Color Theory Terms You Need to Know: Understanding the Basics

Color is not just a visual experience; it's a language. From the soothing blues of a calm ocean to the vibrant reds of a fiery sunset, colors evoke emotions, set moods, and communicate messages without words. Understanding the fundamental color theory terms unlocks a world of creativity in art, design, and beyond.

woman holding color cards

In this blog post, we are going to dive into the basics of color theory, providing you with a foundational understanding that will enhance your artistic endeavors, design projects, and even everyday choices. Whether you're looking to deepen your knowledge or simply curious about the magic of colors, this guide is for you.

What is Color Theory?

Color theory is the science and art of how colors interact with each other. It explores the relationships between colors, the psychological effects they have on us, and how they can be combined to create visually appealing compositions. Whether you're painting a masterpiece, designing a website, or choosing an outfit, understanding color theory principles can help you make informed decisions.

At its core, color theory provides a framework for organizing colors into systems that are not only aesthetically pleasing but also meaningful. It helps artists and designers create harmonious palettes, evoke specific emotions, and communicate messages effectively through color.

The Color Wheel

the color wheel showing the basic color theory terms for the colors

One of the most fundamental tools in color theory is the color wheel. Imagine a circle where all the colors of the spectrum are arranged in a logical order. This wheel serves as a visual representation of how colors relate to each other.

Primary Colors:

  • Red: A bold and attention-grabbing color, often associated with passion, energy, and danger.
  • Blue: A calming and serene color, symbolizing tranquility, trust, and stability.
  • Yellow: A cheerful and bright color, evoking happiness, warmth, and optimism.

Secondary Colors:

When you mix two primary colors together, you get the secondary colors:

  • Orange: A vibrant and energetic hue blending the warmth of red and the cheerfulness of yellow.
  • Green: A refreshing and harmonious color combining the tranquility of blue with the freshness of yellow.
  • Purple: A regal and mysterious color resulting from the union of the calming blue and the passionate red.

Tertiary Colors:

These are the colors formed by mixing a primary color with a neighboring secondary color on the wheel. Tertiary colors offer a wide range of possibilities for creating nuanced palettes and adding depth to artworks or designs.

Understanding the color wheel and the relationships between these primary, secondary, and tertiary colors is the first step in mastering color theory. It provides a solid foundation for exploring more advanced concepts such as color harmonies, contrasts, and psychological effects.

Hue, Value, and Saturation

Now that we've explored the color wheel and its primary, secondary, and tertiary colors, let's dive deeper into three essential properties of color: hue, value, and saturation.


colors on a color wheel showing what the term value is

Hue is what we typically think of as "color" itself. It refers to the pure, undiluted state of a color without any additions of black or white. For instance, when we say "red," we are referring to its hue—a distinct quality that sets it apart from blue, yellow, or any other color. The color wheel is a visual representation of different hues arranged in a logical order.


value of color in a color wheel

Value describes the lightness or darkness of a color. When we add white to a hue, we create a lighter value, often called a "tint." Conversely, when we add black to a hue, we get a darker value, known as a "shade." Understanding value is crucial in creating contrast, depth, and three-dimensionality in artworks or designs.

  • Tints: Lighter versions of a hue created by adding white.
  • Shades: Darker versions of a hue achieved by adding black.


saturation of colors in a color wheel

Saturation, also referred to as chroma or intensity, describes the purity or vividness of a color. A highly saturated color appears vivid and bright, while a desaturated color appears more muted or dull. Saturation levels can range from intense and vibrant to soft and subtle.

  • High Saturation: Colors are pure and vibrant.
  • Low Saturation: Colors are more muted or toned down.

Understanding these properties—hue, value, and saturation—allows artists and designers to create dynamic compositions, play with contrasts, and evoke specific emotions through their color choices. 

Color Harmonies

5 color schemes shown on a color wheel along with their color theory term names

Color harmonies are combinations of colors that are visually appealing and create a sense of balance and unity. By understanding different color harmonies, artists and designers can create compositions that are harmonious, striking, or even intentionally discordant for specific effects. 

Analogous Colors:

Analogous colors are colors that are adjacent to each other on the color wheel. They share a common hue and create a sense of harmony and cohesion. This harmony can range from subtle to more pronounced, depending on the colors chosen.

  • Example: A palette of blues and greens evokes a calming and serene atmosphere.

Complementary Colors:

Complementary colors are opposite each other on the color wheel. When paired together, they create a dynamic contrast that makes each color appear more vibrant and intense.

  • Example: The combination of red and green, or blue and orange, creates a striking visual impact.

