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What is Color Theory? - Definition, Basics & Examples

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  • 0:04 Color Theory
  • 1:06 Color Theory: Structure
  • 1:21 Color Wheel
  • 2:29 Color Harmonies
  • 3:59 Color in Context
  • 5:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ela Poursani

Ela has taught college Architecture, Interior Design, and Culinary Design and has a doctorate degree in architecture.

There's a reason why some colors and color combinations are more pleasing to us than others. In this video, we'll focus on the basics of color theory while exploring a real-life example.

Color Theory

Heather's store manager has asked her to arrange some clothing items into pleasing color combinations. As she goes about her task, Heather thinks back to her early school days and remembers how much she enjoyed choosing crayons from the 64-count box. Once again, colors are a part of her work. Heather has an eye for color, but doesn't know exactly why certain colors look good together, so she decides to explore color theory.

Color theory is a set of principles used to create harmonious color combinations pleasing to the eye and senses. It provides us with a common ground for understanding how colors can be used, arranged, coordinated, blended, and related to one another. Color theory is about why some colors work together aesthetically, while others do not. Thus, it's about color mixing and the visual effects of color.

An understanding of color theory helps Heather go beyond the approach of 'it looks right'. Let's see how Heather utilizes color theory when organizing appealing displays.

Color Theory: Structure

Color theory is built upon three basic components: the color wheel, color harmonies, and color context. Heather pays particular attention to these groups of principles to help her acquire a better understanding of color applications.

Color Wheel

The traditional color wheel is based on the 12 colors found in the visible spectrum. It's a basic tool for combining or mixing colors and an easy way of understanding how colors relate to one another.

Rainbow and traditional color wheel
color wheel rainbow

A color wheel has three different types of colors; primary, secondary, and tertiary. Primary colors (red, yellow, and blue) cannot be created by other colors. Primary colors can be used to make the secondary colors (green, orange, and purple). Combinations of secondary colors can be used to make the tertiary colors (yellow-orange, red-orange, red-purple, blue-purple, blue-green, and yellow-green).

'How about the pink shirt?' Heather thinks, since pink isn't on the traditional color wheel. Heather finds pink on her color wheel, which not only includes the colors (hues) but also their properties, such as tints, shades, and tones. Pink is a tint, a combination of red-purple mixed with white. According to color theory, 'pink' is 'red-purple', as it takes only the relationships of pure colors into account, and not the relationships between lightness and darkness or brightness and dullness.

Color wheel showing properties of colors
Color wheel tint

Color Harmonies

The color wheel helps Heather understand colors themselves, like the pink shirt. Could the color wheel guide Heather toward combinations of colors, too?

In color theory, color harmony is the basic technique used to create combinations of colors. Color harmony is the process of matching colors and creating color schemes. A color schemes, or a set of colors selected, is an important function of the color wheel. When determining which colors match (or clash) with each other, the color wheel can provide users with a set of basic rules and several predefined color schemes.

Color schemes consist of two, three, or four colors based on their positions on the color wheel. For example, a complementary color scheme consists of two colors located directly opposite from each other on the color wheel. When complementary colors mesh with one another, they are known as analogous colors. A triad color scheme is composed of three colors equally positioned on the wheel, while a tetrad color scheme is formed by two pairs of colors opposite each other on the color wheel, or four colors.

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