AgNerd Design 101: Color Theory

Color theory is FUN. I still remember some of my first color theories in art classes, in junior high. Our school’s mascot was the Redskins so we got coloring sheets of the profile of a “Redskin” and we had to use different color systems to give different impacts. Almost every art or design class I’ve taken has had a revisitation of basic and advanced color theory. Pretty much any design work will require some color theory, unless it’s black and white or monochromatic. (We’ll discuss this later.)

Who’s ready for some colorific awesomeness?!

The foundation of all color theory study is the color wheel. It can be represented in a few different ways, but it’s always circular and has the colors lined up in something similar to a modified Roy G. Biv. This color wheel allows us to break down the different relationships of colors.

This is what the color wheel looks like when you’re using certain image editing software.

Here’s a more advanced look at a color wheel, from This one factors in the different levels of black you would incorporate into the colors.

Another example of a color wheel. They can either have these hard outlines, or can fade into each other. Sometimes they are broken down into hundreds of colors, and sometimes they just show the bare bone of color theory, like here. This was found on

There are also two different ways to mix/study colors. There is RGB, which stands for “red green blue.” This is the color system that screens (TVs, computer monitors, etc.) follow. Did you ever sit too close to an old tube television and notice tiny specks of green, red, and blue in the picture? That’s why. The second system is CMYK, which stands for “cyan magenta yellow black.” (Yes, K stands for black. It’s to reduce confusion between “blue” and “black.”) CMYK is the color system used for print design. If you’re ever using editing software like PhotoShop, you’ll notice that you can create and alter colors by either one. For basic design work like blog headers and whatnot, it doesn’t necessarily matter which style you use, just so long as you are consistent for the project you’re working on. This tends to matter more if you’re going to be doing higher-level professional work.

Primary colors boggle my mind. These colors in their pure forms cannot be made my mixing any two colors. There are reasons for this that have to do with advanced light theory and stuff, for the purpose of this blog post, we’ll just say they exist because they can and we’re glad they do. These colors are red, blue, and yellow. Secondary colors are a 50-50 mix of two primary colors. The major secondary colors are purple, green, and orange. Between primary and secondary color are a new level of mix called tertiary colors. I could explain it, but instead I’ll just show you this graphic.

Hopefully this explains the relationship between primary, secondary, and tertiary.

So, now that we know the categories of color, we can talk about the different ways they interact.

Complementary colors live across the wheel from each other. Purple and yellow are complementary. Red and green are complementary. Blue and orange are complementary.

Analogous colors live next to each other on the wheel. A green, teal, and blue being used together could be considered analogous. Same with yellow, gold, and orange.

The way colors interact in a picture can change the overall mood of a picture.

I took this picture in the Hollywood Casino lobby a while back. This is the original.

There isn’t much to say about that, other than that that’s how it started. It already had some warm tendencies. (Warm colors are on the “hot” side of the color wheel. These include reds, oranges, yellows, and some purples, as well as the colors in between. Cool colors, then, are the colors on the other side, starting with indigos and ranging through to yellow-greens.) So, let’s take a look at some color relationships using this picture as our guide.

Cool tone analogous. It probably comes off more calm and subdued. In most cases, color colors are more relaxing to the eye. Blues often bring to mind more low-key emotions; sadness, contentedness, laziness, and the like.

A warm tone analogous. Warm tones tend to portray more intense emotions like anger and excitement. Warm colors also stress the eye more.

Here’s the “original” with dark colors pulled to be cooler and lighter colors to be warmer. Completely different feel than the original, and you can see that the colors have a bit more “pop” because they react to each other a bit more. It could be said that this version has “complementary tendencies.”

So, complementary colors react with each other. That means that it’s GREAT TO USE THEM ALL THE TIME, RIGHT?! Well, hang on. There are caveats to any color relationship. Here’s one example of complementary colors working out.

Meet J&C Scarlet P5, or Scarlet for short. She belongs to my friends Mike and Pam Haley. Ain’t she a good lookin’ Simmental cow, ladies and gents? Anyways, Scarlet is obviously a red cow. And the background for Scarlet is green. Green and red are complementary colors, so Scarlet looks especially red and the overall picture itself just has a bit more punch to it.

So, Scarlet looks especially Scarlet-y. Perfect. But when considering complementary colors, you have to remember this: contrast matters. You can’t have straight green on straight red. It often has the illusion of making the objects vibrate.

Like this.

There are ways to make complementaries work; a light orange or light peach and a dark purple, a dark green and a pastel pink, etc. You just want to make sure that the colors have different levels of contrast, or else it makes your eyes bug out. Generally a good rule of thumb is that a light color with its darker complementary or vice versa.

I’m sure I could go on for hours about color relationships. In fact, I know I could. However, this post is already a biton the long side and I’m not entirely sure what else to include without getting too preachy or too technical. So, I will turn it back to you guys.

What do you want to know? What questions do you have about color theory? What questions do you have about other aspects of graphic design? Feel free to toss your questions to me. I may not have the answer myself but I can always help you find it.


2 thoughts on “AgNerd Design 101: Color Theory

  1. Kelly, we definitely agree with you. Color theory IS fun! Always has been, and always will be. This is a great introduction to color and its many uses. Also, we especially enjoyed your example of what NOT to do… our eyes are still vibrating from the red on green.

    • Hahaha, I’m glad you “enjoyed” my example of poor complementary use! I actually just gave someone a lesson in color theory today, regarding why I wear purple eye shadow (to make my green eyes look more vivid). It’s fun to use my graphic design background in unusual ways.

      The point of these AgNerd Design 101 posts are to help farmers and ranchers understand design a little bit to spice up their blogs, Facebooks fan pages, and Twitter profiles. But, it’s fantastic to see other color fanatics commenting!

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