emotions, and how they change the look and feel of your website is crucial to helping you stand out from the crowd.

Moreover, from effective CTAs to sales conversions and marketing efforts, the right colors can helo to highlight certain sections of your website.

Thus, making it easy for the visitors to navigate or giving them a sense of familiarity from the first moment they click on your website.

However, it is not enough to simply select the color and hope for the best, as

  • from color theory moods and schemes,
  • finding the right HTML color codes
  • and identifying web-accessible colors

You will learn about using colors and the better your chances are of success.

Let’s go back to high school art classes to discuss the basics of color.

Do you remember about primary, secondary, and tertiary colors>

I hope you do, as they are pretty important to an understanding of color theory.

Primary Colors

Primary colors are those colors in the color wheel that you cannot create by combing two or more other colors.

Moreover, they are a lot like prime numbers, which you cannot create by multiplying two other numbers together.

There are three primary colors:

  • red
  • yellow
  • blue

You can also think of primary colors as parent color that anchors your design in a general color scheme.

Any one or a combination of these colors gives your new guardrails when you move on to explore other shades, tones, and tints.

Furthermore, when designing or even painting colors, do feel any restriction to use use the three colors above.

Orange is not a primary color, however, brands can use it as their dominant color.

Knowing which primary colors to use and creating orange is your ticket to identifying colors.

This may go well with orange, given the right shade, tone, or tint.

Let’s move to the next type of color:

Secondary Colors

Secondary colors are colors that you can create by combining any two of the three primary colors.

You can also see the color therapy model to see how each secondary color is supported by two of the three primary colors.

Moreover, these three secondary colors are Orange, Purple, and Green.

You can create each one using two of the three primary colors.

The general rules of secondary color creation are:

  • Red + Yellow = Orange
  • Blue + Red = Purple
  • Yellow + Blue = Green

However, keep in mind that each of these color mixes will only work if you use the purest form of each primary color.

This pule form is Color Hue and you will see later in the next section how these hues compare to the variants underneath each color.

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Tertiary Colors

You can create tertiary colors by mixing a primary color with a secondary color.

From here, the color gets a little more complicated and if you want to learn how the experts choose a color in their design, you will have to first understand the other component of the color.

One of the most important components of tertiary colors is that not every primary color can match with a secondary color to create a tertiary color.

For instance, you cannot mix red in harmony with green, and blue cannot mix in harmony with orange.

This is because both mixtures will result in a slightly brown color unless that is what you are looking for.

Instead, you can create tertiary colors by mixing a primary color with a secondary color that comes next to it on the color wheel below.

There are six tertiary colors that fit this requirement:

  • Red + Purple = red-purple or Magenta
  • Red + Orange = red-orange or Vermillion
  • Blue + Purple = blue-purple or Violet
  • Blue + Green = blue-green or Teal
  • Yellow + Orange = yellow-orange or Amber

Yellow + Green = yellow-green or Chartreuse

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The Color Theory Wheel

Now that you have learned about the “main” colors, choosing color combinations on computers often involves a much wider range than 12 basic colors.

This is the impetus behind a color wheel, a circle graph that charts each primary, secondary, and tertiary color.

Moreover, it also shows their respective hues, tints, tones, and shades.

color theory wheel

These are red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet.

Let’s discuss the color variants below:

Hue A hue is actually a synonym for the word “color”. All of the primary and secondary colors are “hues”.

Moreover, these are important to remember when combining two primary colors to create a secondary color.

When you do not use hues you will not be able to generate the hue of secondary color as a hue has the fewest color inside it.

By mixing two primary colors that carry other tints, tones, and shades inside them, you can add more than two colors to the mixture.

Thus making your final color dependent on the compatibility of more than two colors.

Shade You may recognize this term as you often use it to refer to light and dark versions of the same hue.

However, a shade is actually the color you get when you add black to a certain hue.

These various “shades” refer to how much black you are adding.

Tint A tint is the opposite of shade, however, you may not be able to distinguish between a shade and a tint of color.

Additionally, you get a different tint when you add white to the color, so you can have a range of shades and tints.

Tone or Saturation Adding both white and black to a color creates a tone.

Tone and saturation mean the same thing, however, most people use saturation when creating digital images.

For painting, you can also use tone.

Let’s dive into additive and subtractive color theory.


Additative and Subtractive Color Theory

If you have ever played around with any color on a computer program, you might have also come across a module that listed RGB or CMYK colors with some numbers next to the letters. Ever thought about what they mean?

Using the power of colors as a visual language when communicating with your audience will give meaning to your design.
Keep on reading.

color theory 6

In fact, color can affect the most, decision-making behaviors, and deliver actionable results.

