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Ever wondered why some designs just look better than others? A lot of it comes down to colour theory basics! It’s essentially the secret recipe for making designs pop and getting brand messaging and marketing just right. In this article, we’ll be going over the colour theory basics like colour theory wheel, colour harmonies, primary & tertiary colours, composition & design). These are foundational colour theory basics you’d learn in an online Photoshop and graphic design course. So, let’s get into it! 

What is Colour Theory?

Colour theory is the study of how colour affects our perception and emotions, exploring how colours interact, contrast, and blend in art and design. It covers the biological basics of how we see colour, the creation of pleasing colour combinations, and the psychological impact colours have on mood and behaviour. Colour theory also guides designers on how to use colour effectively to communicate messages and replicate colours accurately across different mediums, ensuring consistency and impact in visual projects.

Colour Theory Wheel for Graphic Designers

Source: Zeka Graphic

Understanding Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Colours

In the world of colour and graphic design, there are three categories that you need to know:

  • Primary Colours: Red, blue, and yellow are our primary colours. They can't be made by mixing other colours, and stand strong on their own. They act as the building blocks for all other shades.
  • Secondary Colours: Mix two primaries and you get a secondary colour. Combine blue and yellow; you get green. Blend red and blue; purple is born. Mix red and yellow; and voila, you've made orange.
  • Tertiary Colours: This is where it gets even more interesting. Tertiary colours are the result of mixing a primary with a secondary. Red mixed with orange gives you a peach shade, and blue mixed with green gives you teal colour. These are the nuances that give designs a sophisticated touch.

Practically speaking, by understanding these colour relationships, you can create custom palettes for any project. Need a vibrant, eye-catching graphic? Lean on those primaries. Looking for something a bit more subtle? Tertiary colours offer complexity and depth. It's about having the know-how to mix and match with confidence, ensuring your designs have the visual impact you're aiming for.

Replication of Colour in Graphic Design 

The concept of "Replication of Colour" in colour theory focuses on how colours are accurately recreated and displayed across different mediums and materials, a crucial skill in art and design.

When you mix paints or use different dyes, you're engaging in colour mixing. This is straightforward in theory, but in practice, it can be complex because the materials and the specific pigments you use can alter the final colour.

  • In the world of printing, we often use the CMYK colour model. This stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Key (which is black). Printers mix these four base colours in different proportions to create a wide range of colours on paper. Each colour is a separate layer, and how much of each colour is used can greatly affect the final look of the print.
  • For digital designs, such as those seen on your computer or phone screen, the RGB colour model is used, which stands for Red, Green, and Blue. This model mixes light in various intensities directly on the screen to create different colours. Unlike CMYK, which is subtractive (adding more colour darkens the result because you're blocking more light), RGB is additive: the more colour you add, the lighter and brighter the result becomes.

Understanding these systems is vital for designers because it helps ensure that the colours chosen during the design process will look as intended on the final product, whether it's printed on a poster, shown on a website, or displayed on a billboard. It's about making sure the colours are consistent and convey the intended impact, no matter where or how they are viewed.

The Psychology of Colour in Graphic Design

The psychological impact of colour is a powerful tool in graphic design. It can influence mood, evoke emotions, and drive behaviour. For example: 

  • Red is often associated with energy and urgency, making it a popular choice in advertising to capture immediate attention or prompt action. 
  • Bue tends to be perceived as stable and trustworthy, which is why many financial institutions incorporate it into their branding.

Colour choices can also affect how a brand is perceived. For example:

  • Green often suggests health and sustainability, making it a go-to for organic and eco-friendly products
  • Purple often conveys luxury and sophistication. 

Understanding these subtle psychological effects enables graphic designers to select colour schemes that align with a brand's identity and message.

Moreover, the strategic use of colour can enhance user experience. For example, contrast and colour saturation can impact the visibility and legibility of content, guiding the viewer's eye through a design in a deliberate way. In the digital space, colours play a crucial role in interface design, highlighting interactive elements like buttons and links to improve navigation and usability.

