What is colour theory?
Colour theory is the creative and scientific use of colour. It’s a system of logic that places guidelines and rules of how colours contrast, mix and match with each other.
“When it comes to colour theory, there’s no set list of ‘Don't do that,’” says illustrator Alyssa Newman. “It’s a push-pull thing and it comes down to preference.” With so many options, how do you decide what colour palette works best for your illustrations? The colour wheel comes to the rescue. You can use it to determine what colour scheme matches the mood you’re trying to set.
The grand colour scheme of things.
Do you want colours that flatter each other? Choose colours that are located right next to each other on the colour wheel. These are called analogous colours. You’ll need to have the proper contrast, so most illustrators choose one dominant colour, along with a second supporting colour and a third colour to be used as an accent or highlight.
This is a simple method to develop a colour system, but it’s not without its flaws. “There are mixed opinions with this approach because it’s very easy to have a calming colour palette, but then you also have very low contrast and all the colours blend together,” Newman says. For instance, yellow-green, yellow and yellow-red are all vivid colours, each with their complexity, but when used together in a painting, it can look like a primary yellow. Luckily, digital illustration doesn’t have the same properties as traditional art, so it allows some flexibility in how you use the colour palette you choose.
“With illustration, you can definitely get away with taking the analogous colour palette for your secondary colours. And then picking your primary colour that is opposite on the colour wheel,” says Newman. This is what’s called a complementary colour scheme. If you choose a colour on the opposite side of the wheel, it gives whatever you colour the most substantial contrast while it remains pleasing to the eye. Keep a colour wheel handy to determine what the best complementary colours are for your next project.