Let’s discuss them as follows:


CMYK stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Key, i.e. Black. Moreover, they also happen to be the colors that are listed on your ink cartridges for your printer.
That is no coincidence, right?

Additionally, CMYK is the subtractive color model.

It is because you have to subtract colors to get to white.

That means the opposite is true – the more colors you add, the closer you get to the black. Confusing isn’t it?


To understand it more conveniently, think about printing on a piece of paper.

When you first put a sheet in the printer, you are usually printing on a white piece of paper, and by adding color, you are blocking the white wavelengths from getting through.

Let’s say you are to put a printed piece of paper back into the printed something again.

You will notice that areas, where there are prints twice, will have colors closer to black.

Furthermore, you may find CMYK easier to understand by corresponding it to numbers.

It works on a scale of 0 to 100.

If C=100, M=100, Y=100, and K=100, then you end up with black.

However, if you have all four colors equal to = then you end up with true white.


On the other hand, RGB color models are designed for electronic displays, including your computer.

It stands for Red, Green, and Blue and is based on the additive color model of light waves.

Moreover, this means that the more color you add, the closer you get a color to white.

In the case of computers, RGD uses the same from 0 to 255.

Thus, black will be R=0, G=0, and B=0, and white would be R=255, G=255, and B=255.


When you create color on your computer, then the color module will usually list both RGB and CMYK colors.

Furthermore, you can use either of these to find colors and the other color model will just accordingly.

However, many web programs will only give your RGB values or HEX codes, i.e. code assigned to color for CC and HTML.

Therefore, if you are designing digital images or web design, RBG is probably the best choice for choosing colors.

You can always convert your design to CMYK and make adjustments you should ever need to print materials.

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The Meaning of Color

Do you know that along with varying visual impact, different colors vary in emotional symbolism?

Let’s discuss the meaning of colors:

Red is associated with power, passion, or energy, and can help to encourage the action of your website.

Orange Shows joy and enthusiasm, thus, making it a good choice for positive messaging.

Yellow Happiness and intellect, however, be wary of its overuse.

Green Symbolizes growth or ambition, and green can help give the sense that your brand is on the rise.

Other Colors

Blue Tranquility and confidence, while depending on the shade, lighter ones provide a sense of peace, however, darker ones are more confident.

Purple Luxury or creativity, particularly when you use it deliberately and sparingly on your site.

Black Shows power and mystery, and using this color can help to create a necessary negative space.


White Safety and innocence, and make this color a great choice to help streamline your site.

Do you think it is not worth it?

Different audiences consider or perceive different colors differently.

It is important to note that the meaning of the above colors changes with the regions.

FOr instance, red usually symbolizes passion or powder in the United States, with it is a color of mourning in South Africa.

While it is possible to create your website using a combination of every color under a rainbow, chances are that the final product may not look great.

Luckily, color experts and designers have identified seven common color schemes to help you jumpstart your creative process.

Let’s discuss them in the next section.


The Seven Color Schemes and Choosing Them

The seven major color schemes are monochromatic, analogous, complementary, split complementary, triadic, square, and rectangle or tetradic.

In this section, we will also discuss how to choose the color schemes for your app or website and popular tools you can use.

Let’s examine each one of these in detail as follows:

color theory 3



Monochromatic color schemes use a single color with varying shades and tints to produce a consistent look and feel.

Though it lacks color contrast, it often ends up looking clean and polished.

Moreover, it allows you to easily change the darkness and lightness of your colors.

monochromatic example

You can use monochromatic color for charts and graphs when creating high contrast is not important.

See all the monochromatic colors that fall under the red hue, a primary color in the above image.


Analogous color schemes are formed by pairing one main color with two different colors directly next to it in the color wheel.

Moreover, you can also add two additional colors which are also present next to the two outside colors if you want to use a five-color scheme instead of just three.

These structures do not create themes with a high contrasting color, you often end up using or creating a softer, less contrasting design.

analogous example

For instance, you can use analogous structures to create a color scheme with autumn or spring colors.

This color scheme looks great for creating warmer, i.e. reds, oranges, and yellow, or cooler, i.e. purple, blues, and green color palettes like the one above.

Furthermore, you can use analogous schemes to design images rather than infographics or bar charts as all of the elements blend together nicely.


You may be guessing it, but the complementary color scheme depends on the use of two colors directly across from each other on the color wheel and relevant tints of those colors.

The complementary color scheme provides the greatest amount of color contrast and because of this, you need to be very careful about how you use this scheme.

complementary example

Moreover, it is best to use one color predominantly and use the second color as an accent in your design.

This complementary scheme is also great for charts and graphs.

However, high contrast can also help you to highlight important points and takeaways.

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Split Complementary

A split complementary scheme includes one dominant color and two colors that are adjacent to the dominant color’s complement.

