Colour Theory Basics

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Colour Theory - Quick Reference Sheet

Colour Theory – Quick Reference Sheet

Everyone should know some basic knowledge of colours. Even if you are not a designer, as a client, having knowledge of colours will allow you to make a well-informed decision and appreciate the colours used. This article intends to share with you the colours types, colour harmonies, and colour temperature.  

Colour Types

The colour wheel is most often broken up into 12 colours and 3 types.

Colour Wheel

Colour Wheel – Primary, Secondary and Tertiary colours.

Primary Colour: The traditional colour theory (the colour used in paint and pigments) deem primary colour as Red, Yellow, Blue. These colours are thought to be the colours that can’t be created by mixing any other colours together.

This is later being replace modern scientific colour theory whereby magenta, yellow, and cyan are the primary colours. This is because red can be produced by mixing magenta and yellow, blue can be produced by mixing cyan and magenta, and green can be produced by mixing yellow and cyan. However, to prevent confusion, we shall not go into the other colour wheels.

Secondary Colour: A result of mixing two primary colours of equal amounts. Thus, the secondary colours are Orange (red + yellow), Purple (red + blue), Green (yellow + blue).

Tertiary Colour: A result of mixing one primary and one secondary colour of equal amounts. These 6 colours are usually named as a combination of their parent colours, i.e. yellow-orange.

Colour Harmonies

Colour harmony delivers visual interest and a sense of order.

Complementary Colours

Complementary Colours: Any two colours which are directly opposite each other on the colour wheel, such as red and green.

These opposing colours create maximum contrast and maximum stability. Complementary colours are great if you wish to make something stand out. However, text using a colour complementary to the background does not work well.  

Split Complementary Colours

Split-Complementary Colours: A variation of the complementary colour scheme. In addition to the base colour, it uses the two colours adjacent to its complement.

Split-complementary colours have a strong contrast but with less tension compared to complementary colour scheme. In addition, this scheme is easy to achieve.

Analogous ColoursAnalogous Colours: Colours adjacent to each other on the colour wheel – You can choose one dominant colour (usually primary or secondary colour) in the middle and two colours (usually tertiary colours) on either side. For example, red-purple, red, and red-orange.

Analogous colours can create a rich, monochromatic look. It is less obtrusive, less vibrant and it lacks contrast.

Triad ColoursTriadic Colours: 3 colours evenly spaced (with 3 colours in between) around the colour wheel. Similarly, with other harmonies, you can choose one as a base and others as the accent(s).

Triadic colours tend to be quite high contrast and usually stand out among the other rules.

Colour Temperatures

Colour temperature is the perceived warmth or coolness of the colour. It is related to the physiological and psychological aspects of colours. Furthermore, within one colour spectrum, there are different temperatures. For example, warm red and cool red. Thus, colour temperature affects the tone of the colour(s) used.

Take note that sometimes the colour temperature is relative and what is its temperature can only be determine through comparison.

In addition, colour temperature also affect viewers’ perception of how the object appear positioned in space.

Colour Temperature

Warm Colours: Colours with red hues, such as red, orange, and yellow. Thus, warm colours are energetic, and give a sense of warmth.

They also produce a visual effect, causing colours to look as if they are moving toward the viewer. Hence, they stand out from the page.

Cool Colours: Colours with blue hues, such as blue, cyan, and green. These colours have stabilization effect, giving an impression of calm and cool.

Cool colours look as if they are moving away from the viewer, thus, they make good background colour.


Colour is a wide topic, certainly much more complex than what I had mentioned above. However, if you really can’t remember all this knowledge, just keep in mind that when choosing more than one colour, ensure your selection of colours have some contrast and balance. 

In addition, colour is very important in branding and marketing. Learn The Psychology of Colour in Logo Designs

Cyrus Yung has been generating sales & marketing leads through Pay-Per-Click marketing via Google AdWords, Yahoo Search Marketing & Bing since 2008. He used to be a naval diver before he left to join one of Asia’s largest seminar organizer company in 2006. Having worked and organized some of the largest seminars in Singapore, he left in 2008 to pursue his passion for internet entrepreneurship. With a proven track record of generating more than 32,000 qualified sales leads from 2008 to 2020, he helps companies in Singapore to build various online properties with high traffic & converting sales.

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