Color Harmony: Color Schemes Explained

Updated on November 4, 2018
Robie Benve profile image

Robie is a self-taught artist who loves sharing what she's learned about art and painting in the hope that it might help other creatives.

Color Theory for Artists

In painting as well as in interior décor, graphic design, photography, fashion design, garden design, and all artistic expressions, as you are choosing the color scheme, you are determining the outcome of the whole project.

The choice of colors determines the mood of the creation, the level of energy that will be conveyed, and if it’s pleasant to the viewer or not.

What color combinations work well together? Which color scheme is best?

Keep reading for an overview of the basic color schemes.

Use this article as a guide to finding your color palette.

Example of tetradic color scheme. The colors used are two pairs of complementary: red, green, blue, and orange. Red is the main color in the composition. "Japanese Maple Tree"
Example of tetradic color scheme. The colors used are two pairs of complementary: red, green, blue, and orange. Red is the main color in the composition. "Japanese Maple Tree" | Source

What Color Combinations Work Well Together? Which Color Schemes Are Best?

No color scheme is better than the others, but some are more suitable for the visual message you want to convey. As suggested by all the manuals on how to choose a wall color for a room, you should first pick the mood you want, and then go from there.

Do you want to create calm and tranquility, or do you prefer energy and vitality to be expressed?

The combination of colors you use can help you convey a sense of stillness and calm, or movement and energy.

Choosing the right color scheme to start with is a huge help for each decision you have to take later, ruling out options and narrowing possibilities.

Which color scheme is your favorite?

See results

How Do You Achieve Color Harmony?

Color harmony is achieved using colors that relate to one another in some way. Either they are next to one another on the color wheel, or are all mixed using a limited amount of colors, hence they are all somehow related.

Start by deciding which colors you are going to use, then, if you handle your chosen colors well, you will be able to create a harmonious palette.

Let’s Get Started

Below are the classic color schemes, based on the color wheel, from the most to the least harmonious.

Each of them can help you create the reaction you are trying to get from the viewer.

Use them to help you select the colors for your artwork.

Monochromatic

Example of monochromatic color scheme with lighter shades of blue.
Example of monochromatic color scheme with lighter shades of blue. | Source

Monochromatic Color Scheme

To provide visual unity to the painting, use one color and its tints, tones, and shades. This color scheme gives the impression of simplicity and cleanliness. You can use variations in lightness and saturation of the same color, and it is possible to integrate with neutral colors, such as white, black or gray.

The main advantage of using a monochromatic scheme is that the painting will look visually appealing and balanced.

This scheme is not the appropriate choice if you are trying to express energy and vibrancy.

Analogous Colors

Analogous color scheme, colors are close to one another on the color wheel. Example using red, red-violet, and violet.
Analogous color scheme, colors are close to one another on the color wheel. Example using red, red-violet, and violet. | Source

Analogous Color Scheme

With the analogous color scheme, you use colors that are close to one another on the color wheel. Typically, you choose three colors, but you can use a minimum of two to a maximum of five adjacent colors.

Using too many colors would disrupt the harmony of the scheme. Also, to guarantee harmony, try to select either all warm or all cool colors.

It provides a richer, more colorful solution than the monochromatic scheme, and a vibrant composition, but still not as vibrant as a complementary scheme.

Tip:

Use one hue as the main color, and the others to enrich the composition.

Triadic

The possible color combinations for a triadic color scheme, are equally spaced. Imagine to rotate an equilateral triangle and pick the colors at the vertexes.
The possible color combinations for a triadic color scheme, are equally spaced. Imagine to rotate an equilateral triangle and pick the colors at the vertexes. | Source

Triadic Scheme

The triadic color scheme uses three colors that are equally spaced around the color wheel. This scheme provides a nice contrast and an easier achievable color balance than the complementary scheme.

It is recommended to use one color as the dominant color, and the other two in lesser quantity. Example: blue, red, and yellow.

Tip:

The pure colors may be overpowering, it's a good idea to combine them with gray values or their complement to dull the intensity.

Tetradic

The tetrad color scheme uses a combination of colors that are two pairs of complementaries.
The tetrad color scheme uses a combination of colors that are two pairs of complementaries. | Source

Tetradic Scheme

The tetradic color scheme uses four colors that are two sets of complements, for example, yellow-violet and green-red.

