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Color Theory for Beginners

Updated: Jun 11

An umbrella with a color wheel pattern on it. Text on top reading Color Theory for Beginners.

At its core, color theory is the study of how colors interact, combine, and evoke certain emotions or visual effects. It revolves around the color wheel, which is a visual representation of primary, secondary, and tertiary colors.

The primary colors, namely red, blue, and yellow, are fundamental hues that cannot be created by mixing other colors. Secondary colors, such as orange, green, and purple, are formed by combining two primary colors. Tertiary colors are achieved by mixing a primary color with a neighboring secondary color.

Color theory also explores concepts like color harmony, contrast, and temperature, which play a crucial role in creating visually pleasing and balanced compositions. Understanding some degree of color theory enables artists and designers to make informed color choices, evoke specific moods or messages, often subconsciously to you, the viewer, and enhance the overall impact of their work.


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Color Theory: Hue

Hue refers to the specific color of an object or pigment. Imagine a color wheel, with colors ranging from red to orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet. Each point on the wheel represents a different hue. By shifting the hue, we can transition from one color to another.

Five boxes with the colors yellow, green, blue, red and magenta  to explain the concept of hue

Color Theory: Saturation/Chroma

Saturation measures the intensity or purity of a color. It determines how vibrant or muted a color appears. A highly saturated color is vivid and intense, while a completely desaturated color is gray. Understanding saturation is crucial for painting, especially when you consider that most things in the world have desaturated colors.

Five boxes illustrating a gradient from gray to red to explain saturation

Color Theory: Lightness/Value

Lightness refers to the brightness or darkness of a color. It's all about adding white or black to a color, and creating tints (lighter versions) or shades (darker versions). Lightness doesn't affect the hue or saturation; it simply determines the level of brightness or darkness within a color.

Five boxes with red in the middle. To the right, it gradients from the red to black. To the left, it gradients the red to white. This illustrates lightness.

Color Temperature

The basic idea is simple. Color temperature refers to the warmth or coolness of a color. Warm colors, such as reds, oranges, and yellows, convey energy and vibrancy, while cool colors, like blues, greens, and violets, evoke a sense of calmness. It's best to look at a color wheel while explaining this.

A color wheel with the primary and secondary colors in the inner circle, and an outer circle featuring the cool and warm versions of each of the inner circle colors. This illustrates color temperature.

You can see that once you branch beyond the primary and secondary colors, you begin to incorporate what is called an undertone. In a warm yellow, the mass tone is yellow, while the undertone is orange. In a cool yellow, the undertone is green.

Undertones determine how paints will interact and produce new colors when mixed because the undertones interact as well. Let's illustrate this visually. We want to mix for a bright and vivid green. We're going to use a Cyan blue (or primary blue) as our constant, and we'll visually illustrate the difference in mixing a cool yellow vs a warm yellow.

a simulation of mixing a primary blue with a warm yellow to create a dull green next to another simulation of primary blue with a cool yellow to create a vibrant green

Understanding the undertones of colors is crucial before you attempt to incorporate complex color palettes into acrylic pouring, and is quite possibly one of the reasons you wind up with muddy colors in dry paintings.


Color Harmony

Color groups, or color schemes, are combinations of colors that work harmoniously together. The truth is, artists seldom start by looking at the color wheel to choose their colors. Instead, understanding color groups serves as a way of explaining why certain combinations are appealing, and why they leave the impression they do on the viewer. There are seven primary color schemes:

1. Monochromatic:
A color wheel that gradients inwards in lightness.  One hue is highlighted to illustrate a Monochrome color group.

The monochromatic color scheme is based on variations of a single hue. It involves using different shades of a single color. This creates a harmonious and subtle color palette that relies on the varying lightness and darkness of the chosen hue. Experimenting with intensity can create an ideal match.

2. Analogous:
A color wheel that gradients inwards in lightness.  Four adjacent hues are highlighted to illustrate an Analogous color group.

Analogous color schemes involve selecting colors that are adjacent to each other on the color wheel. For example, using colors like violet, magenta, red, and orange. Analogous schemes create a sense of unity and harmony while allowing for variations in saturation and value. Consider warm or cool hues for a harmonious look, and ensure sufficient contrast for the design.

3. Complementary:
A color wheel that gradients inwards in lightness.  Two opposite hues that sit opposite each other on the wheel are highlighted to illustrate a Complementary color group.

Complementary colors are pairs of colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel. For instance, red and green, blue and orange, or yellow and purple. Complementary color schemes offer high contrast and create a dynamic visual impact. When used together, these colors intensify each other. Two highly contrasting colors can be eye-catching but intense, so expanding the palette with shades, tones, and tints is recommended for a more pleasing look.

4. Split Complementary:
A color wheel that gradients inwards in lightness.  A split complementary color group is created by choosing on hue,  skipping the hue directly across from it, and choosing the two adjacent hues on either side creating  the letter Y shape.

The split complementary color scheme is a variation of the complementary scheme. It involves selecting a base color and then using the two colors adjacent to its complementary color on the color wheel. For example, pairing violet with green-yellow and orange-yellow. Split complementary schemes provide a vibrant color palette with a slightly less intense contrast compared to complementary schemes. Use the base color as the primary, complemented by accent colors to add complexity to designs.

5. Triadic:
A color wheel that gradients inwards in lightness.  Three equally spaced hues that form a triangle are highlighted  to illustrate a Triadic color group.

Triadic color schemes use three colors that are evenly spaced on the color wheel. For example, using yellow, blue, and red or orange, green, and purple. Triadic schemes offer a balanced and lively combination of colors. They provide a sense of contrast while maintaining harmony.

6. Tetradic Square (Double Complementary):
A color wheel that gradients inwards in lightness.  Four equally spaced hues that form a square are highlighted  to illustrate a Tetradic Square color group.

Like the triadic system, the tetradic color scheme, also known as double complementary, uses evenly spaced colors. Specifically, two sets of complementary colors. This results in a total of four colors. For example, combining yellow and purple with orange and blue. Tetradic schemes provide a wide range of color possibilities and offer both contrast and harmony. To maintain balance, designate one color as the primary and use the remaining three as accents.

7. Tetradic Rectangle:
A color wheel that gradients inwards in lightness.  Two sets of equally space complementary hues that form a rectangle are highlighted highlighted  to illustrate a Tetradic Rectangle color group..

Similar to the tetradic square, the rectangle also uses two sets of complementary colors, only they are not evenly spaced. This creates a balanced and visually pleasing combination of colors with less contrast than the tetradic square. An example of a square tetradic scheme would be combining blue, violet, orange, and yellow. To maintain balance, designate one color as the primary and use the remaining three as accents.



The principles of color theory give you tools to thoughtfully select and combine colors, harnessing their ability to tell compelling visual stories. It's with this deep understanding of color's nuances and effects that you can leave a lasting impression on viewers.


Color Theory for Beginners is one of the modules in the full Acrylic Pouring for Beginners online course. If you enjoyed this article, please consider checking out the course.


Color Theory actually gets a lot more complex, should we dive deeper?

  • Yes, please!

  • No, I'm already lost!

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