Printing Prep 101: Color Theory

When everything seems to be going against you, remember that the airplane takes off against the wind, not with it.

Color theory encompasses a vast array of terms, concepts and design applications. There are literally thousands of books written on the subject. Three of the most important categories are the color wheel, complimentary colors or palettes, and the color context.

Color Wheel

The typical color wheel consists of primary colors and corresponding secondary and tertiary colors:

Primary Colors – Red, Blue, Yellow – These colors cannot be made by combining any other colors.

Secondary Colors – Purple, Green, Orange – These colors are made from combining the 3 primary colors in different variations.

Tertiary Colors – Yellow-orange, red-orange, red-purple, blue-purple, blue-green & yellow-green – Made from combining primary and secondary colors. These 12 are what we call Hues.

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Some Vocabulary to note before moving on:


Base Color – The dominant color selected for a color palette. This is your starting point in which all other color choices will come from.

Hue – One of the 12 purest colors from the color wheel.

Shade –  A color and the addition of black to make it darker.

Tint – A color and the addition of white to make it lighter. These are colors often called “pastel”.

Tone – A color and the addition of grey to add desaturation (less color intensity).

Accent color – a contrasting color to stand out to the rest of the design in a monochromatic palette.

Color Harmonies & Chords

Color application can be a very complex & mathematical process.  Just as musical notes have certain chords that are pleasing to the ear, so to must color have a harmonious arrangement to engage the eye and create a sense of balance and order. One must be careful as to not overindulge with color. Too much of it can be overwhelming to the viewer.

This is where our color wheel really does its job. We can choose a base color, and by viewing the different colors next to and across from this color, we can see which colors will work together with our base color to create harmony.

Analogous Colors – three colors side by side on the color wheel.

Complimentary Colors – any two colors opposite each other on the color wheel.

Triadic Colors – colors that are evenly spaced around the color wheel

Split- Complimentary – Base color + two colors adjacent to its complement color.

Tetradic – two pairs of complementary colors that form a rectangle on the color wheel

Square – Two pairs of complementary colors that form a square on the color wheel

Monochromatic Colors – all tints, tones and shades of a single color hue. Designers sometime use an accent color to add interest or contrast to the design.

Color in Nature

A wonderful place to find naturally harmonious colors are in nature. Particularly plants, the ocean & different landscapes. There are also many websites dedicated to color harmony that are great for reference, like design-seeds.

Here are some of our favorite palettes inspired by nature:



What are some of your favorite color palettes?

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