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Colour Theory: Choosing A Colour Scheme

Colour Theory: Choosing A Colour Scheme main article image
Posted on April 3, 2021 by Melika Jeddi

With so many beautiful colours out there, sometimes it can feel impossible to decide which ones to go with for a project. Whichever colours you go with will define how people view your piece, regardless of the medium, and so you need to make sure that you make the right choice. Fortunately, Colour Theory is a science dedicated to just that! It examines which colours will go well together, and which emotions they’ll evoke in the viewer. All colours have a meaning, whether you’re conscious of it or not, and will make the viewer feel a certain way. So, with that in mind, let’s consider the different angles you’ll need to pay attention to when choosing a colour!

Basic Colour Schemes

If you’re new to Colour Theory, it might be wise to choose a more basic colour scheme that uses tried and tested colour combinations. These usually involve only 1-3 colours, so are best suited to smaller projects, or mediums where you can get away with having a minimal range of colours. If you’re doing a more complex artwork, you’d probably want to consider using a colour palette with more hues, but these are always worth keeping in mind.


These colour schemes involve using different shades of just one colour. By altering the brightness or the saturation, you can create a lot of variation within a hue, and it can be very effective! You can decide which hue to go with for your monochromatic colour scheme by considering the emotion that it gives off… More on that later in the article!

Examples of monochromatic palettes for red.


These are colours which sit opposite each other on the colour wheel. A colour wheel shows which colours gradient into each other, and encompasses all known basic hues. As colours essentially have no limit in number, a colour wheel can be very detailed with many segments, or very basic with only 6 segments (the primary and secondary colours). For the purposes of Colour Theory, a 12 segment colour wheel is used. Some examples of complementary colours are:

– Blue and orange

– Red and green

– Purple and yellow

If you’re using complementary colours, try to make sure they’re of a similar saturation and brightness to each other, as it may not work as neatly if one colour is really bright and vibrant, and the other is dark and unsaturated.


This colour scheme involves colours which sit next to each other, again using a 12 segment colour wheel. The colours will naturally go well together due to where they fit in the colour spectrum, however, there’s unlikely to be much contrast, so the resulting image is unlikely to be particularly striking as there won’t be much visual variation. Some examples of analogous colours are:

– Red, red-purple, purple

– Blue, blue-purple, purple

– Green, green-yellow, yellow

Warm and Cool Colours

Once you understand the basic colour schemes, you can move on to more complicated palettes, but to do that, it’s best to have an understanding of the difference between warm and cool colours, as this has a big effect on how different hues interact with each other.

Warm colours are hues such as orange, red, and yellow, that are associated with warmth and cosiness. They evoke responses of heat and energy, and will immediately draw the viewer’s attention. On a project, the warm colours will feel closer, as if they are coming towards you.

Cool colours, on the other hand, are shades such as blue, green, and purple. These are associated with cold temperatures, and thus evoke feelings such as calmness and relaxation. They are less ‘in your face’, and can be used with more subtlety than warm colours. When used in a project, areas that use cool colours will fade into the background, and seem as though they are moving away from you. They can make a piece feel more spacious and open.

Warm and Cool Colours

When creating your colour palette, consider using a range of warm and cool colours to create foreground and background interest. Choose warm colours for the parts of your project that you want to catch your viewer’s eye. If there are parts of the project that you want to be less obvious, use cool colours for these, as they’ll still be pleasing to look at, without being as attention-grabbing as warm colours. When used correctly, a decent balance of warm and cool colours can make for a very striking piece.

Colour Emotions

One of the most important things to consider with your colour scheme, is the purpose of the piece. Colours all have different emotions associated with them, and these are worth knowing when you use a particular colour in your project. Here’s a summary of the main associations for the primary and secondary colours, as well as white and black.

Red – Red is associated with intense emotions such as passion and danger. Using it in a piece will provoke a sense of urgency and excitement. It’s very vibrant and will stand out amongst the other colours.

Orange – Orange is associated with warmth and joy, as well as creativity. As such, it’s a very motivating colour, and using it in a project will make the viewer feel a sense of positivity and determination.

Yellow – Yellow is the colour which is most likely to draw somebody’s eye. It’s considered a happy colour, probably due to how bright and vibrant it is, and is also associated with summer and spring. If you’re making a bright and cheerful project, yellow is a great option. However, depending on the context, yellow can also be associated with sickliness and cowardice, so be aware of that when creating a project.

Green – Green is most commonly associated with nature and healing, it’s why a lot of medical companies use green in their logos. It’s also got connotations with growth and fertility.

Blue – Blue is the colour of the sky and the sea, both of which tend to have a calming effect on people. It’s associated with themes of freedom and imagination, and lets viewers connect with their inner self. It’s also considered representing intelligence.

Purple – Purple is associated with luxury and royalty, probably due to the fact that it very rarely appears in nature, and historically only the very rich could afford purple garments. It portrays power and ambition, and will give elegance to a project you use it in.

White – White is known for representing purity and innocence. Using white in your projects can imply a cleanliness and spirituality. Leaving empty space in your piece will also accentuate any colours that you do use, by making them stand out more.

Black – Black has many different associations, many of them negative. It’s the colour of death and destruction, of grief and fear. Using black in your projects can convey a seriousness and strength, and the total lack of colour actually gives more meaning to the colours that you do choose to use.

Colour Meanings

Using Your Knowledge

Now that you have a basic understanding of colour schemes, and how to determine the meaning of colours that you use, you can decide how to apply that knowledge. When picking colours for a project, try to consider the balance of warm and cool colours, and whether you’re using them in a natural way. Ultimately, any colour scheme that you pick should be chosen with the following ideas in mind:

– Do the colours go well together?

– Is there enough foreground and background interest?

– Do the colours convey the meaning I intend them to?

If you bear those questions in mind, then any colour scheme you choose should do a great job of creating the perfect project!

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