Choosing Colors that Work Together

Several readers have wanted to know the best methods for choosing colors that work together. Experimenting is a good way to discover those happy color relationships, but it does get old fairly quickly. Isn’t there a better way?

Yes, there is, and I’d like to welcome fellow artist Sarah Renae Clark to tell us about those methods.

Basic Color Theory and Choosing Colors that Work Together

by Sarah Renae Clark

When we hear the words ‘color theory’, most people think back to their early school days and learning about mixing red with blue with yellow. But color theory is about so much more than just basic color mixing.

Let’s run through some basic color theory so that you can have a better understanding of which colors work well together and WHY.

Basic Color Theory

The Color Wheel

Most of us are familiar with the basic color wheel, made up of primary, secondary and tertiary colors. The color wheel was developed by Sir Isaac Newton in 1666 and has been used ever since.

The primary colors are the 3 main colors that make up every other color. These are red, blue and yellow.

When we mix any 2 of the primary colors together, we get the secondary colors. These are orange, green and purple.

When we mix a primary color with a secondary color, we get a tertiary color. These are the colors that sit between the primary and secondary colors on the color wheel. These are named after the colors that they are made from, such as red-orange, green-blue, red-purple, and so on.

Choosing Colors that Work Together - Color Wheels

Choosing colors that work together

This is where the color wheel gets interesting. Instead of just randomly choosing two colors and hoping they match, we can use the science behind the color wheel to quickly choose colors that will work well together.

When choosing more than two colors, try to focus on one main dominant color and use the other colors to support it.

Complementary colors – Two colors that are directly opposite each other on the color wheel, such as yellow and purple, or blue and orange.

Analogous colors – Three colors that are next to each other on the color wheel, such as red, red-purple and purple or orange, orange-yellow and yellow.

Triadic colors – Three colors that are evenly spaced on the color wheel (like a triangle).

Choosing Colors that Work Together - Color Combinations

Split-complementary colors – Similar to complementary colors, but instead of choosing one color on the opposite side, choose the two colors adjacent to the complimentary color, such as blue with yellow and orange.

Tetradic colors (A.K.A. Double-complementary) – Four colors, made up from two sets of complementary colors that make a rectangle on the color wheel, such as orange, purple, blue and yellow.

Highlights and Shading

Once you understand the basics of the color wheel, you can create additional colors by adding white or black to create shades (adding black) and tints (adding white).

You can also use monochromatic colors together – Various shades or tints of a single color, such as a range of light and dark blues.

Finding color inspiration

The color wheel isn’t the only source of color inspiration. Nature provides us with some amazing color palettes that work extremely well together.

You can find existing color palettes on my website where I’ve taken pulled the colors from various photos to create different color palettes with warm colors, cool colors, different themes, different moods (bright and fun or dark and moody). Explore the range here.

Adobe also has a fantastic color wheel tool where you can set rules (such as analogous, complementary, or monochromatic) and drag the cursor around the color wheel, which automatically matches the other colors for you.

The opportunities are endless

The color wheel is a great place to start to find colors that work together, but it doesn’t have to create a limit. You can choose colors from everywhere – and sometimes the best color combinations come from experimenting! So get creative and see what you can come up with!

About the author

Sarah Renae Clark is a coloring book artist and blogger at www.sarahrenaeclark.com*. A designer and artist for over 10 years, she loves working with color and regularly creates new color palettes for others to be inspired by. She has a huge selection of color palettes and tutorials available on her website. She works closely with other artists and also has a range of teaching articles on her website to help other creative entrepreneurs to build their own businesses too.

You can follow Sarah at:
Facebook: Facebook.com/sarahrenaeclark
Instagram: Instagram.com/sarahrenaeclark and Instagram.com/dailycolorpalettes
Pinterest: Pinterest.com/sarahrenaeclark
Twitter: Twitter.com/sarahrenaeclark

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  1. Hi Carrie, thank you for all the hard work you do for us on your website. I just wanted to let you know I have spotted what I think is a typo from my color training at least. The Tetradic colors you listed don’t match the example you show and don’t follow the definition of complentary colors on the color wheel. Just thought you’d like to know. It happens to the best of us!

    • Jenni,

      Thank you for reading the blog, and for letting me know about the typo. I’ll let the author know and see what she says!

      I’m glad the post was helpful to you.

      Carrie

  2. Thanks Carrie and Sarah, I ‘vs enjoyed learning from each of for a while now. Today’s info will definitely be a go to guide that I can use for years. I must say Sarah, the Color Catalog on your website is the best Coloring tool I have!

  3. This was very helpful as am just getting started with using colored pencils and not sure all the time what goes together. I tend to use a little scratch sheet and put the colors beside each other to see if they jive. I’m getting much better and this should help. Thank you.