Colour Harmonies and How to Use Them

Colour harmonies are combinations of colours that are aesthetically pleasing to the eye. They are based on their positions within the colour wheel and have the power to create different visual experiences.

  • Complementary Colours: These are colours that are opposite each other on the colour wheel, such as blue and orange. When used together, they create a strong contrast and can make each other appear brighter, perfect for elements in a design you want to really pop.
  • Analogous Colours: This scheme uses colours that are next to each other on the colour wheel. Because they are closely related, they provide a harmonious and serene look. This can be used to create a more subdued and cohesive design.

Understanding these harmonies is key for designers to create a balanced and intentional aesthetic. Whether aiming for contrast or harmony, the right combination can convey the intended mood or message.

The Role of Colour in Composition and Design

Colour is a fundamental element that affects the overall composition of a design. It can be used to draw attention to certain elements, create mood, and influence the viewer's perception. Strategic use of colour can direct the viewer’s focus to the most important parts of a design, much like how a spotlight directs an audience's attention to the main performer on stage.

The role of colour extends to establishing a visual hierarchy in design:

  • Lighter and less saturated colours tend to recede, making them good background choices
  • Darker and more saturated colours attract the eye and can act as focal points. 

The careful selection and placement of colours can significantly improve readability and the effectiveness of the design.

By mastering colour harmonies and understanding the role of colour in composition, designers can craft visually compelling designs that stand out and communicate the desired message clearly.

Examples of Colour Theory in Graphic Design

The Converse ad's soft blue background is a clever use of colour theory. Blue is known for creating a sense of tranquillity, dependability, and trust - all characteristics that match Converse's brand personality. This colour choice subconsciously encourages viewers to associate these positive qualities with the sneakers. The muted background also makes the vibrant colours of the high-tops pop, instantly grabbing attention. By strategically using colour psychology and relatable models, the ad effectively showcases the product and forms an emotional connection with potential customers.

This ad's playful vibe aligns perfectly with the brand's fun, creative personality. The limited colour palette of orange and yellow adds to the lighthearted tone while grabbing attention. These hues represent energy, optimism, and happiness - exactly what the ad aims to convey. The colours even complement the fruits and drink, creating a cohesive visual. Data shows that brighter ads like this tend to outperform darker ones, making this colourful, engaging design a smart choice for driving results.

In this ad, the bold red and black colour scheme grabs your attention, while the oversized sunglasses image takes centre stage. The playful text hints that these shades will give you a head-turning new look, and the striking red colour drives that message home on a subconscious level. Meanwhile, the subtle grey background makes the RAY BAN logo really pop, ensuring the brand name sticks in your mind. It's a cleverly designed ad that puts the product and brand front and centre in an eye-catching, memorable way.

Go Deeper with Colour Theory & Graphic Design with Online Courses Australia 

Ready to dive deeper into the world of colour theory and graphic design? Enrol in our Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator & Graphic Design Course Bundle

Whether you're starting out or looking to sharpen your skills, our expert-led classes are designed to enhance your understanding and application of colour in design. 

Unlock your creative potential and master the art of impactful design today. Start your journey with Online Courses Australia.

Colour Theory Basics FAQs

What are the fundamentals of colour theory?

Colour theory fundamentals include understanding the colour wheel, primary, secondary, and tertiary colours, and how these colours can be combined and used in design to create harmony and evoke emotions. It also involves studying the impact of colour combinations and their use in various contexts.

What are the 3 basic colour theories?

  • Additive Colour Theory: Focuses on light-based colours where red, green, and blue light are mixed to create other colours (used in digital media).
  • Subtractive Colour Theory: Involves mixing pigments like cyan, magenta, and yellow to absorb light and create different colours (used in printing).
  • Colour Harmony Theory: Concerns creating aesthetically pleasing colour combinations using schemes such as complementary, analogous, and triadic.

How do I start learning colour theory basics?

Begin with studying the colour wheel and familiarise yourself with primary, secondary, and tertiary colours. Practice mixing colours through painting or digital tools, and apply these concepts in real projects. For a comprehensive learning experience, take an online graphic design course to really deepen your understanding with learnings from experts in the field.

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