What Is Colour Theory?

What Is Colour Theory?

Photography, Joseph Perez,


What Is Colour Theory?

Want to choose colours that go well together? The tool creators, designers and artists use can help.

Ever wondered why some colours look good together and some combinations just seem off? Well, it's because of colour theory

Colour theory is the historical body of knowledge that describes the "behaviour of colours," especially the ones that apply to colour mixing, contrasting, harmony and symbolism.

The history of colour theory goes as far back as antiquity, with early musings by Aristotle and Claudius Ptolemy. The influence of light was discussed by mathematicians al-Kindi and Ibn al-Haytham. More modern colour theory and its principles were found in the writings of Leone Battista Alberti and Leonardo da Vinci.

So, how can you apply it to your life? The easiest way is to use the colour wheel.



Image, courtesy of Proven Winners.


The wheel is divided into 12 sections, each representing a different colour. There are three primary colours, three secondary colours and six tertiary colours:


  • Primary colours: Red, yellow and blue. These pigments cannot be mixed or formed by any combination of other colours.
  • Secondary colours: Green, orange and purple. They are formed by mixing the primary colours.
  • Tertiary colours: Yellow-orange, red-orange, red-purple, blue-purple, blue-green and yellow-green. They are made by mixing a primary and secondary colour, hence why they have two-word names.

When choosing a colour scheme for your home, for instance, you can refer to the colour wheel. Pick colours that are next to each other in order to create monochromatic, analogous or triadic combinations. You can choose two colours opposite of each other for a contrasting (complementary) combination.




A monochromatic, or tone-on-tone, colour scheme uses different shades of one colour.



Analogous refers to using two colours found side by side on the wheel (yellow and green).




By the same logic, triadic refers to using three colours next to each other on the wheel (yellow, orange and red).

Contrasting (complementary)



A complementary colour scheme is using two colours that oppose each other on the wheel (here, green and pink).





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What Is Colour Theory?