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What Everyone Should Know About Color Theory

by Suchi Rudra
art & design, featured

Mary Jane Begin discusses the color theory used in her illustrated book.

Anyone who creates images needs to work with color, whether you’re a designer, illustrator, or photographer. Think about how you work with color–recognize yourself in any of the following?

Hit or miss: You use color and get it right about half the time. You’re not really sure why it works or doesn’t.
Consistent palette: You use the same set of colors in different quantities for every project. You have a palette that works, but it limits your voice.
Terrified of color: You work in black and white and only use tints of color.

If you do, you’re not alone. Mary Jane Begin, a professor at the Rhode Island School of Design who also teaches Color Fundamentals here on CreativeLive, finds that most of her students tend to fall into one of these three categories. What this probably means is that it’s time to master the fundamentals of color. You may not be using color to its full potential because you haven’t truly understood the basics of color theory.

But anyone can learn to make great color choices—for every project, every time. Once you’ve learned the principles behind the use of color, you can apply color with confidence. Carve out some time to go through the rules of color theory, play around with colors and watch your palette potential explode!


Feel confident in your use of color. Learn more.


Whether you’re starting to explore color theory or just brushing up, take a look at these terms below to help you unravel what Begin refers to as the “mystery of color”:

Value: The relative lightness or darkness of a color
Contrast: The state of being opposite or strikingly different from something else
Hierarchy: Refers to the arrangement of elements to imply a level of importance
Temperature: Refers to how warm or cool a color appears to be
Temperature Contrast: The coolest color contrasting the warmest color
Light: Colors are not visible without light. Light is a powerful design tool for expressing emotion and functioning in design
Saturation: A color is thought to be saturated when it is at it’s most intense or vibrant. To reduce a color’s vibrancy is to de-saturate it or neutralize it
Focal Point: The first place of interest for the viewer
Opacity & Transparency: A color is said to be opaque if it hides what is below it. A transparent color allows light to pass through it, making the surface below the color visible
Complements: Refers to colors that are opposite on the color wheel
Ground: This refers to the color of the surface or base coat of color that you begin with in a piece
Color harmony: Colors are said to be “harmonized” if they work together in a piece. This can be achieved by using a ground or a limited number of colors. There are
Color charts: A useful tool of reference for establishing all of the colors that you can create
Color palette: The range of colors used by an artist to create a work of art

Get to know the rules first, and then you can go crazy with color–after all, rules were meant to be broken.


Feel confident in your use of color. Learn more.


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Suchi Rudra

Suchi Rudra is a nomadic writer of articles, stories and songs, taking inspiration from her travels. Follow her wanderings at Tread Lightly, Travel Naturally.