What is color theory?
Color theory is the creative and scientific use of color. It’s a system of logic that places guidelines and rules of how colors contrast, mix, and match with each other.
“When it comes to color 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 color palette works best for your illustrations? The color wheel comes to the rescue. You can use it to determine what color scheme matches the mood you’re trying to set.
The grand color scheme of things.
Do you want colors that flatter each other? Choose colors that are located right next to each other on the color wheel. These are called analogous colors. You’ll need to have the proper contrast, so most illustrators choose one dominant color, along with a second supporting color and a third color to be used as an accent or highlight.
This is a simple method to develop a color system, but it’s not without its flaws. “There are mixed opinions with this approach because it’s very easy to have a calming color palette, but then you also have very low contrast, and all the colors blend together,” Newman says. For instance, yellow-green, yellow, and yellow-red are all vivid colors, 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 color palette you choose.
“With illustration, you can definitely get away with taking the analogous color palette for your secondary colors. And then picking your primary color that is opposite on the color wheel,” says Newman. This is what’s called a complementary color scheme. If you choose a color on the opposite side of the wheel, it gives whatever you color the most substantial contrast while it remains pleasing to the eye. Keep a color wheel handy to determine what the best complementary colors are for your next project.