What is a Color Scheme? - Definition, Types & Examples

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  • 0:03 Color Schemes
  • 0:41 Two-Color Schemes
  • 1:42 Three-Color Schemes
  • 3:06 Four-Color Schemes
  • 4:25 Monochromatic Schemes
  • 5:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Creating a masterpiece of art or design requires a proper knowledge of how to use colors. In this lesson, we'll explore the concept of a color scheme and look at some major examples.

Color Schemes

What do criminal masterminds and artists have in common? The success of both relies on how well they understand schemes. Realistically only a few of them will make enough money to quit their day jobs. But let's focus on the scheming. In art and design, a color scheme is an association of colors based on an organizational system. Basically, it's a set of colors that work well together to create a unified aesthetic. We can find our color scheme using a color wheel, a matrix of colors used to see how colors relate. Want to see how it works? Let's get scheming.

Color wheel

Complementary Colors

Let's look at a variety of color schemes, starting with a basic one. Complementary colors are those which are directly opposite each other on the color wheel. For example, as red and green are directly opposite each other, they are complementary colors. Another easy way to find complementary colors is to pair a primary color (like red, blue, or yellow) with the secondary color made from the other two primaries. For example, the complementary color orange is the product of yellow and red. Complementary colors create strong contrast. This can make them difficult to use in subtle situations but can result in strong pops of color in a design.

Two-Color Schemes

Another two-color combination is the diadic color scheme. Here, colors are separated by one color on the color wheel. For example, blue and green are diadic colors separated by bluish-green. These colors tend to work well together and provide less sharp contrast than complementary colors.

Three-Color Schemes

The analogous color scheme uses three colors instead of two. Analogous colors are located directly next to each other on the color wheel. In this scheme, blue, green, and bluish-green would all be used. Again, these colors tend to work together very harmoniously, creating very little visual tension.

Adding a third color can create a slightly richer color scheme, although when working with three or more colors it's always wise to choose one dominant color; the second and third colors can function as the main supportive and accent colors. This lets you build up a richer color scheme that remains balanced and avoids assaulting anyone's eyes.

In another three-color combination, the split-complementary color scheme mixes the complementary and diadic schemes. Here's how it works. Pick a color, say, green. The complement of green is red, but we're going to use the colors on either side of red: reddish-orange and fuchsia. This scheme relies on a mixture of contrasting and supportive colors to create an aesthetic that is balanced but pops.

To create the ultimate balanced look with three colors, try using those that are evenly spaced on the color wheel. In a triadic color scheme, the colors are equidistant from each other on the color wheel. They form an equilateral triangle if you draw lines between them. For example, green, purple, and orange are triadic colors.

Remember that analogous color scheme where we used three colors right next to each other? We can expand that into the split analogous color scheme, where three individual colors are each separated by a single color. This combination is somewhat like an expanded diadic scheme. If we look at the color wheel, we can see that yellow, orange, and green could work together in a split analogous scheme.

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