Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Color Schemes Defined

A color scheme is an arrangement of colors based upon a color system, in this case the color wheel, that is then applied to an illustration, design or work of art. Although most of us primarily work intuitively when it comes to making color choices, knowledge of color theory and an understanding of basic color principles can improve the appearance of an illustration. Understanding color combinations can help move an assignment along more quickly, especially when it comes to creating a coordinated series of images.

Twelve stage color wheel.

Strangely enough, a place to begin may be to visualize your illustration by considering only values or achromatically. By considering values, compositional issues such as form definition, contrast, lighting and mood, can all be worked in to color selection, refinement and completion of an illustration. Shapes, silhouettes, and issues such as compositional tangents that may be overlooked in a full color image, can be easily considered. Color can be so overwhelmingly impressive and distracting that it is easy to shortchange the fundamentals of good composition. Arguably, the structural composition of your sketch will have more influence on a viewer’s aesthetic interest than will the color.

An effective color scheme can attract attention to an image, describe a time or setting in an illustration, set a mood and atmosphere within an image, provide an organizational hierarchy to a composition, aid in the identity of an object, and enhance the overall effectiveness of an image narrative or concept.


Color is the impression on the brain transmitted through the biological mechanisms in the human eye resulting from sensations caused by light. Visible light is wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation that can be perceived by the eye.

In the Too Much Information Category

The wavelength category of “visible light” is within the range of 380 to 740 nanometers (nm). Red light is from 625 to 740 nm, orange is from at 590 to 625 nm, yellow is from 565 to 590 nm, green is from 520 to 565 nm, cyan is from 500 to 520 nm, blue is from 435 to 500 nm, and finally violet is from 380 to 435 nm. Incidentally, a nanometer is a unit of length in the metric system equivalent to one billionth of a meter. The electromagnetic spectrum of wavelength categories includes radio waves, microwaves, infrared waves, x-ray waves, gamma rays, and ultraviolet waves.


When light hits an object, electromagnetic wavelengths are reflected back to the eye. The eye senses the reflected wavelengths of light and perceives/sees them as color. Objects reflect and absorb wavelengths. When an object absorbs all wavelengths we see black, and when it reflects them we see white. The entire range of wavelengths reflected back to the eye produces the color spectrum.

Single Color

A primary color scheme consists of red, blue, and yellow. Primary colors are the basis for creating other color schemes. Combining non-primary colors cannot create primary colors.

Primary colors.

When two of the three primary colors are mixed together a secondary color is produced. The three possible combinations result in the secondary colors of orange, green, and violet.

Secondary colors.

Part of the 12 color wheel system, tertiary colors are created by mixing one secondary and one primary color, e.g., mixing blue and violet to create blue-violet. These mixtures result in the creation of the six remaining colors of the color wheel. Tertiary colors all have hyphenated names, each name being a combination of a primary and secondary colors; yellow-orange, red-orange, red-violet, blue-violet, blue-green, and yellow-green.

Tertiary colors.

An achromatic color scheme is one that is colorless using only blacks, whites, and grays. Achromatic colors have zero saturation and only neutral hue.

The color wheel translated into achromatic colors.

A monochromatic color scheme is solely based on one color hue. A monochromatic color scheme can be one color, or an applied range of values based on one color, i.e., black and white can be used to darken and lighten the value of the color to create tints and shades.

The color wheel translated into an example of monochromatic colors.

Two Color 

A color scheme possessing or exhibiting two colors. The colors do not have to conform to a structured relationship such as a complimentary color scheme.

Example of dichromatic colors.

A diadic or diad color scheme uses two colors that are separated by one color on the color wheel. Examples would be red and orange, blue-violet and blue-green, red-violet and red-orange, etc.

Example of didactic colors.

A color scheme using two colors that directly oppose one another on the color wheel. Yellow and purple, red and green, and blue and orange are all opposites and therefore complementary colors.

Example of complimentary colors.

Three Color

A trichromatic color scheme consists of three colors. The term is often used to refer to the red, green, and blue color receptors in human vision.

Example of trichromatic colors.

Split Complementary
A color scheme using three colors in a fixed configuration where colors two and three are adjacent to the complement of the main color. Examples would be yellow, blue-violet, and red-violet; or red-violet, green, and yellow, etc.

Example of split complementary color structure.

A triadic color scheme uses three colors that are equally spaced from each other on the color wheel. In addition to primary and secondary colors being triadic color schemes, many other combinations can also make up a triadic scheme; such as red-orange, red, and red violet; or yellow-green, blue-violet, and red-orange; etc.

Example of a triadic color structure.

A subset of a triadic color scheme, an analogous color scheme is any three adjacent primary, secondary, or tertiary colors on the color wheel.  Because each color in an analogous scheme shares a mix color with its closest neighbor the scheme is also referred to as a harmonious color scheme.

Example of analogous colors.

Split Analogous
A color scheme using three colors in a fixed configuration where two colors are one space away from a main color rather than being adjacent. Examples would be yellow, orange and green; and red-violet; or red-violet, blue-violet, and red-orange, etc.

Example of split analogous colors.

Four Color

The tetradic or tetrad color scheme is system with four colors based on the use of two sets of complimentary colors. It is also called the quadratic, and the double complementary color scheme. The tetradic configuration results in a number of possible color combinations.

Example of a tetradic color structure.