1. Design & Illustration
  2. Theory

Open the Door into the Science of Color Theory

Read Time:6 minsLanguages:

Color theory is a vast and complicated sphere of knowledge. It consists of different scientific elements, such as: optics, spectroscopy, human anatomy and physiology, psychology, art history and theory, philosophy, ethics, architecture theory, design and many other applied sciences. In this article we will show only the schemes of harmonic color combinations and the examples of their usage by a bunch of talented vector artists.

How are Colors Created?

Let's first understand how the varieties of all colors are formed. All the colors can be received from the combination of primary colors, which are red, yellow and blue. These colors differ from the others by the fact that they cannot be created by mixing the other colors.

primary colorsprimary colorsprimary colors

In order to make secondary colors you should mix the primary ones. By mixing red with yellow we get orange, and by mixing red with blue you get a violet color. Blue together with yellow turns into green.

secondary colorssecondary colorssecondary colors

For creating tertiary colors you should mix the primary color with the neighboring secondary color. It means that there are six tertiary colors (two colors from each primary color). As a rule colors are placed in a spectrum and it is called a color wheel.

tertiary colorstertiary colorstertiary colors

The method of making your own color palette with the help of Color Blending Methods is described in a wonderful tutorial How to Create a Wide Range of Custom Color Swatches in Illustrator. One of the methods is illustrated in the picture below. You can use these colors in your work after downloading the source file.

color wheelcolor wheelcolor wheel

The figures in the picture show that 1 - is for primary colors, 2 - is for secondary and 3 - is for tertiary colors. Colors that have figures are called the pure colors; they have no black and white impurity. For getting colors in digital art such color mode as RGB, CMYK, LAB and HSB can be used. You can read everything about their quantities and application in the article An Introduction to Illustrator's Color Tools.

The Color Scheme

There are different methods of getting harmonic color combinations. Let's discuss harmonic color schemes and examples of their application in vector art. These color schemes are usually called the basic ones.

Monochromatic Color Scheme

The variations of brightness and intensity of one color is used in this scheme. This scheme is simple and elegant, colors are soothing. The basic colors can be combined with neutral ones such as white, black and gray to contrast the elements of a composition.

Golden Time, by Guilherme Marconi

golden timegolden timegolden time

The Curse of the Hamster, by Zutto

Hamster CurseHamster CurseHamster Curse

Analogous Color Scheme

In this scheme we use colors that are placed near each other in the color spectrum. This kind of scheme is often used for the creation of peaceful and comfortable designs. An analogous color scheme is often met in nature.

analogous color schemeanalogous color schemeanalogous color scheme

One color is usually used as the basic one, the second color is as accompanied, the third is used as an accent for the contrast creation, it may be white, black or gray.

Bring Peace to Midnight, by lostsoulx44

peace midnightpeace midnightpeace midnight

phil's_lion, by Melelel


Complementary Color Scheme

Colors that are opposite each other in a color spectrum are called complementary colors (for example red and green).

complementary color schemecomplementary color schemecomplementary color scheme

Such color combinations creates a high level of contrast in combination. But we should be careful with such a combination and use it only if we want to select something. Complementary colors are really bad for text.

Fruits, by Konstantin Shalev


TULIP, by gartier


Split Complementary Color Scheme

This scheme is the variation of complementary color scheme. It uses a color and two colors adjacent to its complementary. Only right or left colors from a complementary color are used. This provides high contrast without the strong tension of the complementary scheme. The split complementary scheme is harder to balance than monochromatic and analogous color scheme. One warm concentrated color and a number of cold colors are usually used.

split complementary color schemesplit complementary color schemesplit complementary color scheme

The Daughter of Poseidon, by zanthia

Daughter of PoseidonDaughter of PoseidonDaughter of Poseidon

OJ, by Ikue

Orange JuiceOrange JuiceOrange Juice

Triadic Color Scheme

Three colors that are equally placed in a color spectrum are used in this scheme. This scheme gives a strong visual contrast with harmony and color richness. Colors in this scheme are more balanced than in a complementary color scheme. As a rule one color in a composition is chosen as basic.