Triadic Colors:

Triadic color schemes consist of three colors equally spaced around the color wheel. This creates a sense of balance while still offering contrast and vibrancy.

  • Example: The combination of red, yellow, and blue creates a lively and balanced palette.

Split-Complementary and Tetradic Colors:

  • Split-Complementary: Similar to complementary colors but with a variation. Instead of using the direct opposite, it uses the two colors adjacent to the complement.
  • Tetradic: A palette that includes two sets of complementary colors, offering a wide range of possibilities.

Understanding these color harmonies empowers artists and designers to create visually engaging compositions, whether in paintings, graphic design, interior decorating, or any other creative endeavor.

Warm and Cool Colors

warm and cool colors shown on the color wheel

Warm and cool colors play a significant role in setting the mood and atmosphere of a composition. These distinctions are more about the psychological effects of colors rather than their temperature.

Warm Colors:

  • Warm colors include reds, oranges, and yellows.
  • They evoke feelings of energy, passion, and warmth.
  • Often used to create a sense of excitement or to draw attention.

Cool Colors:

  • Cool colors include blues, greens, and purples.
  • They evoke feelings of calmness, tranquility, and freshness.
  • Often used to create a sense of relaxation or to convey a serene mood.

Understanding the differences between warm and cool colors allows artists and designers to manipulate the emotional impact of their work. Whether aiming for a vibrant and energetic composition or a calming and soothing environment, the choice of warm or cool colors can make a significant difference.

Color Psychology

Colors have the power to influence our emotions, perceptions, and behaviors. This field of study, known as color psychology, explores how different colors can evoke specific feelings and responses in individuals.

  • Red: Often associated with passion, energy, and excitement. It can also signify danger or urgency.
  • Blue: Symbolizes calmness, trust, and stability. It can promote feelings of relaxation and peace.
  • Yellow: Evokes feelings of happiness, optimism, and warmth. It can also grab attention and signify caution.
  • Green: Represents nature, growth, and balance. It can have a calming and refreshing effect.
  • Purple: Symbolizes luxury, creativity, and mystery. It can evoke a sense of royalty and sophistication.
  • Orange: Associated with enthusiasm, vitality, and adventure. It can also signify warmth and excitement.

Understanding the psychological effects of colors can help designers and marketers create impactful branding, advertising campaigns, and even interior spaces that resonate with their target audience.

Color in Design and Branding

Colors play a crucial role in design and branding, influencing how we perceive and interact with products, services, and companies. Consider some iconic examples:

  • McDonald's: The bright red and yellow colors used in the McDonald's logo and branding evoke feelings of energy, hunger, and excitement. These colors are often associated with fast food and quick service.
  • Facebook: The use of blue in Facebook's branding communicates trust, reliability, and professionalism. It creates a sense of security and familiarity for users.
  • Starbucks: The deep green color of Starbucks' logo conveys ideas of growth, freshness, and nature. It aligns with the brand's emphasis on quality, sustainability, and the coffee experience.

By strategically choosing colors, businesses can create strong brand identities, establish emotional connections with consumers, and stand out in competitive markets.

Applying Color Theory

Now that we've explored the basic terms and concepts of color theory, how can you apply this knowledge to your own projects and everyday life? Here are some practical tips:

  • Art and Design: Use color harmonies to create visually appealing artworks, logos, websites, marketing materials, and artwork. Experiment with different color combinations to convey specific moods or messages.
  • Interior Design: Choose color schemes that reflect the desired atmosphere of a room. Warm colors like reds and oranges can make a space feel cozy and inviting, while cool colors like blues and greens create a calming and serene environment.
  • Fashion and Personal Style: Understand which colors complement each other to create flattering outfits. Consider the mood or impression you want to convey when selecting clothing colors for different occasions.

Remember that color perception can vary among individuals and cultures, so it's essential to consider your target audience when applying color theory. Don't be afraid to experiment and trust your instincts!


Color theory is a powerful tool that can elevate your creative projects, enhance your designs, and even influence how others perceive your work. By understanding the basic color theory terms such as hue, value, saturation, and color harmonies, you have taken the first step toward mastering this color theory.

Remember to experiment, embrace creativity, and have fun with colors as you embark on your colorful journey!

Additional Resources

color theory courses

For those eager to dive deeper into color theory, here are some recommended resources:

These resources can provide further insights, inspiration, and practical guidance as you continue your journey into the captivating world of color theory.

Thank you for joining me on this exploration of the basic terms of color theory. Stay colorful, stay creative, and until next time!

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