Creating Color Harmony

Putting together harmonious color combinations begins with understanding how we see colors and the relationships of each hue to one another. A good way to see color relationships is to look at the color wheel.

The placement of the colors around the wheel are not random. They are arranged in spectral order (like the rainbow) bend into a complete circle. Each color's placement on the wheel can help you to identify harmonious color combinations.

Start with a quick review of the basics. The twelve hues of the color wheel are divided into primary colors, secondary colors, and tertiary colors.

Primary and Secondary Colors

Primary colors around the color wheel

The three primary colors are the hues that in theory can be mixed to make all other colors. These colors are equidistant around the outside of the circle.

Secondary colors around the color wheel

By mixing two adjacent primary hues you create the three secondary colors of green, violet (purple) and orange.

  • red + yellow = orange
  • blue + red = violet
  • yellow + blue = green

Tertiary Colors

Tertiary colors around the color wheel

The third set of hues are known as tertiary or intermediate colors. These hues are made by mixing a primary color with an adjacent secondary color.

The six tertiary or intermediate colors are:


Note that the names for the tertiary colors always begin with the primary color followed by the secondary color; yellow-orange not orange-yellow, for example.

Color Placement Around the Wheel

Color placement around the color wheel

The twelve primary, secondary and tertiary hues along with their tints, tones, and shades make up the color wheel.

How We See Colors Influences the Combinations We Find Pleasing

When you hear the word "see" naturally you think of the eye but the human eye alone doesn't perceive color. It must work in tandem with the brain to turn waves of light into the colors you see.

There are receptors within the eye that pick up and process light sending signals to the brain, which in turn produces what we recognize as color. If you want to know more about how our eyes and mind work together I recommend the following short video. In it Colm Kelleher explains how humans can see the amazing kaleidoscope of other colors that make up our world.

TED-Ed Video Length 3:44

An object does not have color in itself. It is the reflecting light that generates the color in our mind.

Isn't it amazing thing that our brain doesn’t even need all seven colors of the visual spectrum in order to see the millions of colors in the world? The eye decodes all colors down to just three- red, green and blue. These are the same three colors, usually referred to by their initials of RGB.

If it seems difficult to comprehend just look at a television or any digital device. The RGB color system is producing all of the colors you see on the screen.

This complex relationships between colors is fundamental to our ability to see color. 

Interpreting What We See

To add to the complexity, our visual system interprets information about color by processing signals from cones and rods in an antagonistic manner. The three types of cones have some overlap in the wavelengths of light to which they respond, so it is more efficient for the visual system to record differences between the responses of cones, rather than each type of cone's individual response.

What is called opponent color theory suggests that there are three opponent channels: red versus green, blue versus yellow and black versus white. Responses to one color of an opponent channel are antagonistic to those to the other color. That is, opposite opponent colors are never perceived together.

That is the reason that there is no "greenish red" or "yellowish blue".

After Image

What’s that?

Any color which appears in the visual field will automatically cause the viewers mind’s eye to seek out the complement of that color.

Until the mind’s eye finds the complement of a color, it will continue to search for it. This can cause the eye to dart quickly.

If the complement is found the mind’s eye is satisfied.

When the complement is not found the mind’s eye will produce it.

This is why good design needs the balance of harmony to satisfy the mind.

The Geometry of Color Harmony

To create this balance many of the majority of the classic color harmonies are combinations of colors that balance the spectrum of colors. These tried and true color combinations can be seen using geometric shapes to help you visualize the relationship of the hues on the color wheel.

Rotate these shapes around the central point of the color wheel to create dozens of classic color combinations.

Color Harmony relationships on the color wheel

Continue the Color Theory Tutorial

Go Back to Lesson 1: Start With Individual Colors

Go Back to Lesson 2: Color Relationships & the Color Wheel

You are Currently Viewing Lesson 3: Creating Color Harmony

Jump to Appendix 1: Color Terminology Glossary

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