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Posted on Feb 10, 2011 | 9 comments

Basics of Color Theory

Basics of Color Theory

I’ve been thinking about writing a post on the basics of color theory for a little while now, but procrastination always got the best of me…until now.

Choosing the right color is trickier than you might think. If you’ve ever repainted a wall because the color you picked was repulsive, you know what I’m talking about. Some colors simply work well together and others do not. That’s why it’s imperative for every designer specializing in stage lighting, graphics, video, photography and architectural design to develop a good sense of color. Knowing how to create great color palettes is the difference between mediocre and extraordinary designs.

So, to help you understand color theory a little better, I’ve written a high level view of the major 8 color harmonies. [with no consideration of other impacting factors like hue, saturation & brightness] Once you understand how these harmonies work, you’ll be able to pick the perfect color combinations.


1 mono Basics of Color TheoryMonochrome literally means, “one color.” So, when you’re creating a monochromatic color harmony, just remember to use the same color with varying degrees of brightness within the design. On a color wheel, monochromatic colors form a straight line to the center of the wheel.

I love this example of “Tea Escapes.” It’s so easy to identify monochromatic design; notice that the colors used are all from the same color on the wheel.

1monochromatic Basics of Color Theory


2 complimentary Basics of Color TheoryComplimentary color schemes are one of the most popular color harmonies, especially in the world of stage lighting. Its name describes exactly what we want: two colors that compliment each other.

When you look at the color wheel, simply choose two colors directly oposite one another. Keep in mind that these color selections should also the same distance from the center of the wheel.

2complementary Basics of Color Theory

Split Complementary

3 splitcomplimentary Basics of Color TheoryThe Split Complementary harmony is similar to the Complementary color harmony, the only difference is that now you’ll be using three colors.

When you look at the color wheel, you’ll notice that the colors form a 1969 peace sign. (Which I affectionally call this harmony) The Firefox logo is a great example.

3splitcomplimentary Basics of Color Theory

Double Complementary

4 doublecomplimentary Basics of Color TheoryOkay, now things are getting a little trickier. The Double Complementary forces us to use FOUR COLORS!

Simply put, the double complementary color scheme uses four colors arranged into two complementary pairs. Look at the color wheel below. You’ll notice that the color choices form the shape of a rectangle. Check out the photo of the interior design below: perfect Double Complementary color harmony.

4doublecomplimentary Basics of Color Theory


5 analogous Basics of Color TheoryThe Analogous color harmony is another favorite among stage lighting designers. Just do a quick google search and you’ll see what I mean.

Analogous color schemes use colors that are next to each other on the color wheel. Analogous schemes are often found in nature and are harmonious and pleasing to the eye. Notice that the example below actually uses four overlapping colors that bleed together.

5analogous Basics of Color Theory

Accented Analogic

6 accentedanaloguous Basics of Color TheoryThe Accented Analogic  harmony is kin to the Analogous. It is actually a combination of the Analogous and Complementary color schemes. In addition to colors that are adjacent to each other, it uses a complementary accent at its opposite.

On the color wheel, the Accented Analogic forms the shape of a witch’s broom.

6accentedanalogous Basics of Color Theory


7 triad Basics of Color TheoryIf the points on the color wheel form a triangle, you are most likely using the Triad color harmony.

The triad purist prefers an equilateral triangle with three sixty degree angles, centered on the wheel. Fortunately, the Burger King logo serves us as a fine example.

7triad Basics of Color Theory


8 square Basics of Color TheoryThe final color harmony of the day is called the square.

Though this harmony isn’t one of my favorites, it certainly creates a quirky feel to any design. Notice that the points on the color wheel form a perfect square centered on the color wheel.

8square Basics of Color Theory


If you’re still struggling, be sure to check out the hundreds of online color schemers. One of my favorites is on I also purchased the ColorSchemer iPhone App which allows me to create great color schemes anywhere with my iphone.

Have fun coloring!


  1. So, like, I have never, ever considered all of this, and I am fairly sure no one else I know has. So do you think people naturally tend towards one or another of the schemes – in other words, they may not consciously choose one, but head towards one all the time?

    I mean, you’re an artist guy. Your choices in color are weird compared to mine (or were back in the day). Do you think this says anything about the personality of the person, the skill set of the person, the intelligence of them?

    I wonder

  2. I feel like I went through a deeper version of an art lesson my mom taught me a loooong time ago. I guess it comes with the territory of growing up with an artist.

    This is good stuff through as I glean through it right now.

    My brain is a bit too fried tonight to engross this and enmesh it all in my mind – but I will be back over the weekend to read it through again.

  3. This is seriously amazing! Dave Milam you are so legit.

  4. Super impressive Mr. Milam. I shall notice future stage set ups more closely. I never thought about their deliberately using color schemes for effect.

  5. Curt, the great news is that regardless of your “taste” in color, you can still use one of the 8 color harmonies to create cool schemes. Just pick any color as your starting point and away you go.

    And by the way…I do think that there is a connection between “color coolness” and intelligence.

  6. yay! i love color…they call me rainbow bright.

    i have always noticed the colors of the stage set-ups. the colors chosen, whether or not someone is consciously aware, can guide their emotions…which can be a lovely experience coupled with anointed worship. for example, i love blue and orange together during an energetic song. blue and orange literally vibrate against each other not allowing the human eye to “rest”, therefore creating energy.

    i’ve had the idea to bring in my color wheel from design school when i help with video…and in light of this post, i have put it inside my Bible so it will be with me whenever i’m at church! ha:)

  7. I enjoyed the concision of your color theory explanation, and the color wheel diagram with examples. Very clean and useful. Thanks

  8. thank you for these explanations.. learned it back in school.. but sometimes you forget these basics stuff when you start doing work / projects.
    great diagram and examples.. thank you!! :D