This creates a more nuanced color palette than a complementary scheme while still retaining the benefits of contrasting colors.

Moreover, the split complementary color scheme can be difficult to balance as unlike analogous or monochromatic schemes, the colors it uses provides contrast, just like the complementary scheme.

split complementary

The positive and negative aspect of the split complementary color model is that you can use any two colors in this scheme and get great contrast.

However, this also means that you may end up playing around with this one a bit more to find the right combination of contrast.

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Triadic color schemes offer high contrasting color schemes while also retaining the same tone.

Moreover, you can create triadic color schemes by choosing three colors that are equally placed in the lines around the color wheel.

Triad color schemes are also useful for creating high contrast between each color in a design.

However, they can also be overpowering if you choose all of your colors on the same point in a line around the color wheel.

triadic example

In order to subdue some of the colors in a triadic scheme, you can choose one dominant and use the other sparingly.

Or you can simply subdue the other two colors by choosing a softer tint.

The triadic color scheme looks great in graphics like bar or pie charts as they offer the contrast you need to create comparisons.


The square color scheme uses four colors from each other on the color wheel to create a square or a diamond shape.

While they are evenly shaped color scheme, it provides substantial contrast to your design.

Moreover, it is a good idea to select one dominant color rather than trying to balance all four.

square example

Additionally, square color schemes are also great for creating interest across your web designs.

If you are not sure where to start consider this.

Pick your favorite color and work from there to see if this scheme is against black and white backgrounds to find the best fit.

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Also called the tetradic color scheme, the rectangle approach is just like a square counterpart, however, it offers a more subtle approach to color selection.

It uses blue and red shades that are quite bold, green and orange that are more muted, in turn helping you to create bolder shades that stand out.

rectangle example

No matter which color scheme you choose, keep in mind your graphic needs.

If you want to create contrast, then choose a color scheme that gives you that.

While if you just need to find the best versions of certain colors, you can play around with a monochromatic scheme to find the right shades and tints.

You do not always need to use five colors for your design.

Instead, you can always begin with two colors and use others as shades, tints, or complements.

Choosing a Color Scheme

In order to choose the color scheme, follow the steps below:

1# Prioritize the User Experience Before adding color to your website, app, product, or packaging, get the basic design down pat in greyscale.

This will let you focus on what matters most, i.e. user experience.

Make sure that the links are not broken, product pages are up-to-date and email opt-ins are ready to go.

Why? Because even the best-looking website or product with perfect color selection will not be enough to keep visitors if they are unable to find what they are looking for.

2# Leverage Natural Inspiration Often making the site operations good to go, you can select colors.

You can also take inspiration from the natural colors and combinations.

3# Set the Mood for your Color Scheme With limited color choices in mind, consider the mood you want to set with your color scheme.

Also, you can use negative space in either black or white to keep your design from cluttering.

4# Consider Color Contest Make sure to consider how to perceive colors in contrast.

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This is because the way we use two colors together changes how we perceive them.

Therefore, when choosing colors for your graphic design, think about how much contrast you want throughout your design.

5# Refer to Color Wheel  Consider the color wheel and the schemes.

Moreover, you can also select a few different color combinations using schemes like monochrome, complementary, and triad to see what stands out.

The goal here is to find what the right colors are and create the perfect design, rather than a sense of which scheme resonates with your perception.

6# Uses the 60-30-10 rule This one is a useful rule for a website or even app design.

Use three colors: main color for 60% of your design, secondary color for 30%, and an accent color for the last 10%.

7# Draft Multiple Colors Draft and apply different color designs to your website and see which one(s) stand out, then take a step back, wait a few days, and check again.

While many designers fo with a vision of what they want, the finished product is often different on digital screens.

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Color Tools for Color Theory

There are a number of theories and practical information for understanding which colors go best together with and why.

However, when it comes down to actually tasking of choosing colors while designing, it is a good idea to actually do the work quickly and easily.

You can use the following tools to help find and choose the colors for your design.

Adobe Color This is a free online tool that allows you to quickly build a color scheme that depends on the color structures.

Moreover, it features hundreds of premade color schemes to explore and use in your own designs.

Illustrator Color Guide Adobe illustrator color guide allows you to choose one color and will automatically generate a five-color scheme for you.

It also gives a range of tints and shades for each color, and if you switch your main color, the guide will give you corresponding colors.

Preset Color Guides All the Office products have preset colors that you can use and play around with to create a color scheme.

Powerpoint has a number of them that you can draw inspiration for your designs.
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Start Working Today

Yes! There is a lot of theory in this guide, however, when it comes to choosing colors, understanding the theory behind them can do wonders on how you use them.

Moreover, this can help you to create branded visuals easily, especially when using design templates where you can customize the colors.

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