Color Theory Basics: Color Combinations

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In a recent post, we introduced the basics of the color wheel, and how its spectrum of pure hues is used to create the infinite shades we see in fine art, photography, and in the “real world” around us. Today, we’ll take a quick look at the art and science of color combinations.

A skillful combination of colors is visually balanced and comfortable on the eyes. On the other hand, clashing or jarring compositions can result in an unpleasant effect. To master the right combination, it’s important to have a basic knowledge of the relationships and contrasts that exist between colors. Below are six basic types of relationships:

Monochromatic: This term is used to refer to colors that are varying shades of the same family, such as light blue and dark blue. These combinations typically result in a soothing, non-jarring effect.

Complementary: When two colors are directly opposite one another on the color wheel (such as red and green), they are considered to have a complementary relationship. Using complementary colors can create a strong contrast in artwork, but it’s best to use them in smaller doses to avoid overpowering the viewer.

Split-Complementary: This type of relationship exists between three colors: one shade and two other hues spaced at equal intervals from the first shade’s complementary color. This is a good choice for artists who are just starting out with color experimentation.

Double-Complementary: Two sets of complementary colors are referred to as double-complementary. The distance between the two sets will impact the final color saturation of the piece.

Analogous: This type of relationship refers to hues located next to one another on the color wheel, such as green and yellow. Often mimicking the color combinations found in nature, analogous color schemes create a calming effect.

Triad: When three colors are spaced at equal intervals on the color wheel, they have a triad relationship. For best results, one color should be chosen as the dominant one, with smaller doses of the other two used as complements.

When trying out these relationships, keep in mind that many other factors — such as the warmth or coolness of the colors and the ratio or balance of hues — will impact the final composition.

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