The tetrad colors do not need to be equally spaced in the color wheel, as long as they are couples of complementaries.

Because of the wide range of colors, this is the richest of all schemes, but also the most difficult to balance in a harmonious way.

The best way to proceed is to make one color prevail, and use the other three in a subtle way.

Split Complementary

The split complementary scheme uses a hue and then the two colors on each side of its complement.
The split complementary scheme uses a hue and then the two colors on each side of its complement. | Source

Split Complementary Scheme

The split complementary is a variation of the complementary color scheme (below). In fact, it uses a hue and then the two colors on each side of its complement. For example, violet, yellow-green, and yellow-orange.

This produces high contrast without the aggressiveness of the complementary scheme. It's very versatile and creates a pleasant atmosphere.

Complementary Colors

Complementary colors are opposite on the color wheel. For example: red and green; yellow-orange and blue-violet.
Complementary colors are opposite on the color wheel. For example: red and green; yellow-orange and blue-violet. | Source

Complementary Scheme

The complementary color scheme employs colors that are directly opposite to each other on the wheel. The color pairs always consist of either a primary with a secondary color (red and green; yellow and violet; blue and orange) or two tertiary colors (red-orange and blue-green; yellow-green and red-violet; yellow-orange and blue-violet).

This is the color scheme that offers the highest contrast and vitality, and the consequence is that it can get quite hard to find a harmonious balance of the colors.

When placed next to one another, complementary colors intensify each other.

When you mix them together they neutralize each other, producing a duller color.

Even if you don’t physically mix the complementary colors, but you paint them next to each other, beware that the mixing can happen in the viewer’s mind. Seen from up-close they make each other pop, but from a distance, when they are painted adjacent to one another, they may look like a neutral gray or brownish color.

Complementary color scheme example, blue and orange.  "Ettore, Cane Corso, the Italian Mastiff", 9"x12", Acrylic on Canvas
Complementary color scheme example, blue and orange. "Ettore, Cane Corso, the Italian Mastiff", 9"x12", Acrylic on Canvas | Source

Choosing Color Combinations Using The Color Wheel

Questions & Answers

© 2012 Robie Benve

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    • Robie Benve profile imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      12 months ago from Ohio

      Great question EightPuondPeanut, magenta is an essential color in my palette! In the color wheel presented here magenta would fall under red-violet. I'm aware that there are different versions of the color wheel out there; in some, magenta is one of the primary colors. In this version, which is based on the classic color wheel that you buy an at any art and craft store, red is the primary, and magenta is a red-violet. Thank you for your question, also because it made me realize that depending on the monitor, the red-violet on my chart may look rather brownish. I may need to fix that and make it look closer to magenta. :)

    • profile image

      EightPoundPeanut 

      12 months ago

      I'm wondering why magenta doesn't appear in your color wheel, particularly since we can see it in nature. Do you change the color of magenta-colored items in your paintings? just curious how you deal with that. Thanks!

    • Robie Benve profile imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      20 months ago from Ohio

      Hello Aleksey, thanks for the suggestions about showing example of triadic scheme. Currently I am a big fun of the Tetradic, and most of my paintings are done following tetrad color combinations. but I will keep it in mind and maybe paint one specifically as example of triadic. Thanks again for your feedback, it's appreciated.

    • Aleksey Myagkov profile image

      Aleksey Myagkov 

      20 months ago

      Hello, Robie. Thank you for your article. I am a very beginner in painting and it was very useful to me to learn color combinations. It will be just great if you can refer to paintings with Triadic Scheme. It can help to learn implementation of the scheme - color balancing, using neutral colors.

    • profile image

      zoe 

      3 years ago

      lol great for homework gives lot of info

    • Robie Benve profile imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      3 years ago from Ohio

      Right on Ruby H Rose, decorating has a lot to do with color. I love to watch the home decorating shows on HGTV where they look at all the sample material and they come up with an awesome design starting from an object's color palette. Very cool. Thansk a lot for your comment!

    • Ruby H Rose profile image

      Maree Michael Martin 

      3 years ago from Northwest Washington on an Island

      Understanding color is very helpful in decorating too. This really helped in deciding harmonious colors and blends. Lots to work with, cool.

    • Robie Benve profile imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      5 years ago from Ohio

      Hi allieb, glad you found the color theory in this hub useful. :)

    • allieb profile image

      allieb 

      5 years ago from Texas

      Great refresher on color theory for me, thanks!

