January 17, 2016

Tutorial: Basic Color Theory

Color theory is a guide to color mixing and the visual effects of specific color combinations. The principles of color theory first appeared in the writings of Leone Battista Alberti in the 15th century. These principles also showed up in the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci from the 15th century. However, it was not until the 18th century when traditional color theory began with the controversy surrounding Isaac Newton’s theory of color (Opticks, 1704) and the nature of primary colors. From this scientific beginning, traditional artistic color theory grew.


Color theory began formation based upon three primary colors – red, yellow, and blue (RYB) because it was believed that these three colors were capable of mixing and producing all other colors. The RYB primary colors became the foundation of color vision theories as well as psychological color effects in the 18th century. These theories, accompanied by personal observations, were summarized in two founding documents in color theory.

Goethe Color Wheel

Goethe’s Color Wheel

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe published his book Theory of Colours in 1810. The Theory of Colours provides a catalogue of how color is perceived in a variety of circumstances and considers Newton’s observations to be special cases.

The desire of knowledge is first stimulated in us when remarkable phenomena attract our attention. In order that this attention be continued, it is necessary that we should feel some interest in exercising it, and thus by degrees we become better acquainted with the object of our curiosity. During this process of observation we remark at first only a vast variety which presses indiscriminately on our view; we are forced to separate, to distinguish, and again to combine; by which means at last a certain order arises which admits of being surveyed with more or less satisfaction. (Theory of Colours – Introduction, Goethe, 1810)

Chevreul's RYB Chromatic Diagram

Chevreul’s RYB Chromatic Diagram

Michel Eugene Chevreul published his book The Laws of Simultaneous Color Contrast in 1839. The book was subsequently translated into English in 1854 by Charles Martel and titled The Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colours. He wrote the book to explain the “natural law” regarding colored objects and how to obtain the best possible effects from them.

In fact, numerous observations on the view of coloured (sic) objects made during several months, verified by my pupils, and others much accustomed in their professions to judge of colours, (sic) and to appreciate the least differences in them, have first been collected and described as proved facts. Then, in reflecting on the relations these facts have together, in seeking the principle of which they are the consequences, I have been led to the discovery of the one which I have named the law of simultaneous contrast of colours (sic). … Facts are observed, defined, described, then they became generalised (sic) in a simple expression which has all the characters of a law of nature. (The Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colours – Author’s Preface, Martel, 1854)

Subsequent German and English scientists, in the 19th century, established that color perception is best described in a different set of primary colors – that is – red, green, and blue-violet (RGB).

Munsell Color Wheel

Munsell Color Wheel

Albert Henry Munsell, creator of the Munsell Color System, wrote A Color Notation in 1905 (with a second edition published in 1907). This book, based on a series of lectures, attempts to correct the idea that the RYB primary color scheme is correct. Instead it presents the idea that the RGB primary color scheme is correct and also emphasizes the scientific basis for color values.

The lack of definiteness which is at present so general in color nomenclature, is due in large measure to the failure to appreciate the fundamental characteristics on which color differences depend. For the physicist, the expression of the wave length of any particular light is in most cases sufficient, but in the great majority of instances where colors are referred to, something more than this and something easier of realization is essential.

The attempt to express color relations by using merely two dimensions, or two definite characteristics, can never lead to a successful system. For this reason alone the system proposed by Mr. Munsell, with its three dimensions of hue, value, and chroma, is a decided step in advance over any previous proposition. By means of these three dimensions it is possible to completely express any particular color, and to differentiate it from colors ordinarily classed as of the same general character. (A Color Notation – Introduction, Munsell, 1907)


Based upon the scientific and artistic research of previous years, the arts have been given the opportunity to use color theory as a basis for color harmony within the artistic world.

Analogous Colors

Analogous Colors

Analogous colors are groups of three colors that are next to each other on the color wheel, with one being the dominant color.

Complementary Colors

Complementary Colors

Complementary colors are pairs of colors create the strongest contrast for those particular two colors.

Tertiary Colors

Tertiary Colors

A tertiary color is a color made by mixing either one primary color with one secondary color (the mixing of two primary colors), or two secondary colors.

“A color strategy is like a recipe for harmony – a set of color relationships that are proven to work well and can be used as a formula for building our color composition.” (Mitchell Albala)