Understanding primary, secondary and tertiary colours
See how different colour combinations can help you to make a splash with attention-grabbing work.
Colour shapes our world.
Colours can evoke emotions, trigger specific responses or subliminally communicate a message. When artists choose a particular hue or shade in their work, they must consider if the colour scheme matches the tone they set out to create. With an understanding of how colours work together, artists and designers can make the best choices to amplify their creative work.
Put your colour wheel in motion.
The colour wheel represents all visible colours. It’s the standard tool for viewing and understanding colour combinations. Arranged in the order the colours appear in the light spectrum (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet), Sir Isaac Newton created the first colour wheel in 1666.
There are two types of wheels: one based on the primary colours of RYB (red, yellow and blue) and one based in RGB colour (red, green and blue). Typically, print artists use the RYB colour model, as it’s best suited to illustrating the correlation between physical colours in inks and paints in the colour mixing process.
For designers or artists who work in the digital medium, the RGB colour palette is most typically used, as those colours are found in the photoreceptors of the eyes. The light source of a monitor or screen can create any colour you can imagine with the combination of different shades of red, green and blue. However, if printing is your ultimate goal, digital artists and designers can use or convert files to, CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black). These are the four basic colours of ink used in printing colour images.
Colour categories to know.
The colour wheel is based on three categories of colours:
- Primary colours: The building blocks from which all other colours are derived. Also known as basic colours, as they can’t be recreated by colour mixing, traditional art and colour theory accept RYB as the primary colours. As humans are trichromatic, RYB is fundamental to see the colour spectrum of our world.
- Secondary colours: These are colour combinations created by the equal mixture of two primary colours. On the colour wheel, secondary colours are located between primary colours. According to the traditional colour wheel, red and yellow make orange, red and blue make purple and blue and yellow make green. If using an RGB colour wheel, there’s another set of secondary colours called additives: blue and green produce cyan, blue and red make magenta and blue and yellow will make green.
- Tertiary colours: The combination of primary and secondary colours is known as tertiary or intermediate colours, due to their compound nature. Blue-green, blue-violet, red-orange, red-violet, yellow-orange and yellow-green are colour combinations you can make from colour mixing. On a colour wheel, tertiary colours are between primary and secondary colours.
Note: When working in CMYK for colour printing purposes, these colours are “subtractive,” which means they get darker as you add more ink or blend them together.
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.
Get the temperature right.
Colour wheels are arranged in order of how those specific colours appear in the visible light spectrum. The left side has warm colours, based in red, while the right side has cool colours, found in blue. While these classifications are stable, more subtle colour connections are relative, meaning that a warm colour can be considered a cool colour and vice versa, depending on their relationship with the neighboring colour. Colours from the same hue can also be regarded as colder or warmer than one another based on what colour they appear beside.
Before you create, think about what type of emotions you want to portray. Cold and warm colours have unique properties that can change an image in a variety of ways. Cool colours offer a calm, soothing feeling, while warm colours are energising and happy. Warm colours make things look closer to the viewer, whereas cool colours give a faraway look to an image.
Make your next piece in living colour with Adobe Creative Cloud.
Let your imagination run free and play around with different colour combinations to achieve a distinctive look, customised to your next project. “Secondary colours open the door to interesting colour combinations that make people feel like it’s their project, it’s original,” says designer Jacob Obermiller. “It’s not just blue, yellow, red or black. It now has some character and ownership to it.” The Adobe Creative Cloud All Apps plan has all the tools you need to give anything you create its own character.
If you’re interested in learning more about colours, explore colour photography, how to colourise black-and-white photos or how to calibrate your monitor for more vivid colours. The better your understanding of colour, the better you can find the perfect look for each new piece you create.
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Creativity for all.
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