    • Robie Benve profile imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      5 years ago from Ohio

      Hi Better Yourself, I could not even imagine my life without color! It's amazing how color can influence how I feel and what I want, it truly is key.

      Thanks a lot for stopping by, I'm glad you found the info useful.

    • Better Yourself profile image

      Better Yourself 

      5 years ago from North Carolina

      Nice hub! Color is key, I had a class in college where most of the projects were focused around color schemes. This is very helpful info!

    • Robie Benve profile imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      5 years ago from Ohio

      Hi idigwebsites and tattuwurn,

      I really appreciate that you find my hub interesting and you even like my art! Thanks! :))

    • profile image

      tattuwurn 

      5 years ago

      It makes me feel I want to paint! It looks like your instruction are easy to remember. The painting of the tree is brilliant, has vivid colors... reminds me of the works of one of my favorite painters, August Macke. Voted up and useful/beautiful.

    • idigwebsites profile image

      idigwebsites 

      5 years ago from United States

      If I have more time, I will devote it to painting, even just a simple painting like that. It's amazing to know that you're a self-taught painter and sharing your talents to us. Brilliant colors. :)

    • elmaz profile image

      Gesit prayoga 

      6 years ago from Indonesia

      amazing,

    • Robie Benve profile imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      6 years ago from Ohio

      Carol and The Stages of Me, I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment, and I'm very glad you found the hub so informative. Thanks!

    • The Stages Of ME profile image

      The Stages Of ME 

      6 years ago

      Very informative thanks for sharing :)

    • carol7777 profile image

      carol stanley 

      6 years ago from Arizona

      A very complete and informative article. Color is so interesting and it is almost impossible to exactly repeat a color. Thanks for a great article.

    • Robie Benve profile imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      6 years ago from Ohio

      Hi RTalloni, I hope this info helps, good luck with your project, and thanks for stopping by. :)

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 

      6 years ago from the short journey

      Thanks for this neat look at color schemes for painting. I'm getting ready to do a project I've been looking forward to and I'll be keeping this hub in mind. Thanks!

    • Robie Benve profile imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      6 years ago from Ohio

      Hi Julie, Amy, and europewalker, thanks for stopping by and reading my hub! I'm thrilled that all three of you found it so useful and informative. :)

    • Julie DeNeen profile image

      Blurter of Indiscretions 

      6 years ago from Clinton CT

      This hub was extremely useful. I get in color ruts all the time! Thank you for sharing :)

    • Amy Gillie profile image

      Amy Gillie 

      6 years ago from Indiana

      Robie, this is so timely! I'm debating colors to paint my office (where I spend 40+ hours per week), so the choice is very important. Thanks!

    • europewalker profile image

      europewalker 

      6 years ago

      Very informative hub, I wasn't aware of all the different color schemes. Well done :)

    • Robie Benve profile imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      6 years ago from Ohio

      Hi Marcy, I agree paint swatches are too small to be able to imagine the whole wall painted. What helps me every time are those paint scheme examples that look like mini catalogs and are near the swatches, they have full rooms with furniture and everything. I start collecting my favorite ones for weeks before I make up my mind which way to go, same thing with photos from magazines. I'm glad you found this hub interesting. :)

    • nikinoo profile image

      nikinoo 

      6 years ago from Past Cloud Nine

      I paint from time to time and found this article very interesting. It is amazing how some colors together look amazing together. this is awesome thumbs up.

    • Robie Benve profile imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      6 years ago from Ohio

      Hi bdegiulio, isn't amazing how the color wheel affects every single choice in marketing and graphic design? All the packages, catalogs, magazines, etc. have a lot of color theory behind even the simplest look to convey the right message.

      Thanks a lot for your comment. :)

    • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image

      Marcy Goodfleisch 

      6 years ago from Planet Earth

      Oooh - this is good information! I have several rooms sorely in need of updates, and I can use this information! One problem I've had is that paint never looks the same on swatch, the test spot, or the whole wall. Slows me down a lot! Voted up!

    • bdegiulio profile image

      Bill De Giulio 

      6 years ago from Massachusetts

      Hi Robie. Very interesting and informative. I learned a few new things here. Never really thought about the color wheel and how it relates to photos and the mood that gets projected. Still not sure which scheme I like? Thanks for sharing.

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