The Color Wheel
Before we can get into what analogous colors are, we should first understand a bit more about the color wheel. Since we were little kids, we've learned that almost all colors can be made from three colors: red, blue, and yellow. Those three colors are known as the primary colors.
When you look for the primary colors on the color wheel, you'll see they are evenly spaced on the wheel. If you mix the primary colors with each other (for example, yellow + red), you will get what is known as a secondary color. These colors are green, orange, and violet.
The last classification used on the color wheel is tertiary colors, which are a mixture of a secondary and primary color that are next to each other on the color wheel. For example, red-violet is a tertiary color combining red and violet. Tertiary colors include red-violet, red-orange, yellow-orange, yellow-green, blue-green, and blue-violet.
What Are Analogous Colors?
When we talk about the color wheel, the term 'analogous' refers to having an analogy, or similarity, between colors. Analogous colors are a group of three colors next to each other on a color wheel, such as violet, red-violet, and red. When these colors are grouped together we call it an analogous color scheme. The color in the center of this group of three is sometimes called the mother color, since the other two colors contain that center color.
You've probably seen many examples of an analogous color scheme without even realizing it! Imagine it's autumn, and you're outside looking at all the color-changing leaves on a tree. You see different shades of oranges, reds, and yellows replacing the once-green leaves. Red-orange, orange, and yellow-orange are an analogous color scheme, with orange being the mother color.
Ways to Use Analogous Color
Artists use analogous color when they're trying to create an image that is pleasing to the eye and harmonious. You get a sense of a rich, monochromatic (mono meaning 'one,' and chromatic meaning 'color;' monochromatic means one shade of color) image that feels serene and comfortable.
Many works of art use analogous color. For instance, depictions of nature, such as nature paintings, often use the analogous color scheme. Oftentimes, artists will use one color as their main focus (for example, green), a second support color (in this same example, a blue-green) and the third color as an accent (like a yellow-green). Take a look at this Vincent Van Gogh painting, and try to identify his analogous color scheme (see video).
Why or Why Not Use this Scheme?
The reason many artists use an analogous color scheme is for its harmonious, monochromatic effect. You can darken or lighten the colors in the scheme to create different shades (the color + black) or tints (the color + white), which create different looks and contrasts in a work of art.
However, since all the colors are so similar in an analogous color scheme, it can be very difficult to create color contrast, or to have anything 'pop out' more than something else. To create something that really has a lot of color contrast, you might want to use something like a complementary color. This would be two colors on the opposite sides of the color wheel; for example, red's complement is green, yellow's is violet, and yellow-orange's complement is blue-violet. These really make the other colors 'pop,' and each color seems more vivid next to its complementary color.
Let's review. Analogous colors are a grouping of three colors next to each other on a color wheel. When these colors are grouped together we call it an analogous color scheme. The color in the center of this group of three is sometimes called the mother color, since the other two colors contain that center color. These colors are harmonious, and when viewed together have a pleasing, serene appearance. Examples of analogous colors include violet, red-violet, and red as well as red-orange, orange, and yellow-orange.
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