What the Heck is Color Theory (and Why Should Colorists Care)?

Don't discount the impact of the colors you choose for your coloring pages. There are actually fascinating reasons for why certain hues work together and you can use them to your advantage.

By Kelly Bryant

If "color theory" sounds like a class you might have slept through in college, try not to snooze on us too soon. "A lot of people feel like art is an intuitive thing, so why should science be involved?" says Richard Mehl, a design teacher and author of Playing With Color. In fact, he says, understanding color theory can help you understand the way different shades interact and—dare we say it?—could even shape the way you view the world around you.

Meet the Color Wheel

Color theory refers to the science of combining colors to create appealing groups of colors (or color palettes).

"The color wheel comes in handy, because we can point to a color and say, 'We are all going to refer to this as blue or yellow,'" says Mehl. It’s kind of like that whole “if a tree falls in the forest and no one’s around, does it make a sound” thing. If we don't all share a word for a color, do we even see that color? (Brain. Exploding.)

Color Wheel

So, what's in a wheel? The color wheel is comprised of 12 colors:

  • The three primary colors: red, yellow, and blue. (They're called "primary," because you can't mix any other colors to create them.)
  • The three secondary colors—orange,  green, and violet—which are combinations of the three primary colors
  • And the six tertiary colors: yellow-green, blue-green, blue-violet, red-violet, red-orange, and yellow-orange. (Obviously, these are combinations of primary and secondary colors that are next to each other on the wheel.)

Jamming Out with Color Harmonies

Once you have the colors arranged in a wheel, it’s easier to understand the relationships between them. Certain color combinations are naturally appealing to the human eye because we’re used to seeing them… in nature!

"A color chord [or color scheme] is a harmonic relationship like a sound chord on a guitar," says Mehl. Just like certain strings sound good together, certain colors create a kind of harmony for our eyes. And like there are major and minor chords in music, there are a few different types of color schemes, too.

Complementary and Split-Complementary Colors

Complementary colors are two colors that are directly across from each other on the color wheel, like orange and blue or purple and yellow. "If you're coloring and you want to create contrast, you want to use complementary colors," says Mehl. The high contrast between complementary colors will make for a more intense look in your adult coloring page design.

Split-complementary colors are one of the most useful for artists, says Mehl. Because they're one of the most common combos in nature, our brains love them. To create a split-complementary palette, you use a color and the two neighbors of its complementary color. (For example, green, red-orange and red-violet.)

Analogous colors are next to each other on the color wheel. They have very little contrast, so they can feel softer and harmonious together. Think an ocean scene using mainly blues, greens, and purples.

If this is all sounding overwhelming, fear not! There are easy digital and physical tools for putting together color chords. Try one of these before starting your next coloring page to play with the effect of different color combinations.


Show us your stuff! If you complete a coloring page using your new found color theory knowledge, we'd love to see it over on Facebook!


Kelly is a freelance marketer and yoga teacher, as well as a writer specializing health and fitness, travel, and personal finance. Her writing can be found on Greatist, Life by Daily Burn, her personal travel blog, PracticallyEverywhere.com, and a variety of other lifestyle websites. She loves traveling, cooking, reading, and her cross-eyed cat, Goose.

Tags: Tips & Techniques