Color Theory and How to Choose Great Combos Every Time


So what’s the big deal about color theory and why is it important? Have you ever seen a room and noticed how everything seemed to be in sync with each other? You can’t explain it, but there was something that felt harmonious about the whole scene. Maybe you’ve seen others that for some reason, looked out of whack. The answer is the first room know how to make use of the laws of color theory to their advantage.

It may seem like a kind of advanced topic to be talking about on a simple craft blog, right? Well, let’s face it, none of us, (including yours truly, early on) come out of the gate swinging when we choose the right colors for our next big project. But if you understand the fundamentals you will save yourself a lot of guesswork and frustration.

So let’s get into that right now. Chances are, if you have already bought your first paints , you’ll notice if you bought a set (I usually don’t buy paints a la carte – a few exceptions – I will get extra white or a basic color if I’m running low) Give or take a “typical” acrylic paint set has names that looks like this:

Alizarin crimson, Scarlet, Cadmium yellow, Yellow ochre , Pthalo green, Pthalo blue, Burnt umber, Burnt sienna, Black, white

That’s the gist of what I always have in my collections, anyway. I won’t go over the origin of the names too much here, but at least some of them may seem familiar to you. Anyway, knowledge without application is useless, so we’re going to go straight into color theory and what it all means, as well as the fundamentals of mixing colors harmoniously whether it’s painting, sculpting or mixed media.

Primary/Secondary Colors

The famous Color Wheel

If you ever got exposed to any art education (as have I) you probably got started around color theory and why it matters. You may have also got told about the Color Wheel. Sound familiar?

The Color Wheel and how all the different colors are arranged is universally applied to several basic laws about color. Starting with Primary colors (Red, yellow and blue) and Secondary colors (Green, purple, and orange) When you mix 2 primary colors together you end up with a secondary color (blue+yellow=green, red+ yellow=orange, red+ blue=purple ) of course, you probably learned that in grade school.

Complementary Colors

Notice how on the color wheel where these colors are located. Each of these “main” colors also has a complement. A complement is a color that when the two are used side by side harmonize well . In other words, they are “in sync”. You will notice that complementary colors are placed opposite of each other on the color wheel.¬† The major color/complement pairings are:

  • Yellow/Purple
  • Red/Green
  • Blue/ Orange

A color with a little bit of its complement will harmonize it, but you don’t want to mix them together as they may end up a muddy color. For example: If hypothetically, I am painting a still life of an apple, which is mostly a red color. I may add a little bit of dark green to the shadows in the background to help it stand out a little more.

Complementary colors
Well, that’s one way to look at “complementary colors”!

Tertiary Colors

Colors that are located next to each other also produce harmonious colors too when mixed. Thee are called “tertiary colors” Examples include:

  • Red + orange= red/orange
  • Blue+green=blue/green
  • Yellow+green=Yellow/green

Basically, the combination of a primary color and a secondary color creates a tertiary color.

Color theory does go well beyond this, but these are the most important things to remember when you start mixing colors. It tends to extend well beyond painting too. Many industries also rely on color theory principles too, for many reasons: to drive sales, create a harmonious and pleasing experience in different industries, or to create the “right” feeling in your own environment. It is psychological as well as material.

Case in point. Last year, I had this website analyzed and I was informed by a user test that I had “conflicting colors and graphics”. I was given special instruction to “focus on a good color scheme” and told I should limit the color palette on this blog to no more than 3. I was given the link to another website where I entered the hex codes (a six digit code that defines a particular color, in html speak) and it produced a series of color codes recommended for the particular shade of yellow and pink I’m using here.

color palette
Choosing harmonious color combos is a science as well as an art

So when I create the graphics for this site, I always stick to that palette. Yes, I realize that HTML is different from, say, the Pantone system  but the concept behind choosing colors is the same.

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color theory

What Are Tints, Tones and Shades?

When you start mixing colors, you’ll need to have an understanding of tints, shades and tones. First an explanation of them. A tint occurs when white is added to a “main” color. You might could say that pink is a tint variation of red.

A shade is created with the addition of black to a main color. For example, what we call burgundy, is a deep red shade. Navy would be a deep shade of blue.

Depending on the subject you’re painting, you may find yourself adding and creating various tints and shades to create depth in the object as well as shadows and highlights surrounding it.

A “tone” is created with the addition of gray to a pure color. Tones can vary in subtlety depending on how much of gray you add. Neutral colors include black, white and gray. Once I thought brown was a neutral color, however it’s not as you’ll get brown if you mix all of the primary colors together.

So…to recap:

  • TINTS= Addition of white + pure color
  • SHADES= Addition of black +pure color
  • TONES= Addition of gray + pure color

With any of these neutral colors, be very sparing when adding them so you don’t end up with muddy color results

What Are “Hues”?

Have you ever heard a reference to “color hues”? A “hue” is the purest example of one of the major 6 primary or secondary colors. Red hues, blue hues, green hues, etc.

If you add a more neutral color to red, blue, etc., you may end up “desaturating” the hue, depending on how much you add.

color values diagram

Edit: In art class, I had this assignment to create a color chart. I had to use this big 24″ by 30″ canvas. And do all this mixing of whites to create tints and black to create shades. It was a lot of work. Probably the most “unfun” assignment I ever had to do in art class, lol…. I still have it somewhere. If I come across it, I’ll take a picture and update this post. UPDATE: I decided to write a whole post on it instead. I would highly recommend you follow what I did as it will help you in the long run!


Phew, that was a lot of territory to cover. I hope this helps! Good luck to you and may you have great success in mixing those colors.


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