Basic Color Theory for Creators

July 16, 2021

Did you think color theory was only for painters? Yes, color theory is usually associated with painting because paint colors can be mixed to get every tint or shade imaginable for each hue (do you know what I just said?). In the simplest terms, color theory is a useful guide to picking colors that look good together. Materials that have a set color (their color cannot be mixed after they are created) – such as yarns, fabrics, treads, paper, buttons, zippers, Velcro etc. are less likely to match a color on a limited color wheel. BUT if you know the how to determine the characteristics of a color, you can use color theory to get the result you want. Since we are mostly creators using fibers and fabrics, here is an amazing resource if you want to dive super deep. If you want to know the basics, keep reading.


What if I dye my own materials?

Dyeing your own yarn or fabric will get you closer to the colors on the color wheel but even that requires a lot of practice and dedication. I’m saying this not to discourage you, just giving all the info.

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What is the color wheel?

The color wheel is a way to describe colors that are related to each other and a way to coordinate different colors so they look harmonious together. You may remember learning it in elementary or middle school. My mom is a retired art teacher, so I probably knew about it before I learned my abc’s… A printed color wheel is a handy tool for the creator.

Color wheel used in color theory
Why do I say typical? I say typical because the color wheel usually involves 12 colors and different shades and tints of the 12 colors. Some color wheels are also oriented a different way. Usually they are shown with red on top.

Why use a color wheel?

The color wheel based on three primary colors is a standard way to talk about and characterize colors. It is like a standard measurement. Of course, every printer has a different set of colors and it is nearly impossible to match things across different media. It is a place to start, a way to communicate with others what color you’re referring to and a way to express yourself with color. A color scheme is what you would call a group of colors you are using on a project, hopefully they are pleasing to your eye.

Primary colors

When we use a color wheel in school and painting, we refer to the primary colors as red, yellow and blue. These are the colors that cannot be made by mixing other colors together.

Some of you may say that the primary colors are magenta, yellow and cyan. Yes, those colors are considered the primary colors when talking about printed materials such as logos and magazine ads. For now we are going to use the red, yellow and blue as the primaries to fit along with what most of us remember from art class. (even though they aren’t as much fun… 😫)

*Keep in mind – Primary = 1 or 1st

Primary colors on the color wheel

Secondary colors

The secondary colors are the colors that can be made by mixing two primaries together in equal parts.

Red + Blue = Violet (Purple)

Red + Yellow = Orange

Blue + Yellow = Green

*Keep in mind – Secondary = 2 or 2nd
You get secondary colors by adding two primary colors
1 + 1 = 2

Secondary colors on the color wheel, violet, green and orange

My kids knew about the basic 6 colors (primaries + secondaries) before they knew their abc’s… I think most of us know this and remember it from school or early childhood books. Our favorite color mixing book was Mouse Paint by Ellen Stoll Walsh. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it! It is so much fun and we read it almost every night when the kids were little! And as a lover of animals, it is just so well illustrated. It’s actually cut out paper pieces…

Tertiary colors

The tertiary colors are made by mixing an equal part of a secondary color with the closest neighboring primary color.

For example:
Red-Violet (Tertiary)= Red (Primary) + Violet (Secondary)
Violet = Red + Blue

For some algebra…this means that Red-Violet = Red + (Red+ Blue)

Or the fancier, more technical way is to add two parts of a primary color to one part of another primary color.

Tertiary colors are located between the primary and secondary colors on the color wheel. Always name the primary color first, so violet plus red is Red-Violet.

*Keep in mind – Tertiary = 3 or 3rd
You get tertiary colors by adding one primary color and one secondary color
1 + 2 = 3

Tertiary colors on the color wheel
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What ways can you describe a color?


Hue is the name we recognize as colors, the name you would use to describe a color. Also called color family. For example: Blue, Green or Red are hues.


Hue + White makes all sorts of tints of color – think pastel colors

Tints are basic colors plus white added


Hue + Black makes all sorts of darker versions of colors – not as bright as the original hue


How light or dark a color is, especially useful for combining contrasting colors. In a digital setting, use the greyscale function to see color values. Or squint eyes to see color values while painting/coloring, or in the craft store to see how two items compare to each other value wise. If you have a piece of red see through glass or plexi-glass, look at the color wheel through it to get a good feel for value. Not every one has this sort of thing, but growing up I had a set of three primary color plexi-glass pieces to experiment with mixing colors and I can use the red one for this purpose. Of course I had something like this, only an art teacher’s kid would…

Values of colors, a way to see the amount of color without having to be distracted by the color.


How bright or dull a color is, the original hue out of the ‘tube’ is the brightest it can get.


Adding a little bit of grey to a color creates a tone. See how it makes the violet a little more dull but not as dark as the shade?

relationship between hue, tint, tone and shade


White, black and grey are the true neutrals. They will coordinate with any color. Any kind of beige, tan or taupe is useful but not a true neutral. They might throw off a color scheme if you don’t take into account how the color was made.  

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How do you make good color schemes?

We can take what we know of the color wheel and use it to make automatically amazing color schemes. Here are some guides and rules that can be used starting with any color on the wheel and ending up with a pair/group of colors that will be interesting and eye catching.

Analogous colors

Analogous with reference to color means colors next to each other on the color wheel. It can be two colors or more. Probably the widest acceptable range (acceptable here meaning to color theory geeks and scholars) would be all the colors between and including two primary colors. Here are two examples, you can of course use any colors you want, as long as they are neighbors on the color wheel.

Complementary colors

A complementary color is just opposite colors on the color wheel. If you want the complementary of blue, look directly across the color wheel and you’ll see orange. Here are all the complementary pairs of our basic 12 color color wheel shown over two images.

Why are the called complementary colors? They complement each other!

ComplEment with an E, not an I. If it were an I, they would be giving each other compliments and I didn’t think that colors could ‘talk’. Ha. Not funny?

Well, they don’t talk in the way that we talk but colors can certainly ‘speak’ for themselves. Once you figure out how they relate to each other, you’ll be able to make amazing color schemes.

Warm/Cool colors:

Cool colors appear to recede from you.

Warm colors appear to pop out at you. (Think sunset colors = warm sun)

Using cool and warms colors, you can create contrast in your design. It is something interesting for your eyes to look at.

colors divided into warm and cool

Triad Harmony:

There are several different ways to match up colors on the color wheel for automatic color schemes. I’m not going to get into all the different ways, that’s what books are for… 😂 Like these, here and here. But here is one that is a little more complex. The triad harmony, tri of course means three so there are three colors involved. This is just an example. You can spin the arrow just like in a board game to find another set of colors, just keep the arrows an equidistant distance.

Just look at this color combo just from using a triad on the color wheel! These colors would be amazing together in a project.

Red-Violet, Yellow-Orange & Blue-Green

For color geeks:

If you are like me and you geek out on color, you can also get in way deep. Deeper than necessary for finding nice color scheme for your next project…

Biased colors, double triad harmony, tetrad harmony, square tetrad harmony, hexad harmony and so on… You can find all of that in color theory books that are hundreds of pages long. Like this one.

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