Triadic Color SchemeTriadic Color SchemeTriadic Color Scheme

Bananas-and-Tomatoes, by rosesaregreen

Bananas and TomatoesBananas and TomatoesBananas and Tomatoes

Summer, by Zzanthia

Tetradic (Double Complementary) Color Scheme

This scheme is the richest among all the schemes because four colors which are placed in complementary pairs are used. It is difficult to achieve harmony in this scheme. If four colors are used in the same quantity the composition might appear to be unbalanced. That's why we should choose one color which will be dominant.

Tetradic Double Complementary Color SchemeTetradic Double Complementary Color SchemeTetradic Double Complementary Color Scheme

Time, by LimKis


Fruit Fly, by ArtSerenity

fruit flyfruit flyfruit fly

Adobe Illustrator allows you to use basic color schemes. To do this, after selecting the color you should open the tab Harmony Rules in the Color Guide palette. Select the desired color scheme and choose color from a number of proposed colors.

Color Guide paletteColor Guide paletteColor Guide palette

Except the basic colors, there are lots of other color schemes that are based on associations with human reception. These are the main schemes.

Hot Colors

The tones of red are considered to be hot, which are associated with the fire. Hot colors seem to move beyond the composition flatness and attract attention. That's why they are often used in posters, ads, road signs. Hot colors possess the strength and aggressiveness.

hot colorshot colorshot colors

jellyfish,by LimKis

Nissan Skyline GT-R Vector, by hoshiboshi

hot carhot carhot car

Cold Colors

Tones of blue are considered to be cold colors. Cold colors remind us of ice and snow. When cold and hot colors are placed nearby it seems as if they are vibrating.

cold colorscold colorscold colors

Lost in the Space, by javieralcalde

Lost in the SpaceLost in the SpaceLost in the Space

Life, by Surround


Warm Colors

All colors that contain red seem to be warm. Red-orange, orange and yellow-orange are supposed to be warm colors. Warm colors are comfortable, impulsive and friendly.

warm colorswarm colorswarm colors

Autumn Girl, by mashi

Autumn GirlAutumn GirlAutumn Girl

Sunset Room, by SteveNewport

Sunset RoomSunset RoomSunset Room

Cool Colors

The basic tone of cool colors is blue. If we add yellow to cool colors we receive yellow-green, green and green-blue colors. Such tones relax, refresh, and give a feeling of depth and comfort.

relaxing colorsrelaxing colorsrelaxing colors

Frozen in Time, by hitman101

Frozen in TimeFrozen in TimeFrozen in Time

The Martini Drink - Gmesh, by enikOne

The Martini Drink - Gmesh

Light Colors

These colors have got lots of white color. As a rule such colors are called pastels. It seems that they are transparent and weightless. The more light the color is, the less is the number of combination variations with it. The light colors are open and give the feeling of reconciliation and quietness.

light colorslight colorslight colors

Glossy Roseate, by afordite

Glossy RoseateGlossy RoseateGlossy Roseate

I'll wait for you..., by NaBHaN

polar bearpolar bearpolar bear

Dark Colors

The dark colors are those colors that are mixed with black. They look as if they close the space, make it less. Dark colors are associated with autumn and winter, which are dark seasons. The combination of light and dark colors creates the feeling of drama.

dark colorsdark colorsdark colors

Pirate, by LimKis


Dark elf with BFS, by sygnin

Bright Colors

The brightness of color is measured by the quantity of pure color. The color brightness is made in the absence of a black color. Bright colors attract our attention, that's why it is used in packaging and ads.

Bright ColorsBright ColorsBright Colors

Study and Fun, by mrbumbz

Other, by LimKis


Today we have only opened the door to the complicated and wonderful universe of colors. The feeling of harmony and its application can be learned, as well as the science, and principles behind it. I wish you success in pursuing each fascinating color world.

More Color Theory and Color Harmony Information

Learn more from these resources:

One subscription.
Unlimited Downloads.
Get unlimited downloads