Beginner’s Guide to Color Theory

Beginner’s Guide to Color Theory

Color theory is a crucial part of a creative designer’s work. If you recall, we have been taught the basics of color theory in school. 

There are three primary colors – red, yellow, and blue. Any color can be created by mixing these three colors. 

However, the implementation of color in design can often seem complex and confusing to the beginners. 

To simplify the color choice process, we are posting this article, which explains the basics of color theory. 

Color systems 

A color system is a method by which color is reproduced. There are two primary color systems: 1) additive and 2) subtractive or reflective. 

01. Additive 

Additive color works with anything that emits or radiates light, which means anything that emits light (such as the sun, tv screen, or projector) uses additive colors. 

The mixture of different wavelengths of light creates different colors.  These kinds of colors become brighter and lighter with more light. 

02. Subtractive 

Subtractive color works with reflected light. Meaning, the way a particular color reflects different wavelengths of light determines its apparent color to the human eye. 

Books and other print materials use subtractive color for their front covers. 

The Color Wheel 

To easily recognize the relationship between different colors, the concept of the modern color wheel was developed around the 18th century. 

The color wheel allows us to see which colors are complementary (opposite on the wheel), analogous (adjacent on the wheel), triadic (three colors positioned at 120 degrees on the wheel from each other). 

The three components of a color 

While non-designers refer to all shades of yellow as yellow, designers can recognize different shades or tints, saturations, and hues in the yellow color. 

So, there are three primary component parts that help us define a color – hue, saturation and brightness. 


This is the position on the color wheel and represents the base color itself. This is typically referred to in degrees of the color wheel. So, the yellow color will appear between 50 and 60 degrees, with the perfect yellow appearing at 56 degrees. 


This represents how saturated (or rich) a color is. Low saturation results in less overall color, eventually becoming a shade of grey when the saturation percentage is 0. Saturation is normally determined in percentages between 0 and 100%. 


This is how bright a color is, typically expressed as a percentage between 0 and 100%. A yellow at 0% brightness will be black, while the same yellow hue and saturation at 100% brightness will be the full yellow color. 


Though there’s much more to explore in the world of color, with this basic knowledge, you can begin to understand the use of color in composition and design. 

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