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Color Schemes

 

Explanations > Perception > Visual Perception > Color Schemes

Complementary | Analogous | Triadic | Split-complementary | Tetradic | Square | Monochromatic | Warm and cool | So what?

 

It can be difficult to decide what colors work together when doing things from taking photographs to doing a pice of graphic design. A number of different schemes that may be used are described below. The color schemes here use the Twelve Color Wheel, although other color wheels may be used for the same purpose.

Complementary scheme

Complementary schemes are pairs of colors that are opposite one another on the wheel, such as red and green. There are hence six pairs.

These hues are strongly contrasting with one another, particularly when at full saturation. Over-use of this contrast can lead to many contrasts which are rather overwhelming. When selecting colors for use as text, complementary hues tend not to look very good together.

Analogous scheme

Analogous (or 'Dominance Harmony') schemes are next to one another and grouped in threes, such as Rose, Red and Orange. There are hence twelve sets of hues.

In these sets the central hue tends to be dominant as it links the other two colors. In graphic use, it is common to select one as the main color, another as a support color and the third for use just in accentuation.

These hue groups may be found in nature where evolution and sunlight has varied hues by a limited amount and where similar shades are helpful for such as outline-breaking camouflage that hides creatures from predators.

Triadic scheme

Triadic schemes are groups of three hues that form equilateral triangles and are made up of every fourth color, such as Red, Yellow and Azure. There are four such groups.

These groups are quite strongly contrasting and can be used reliably in graphic design, triadic sets may be equally desaturated for a more muted effect.

Split-complementary scheme

Split-complementary (or 'Compound Harmony') schemes take three hues that start with one color then select the colors either side (not the original color) plus the color opposite on the wheel. There are twelve such groups.

These groups are still strongly contrasting, but not as much so as with the triadic hue set with the two close colors (though the opposite one forms a strong contrast with these).

Tetradic scheme

Tetradic (or rectangular, or double complementary) schemes are formed as a rectangle with intervals of 2, 4, 2 and 4 hues between each selected one. There are three such groups.

These groups of four offer more possibilities than the sets of three hues in the above groups. They give two sets of two, where the closer two are more similar, and the more distant pair are of greater contrast to these. They also can be viewed as two sets of complementary colors (diagonal opposites). and treated as such.

When using these, have one dominant color and then balance the use of the others. Note that two colors may well be warm and two cool.

Square scheme

Square schemes are formed those that are every three colors from each on the wheel. There are three such groups.

These groups, like tetradic groups, offer more colors to use, but are less paired-contrasting (they can be more like two sets of complements). Each hue in the square stands on its own and does not dominate the other, although (like tetradic) two hues may be warm and two cool.

Monochromatic scheme

Monochromatic schemes are based on different saturations of the same basic color. These may be used in sets of two, three or four. In graphics, they are used in simple designs and where the print technology costs more to use for additional colors.

'Achromatic' sets have little or know color and may be gray, monochromatic or of very similar hue. They can add variation without standing out too much, and are hence more likely to be used in subtle work.

Greys

Warm and cool

A line can be drawn across the wheel roughly separating those hues which can be considered warmer from those which are cooler. Warmer hues are more dominant as they stand out more, while cool hues tend to recede and be noticed less. Warm is associated with daylight, action, emotion, while cool is associated more with night, calm, reason. In graphic design, this difference can be used for example in separating headlines from sub-text.

 

So what?

Use this wheel to help select a matching color scheme for items you are using, whether you are doing graphic art, home decorating or whatever. A good way is to start with one color and then explore the other colors available within the different schemes. Remember that you can use desaturated versions of any group, or changes in tint and shade. Do remember to desaturate all the same amount can keep them matching equally.

See also

Twelve Color Wheel, The Meaning of Colors

 

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