Traditional color theory takes its origin in the very beginning of the 18th century with Newton’s book “Opticks” in which he attempts to describe the nature of light. Newton divided the visible spectrum into seven simple colors and to further simplify their visualization introduced the first-ever color wheel.
From then on, the artists, scholars and enthusiasts rushed to redraw and repaint the wheel, looking for patterns and connections between the hues. In the next two hundred years, there were dozens, if not hundreds of new color wheels created that expanded upon Newton’s original 7, sometimes to 12 or even 72 segment wheels.
However, any separation of the spectrum into distinct color zones was and still is purely verbal. In reality, our eyes can distinguish enormous amounts of transitional hues, tints and shades. The transition between hues would be seamless and gradual in an ideal color wheel.
Theory of colors came as an attempt to give a sense of control while working with them. To organize the broad and abstract nature of colors into a somewhat logical structure. One of the first people to ever define and present ways of successful color combinations was Johannes Itten, a person most often associated with the 20th century Bauhaus movement.
Bauhaus aimed to erase the line between the artist and the craftsman. Their methodology was concerned with giving practical skills, covering most of the techniques associated with the design of material and environment.
Their philosophy encouraged the further development of 20th-century art, design, fashion and mass production. Practical usefulness and systematic approach to alterations shaped the design field as we know it today. From this perspective, one of the basic tools used for visual communication and defined by Johannes Itten was color.
Itten was a fundamental teacher in the Bauhaus movement. His comprehensive examples proved to his students that any visual sensation is a subjective perceptual experience that follows certain objective laws. He analyzed and modified the traditional color theory, working on the problems of successful color application throughout his entire career.
One of the last prominent figures in the development of traditional color theory was Karl Gerstner. An influential author whose interest in algorithmic design systems affected much more than just his iconic work in typography. Gerstner’s book, The Forms of Color, as well as Chromorphose, showed a deep interest in color manipulation. Inspired by the Bauhaus movement, he applied an algorithmic approach to design which led him to develop complex color systems long before the digital era.
In today's world creating color transitions such as gradients is easily accessible within a few clicks. We rarely even think about the active mathematical algorithms behind the software curtains. To make a transition it’s enough to choose two colors, direction and you are ready to go. However, before the times of programmable software, this understanding was crucial and illustrators, designers and publishers had to study such changes by hand.
In the eyes of today’s graphic designers, such manual navigation inside the color space was so much slower and less efficient. However, anyone who managed to use this approach understood colors to their depths. Hand-crafted palettes were hard to craft yet they gave a sense of balance. Carefully working on every shift of a shade or tint, interacting with neighbouring hues and saturation, offered an invaluable experience.
Since colors are born in the eyes of the viewer they exist only as a personalised perception. Each hue implies a variety of emotions that may depend on the background of the audience, their personal preferences and stereotypes. And yet, history of design proves that most of the harmonic combinations can be summarized in just a few general cases.
Monochromatic color schemes are based on the shades, tones and tints of a selected hue. This quite literally means that working within a monochromatic palette is to work with a single color. With little space left for mistakes, this is the perfect choice for beginners. Almost silent, with no alarms and no surprises.
Although, such restriction may seem as a challenge, one hue conveys only one emotion that is subtle and homogeneous. The monochromatic palettes give a cohesive feel and create a solid character.
Analogous colors are often taken as deviations of simple primary colors. They are positioned next to each other on the color wheel but unlike monochrome are very natural. Most combinations can be found in nature and are mostly very gentle to the eye.
One important rule when relying on the analogous color scheme is to keep the contrast high. There must be one primary color to dominate with a secondary that supports it and a third to play the role of an accent with white, grey or black also being an option.
When colors are positioned opposite each other on the color wheel they are called Complementary. For example Blue and Orange or Red and Green. If used in full saturation, this color scheme appears lively and vibrant, but if mismanaged, it can also be harsh on the eyes, so caution is advised to avoid unwanted extremes.
A pointing hint is to use complementary colors when you desire for something to really stand out. Mixing them, however, is often used to create dynamic shadows as the resulting color is with reduced vibrancy, which can then be further manipulated by the addition of white, grey or black.
There is another variation of this color scheme named Split-Complementary. Instead of one primary and one secondary color, this scheme makes use of two colors to supplement the primary one. The result keeps the original idea of achieving strong contrast but with smoother transitions, thus making it harder to mess up and ideal for beginners.
“Three colors that are evenly spaced on the color wheel.”
What you just read is probably the most widely found explanation of triadic colors on the internet. And there is a bunch of things that are wrong with such a fast-food definition. If you take evenly saturated points that are precisely spaced 120 degrees on the color wheel, the result will be far from satisfying.
Since in real life objects are never saturated to the extreme our brain gets overloaded when exposed to artificially colorful palettes. Triadic colors are by default very vibrant even when the chosen hue is pale and is one of the harder color schemes to truly master.
To avoid this problem of over-intensifying the palette, it is important that two of the involved colors are muted when using the Triadic color scheme. The key to success is to have one dominant color with the other two playing the role of an accent to make the primary hue pop out.
The Tetradic color scheme is probably the most difficult to master. Aggressive and prone to misuse, the tetradic color scheme is made out of four colors, or more precisely, two pairs of two complementary colors.
A rich scheme that offers almost endless opportunities of color variation. Similar to the previously explained triadic colors, it is not wise to just use four evenly spaced colors on the color wheel like many blog posts out there suggest.
Instead, let the primary color be dominant and let the others be an accent, but you also need to pay attention to the transitions between the warm and cold sides of the visible spectrum. As a general rule, two of the involved colors must be muted to avoid unwanted intensity that would be too heavy for the observer of your design. The mixture of all these cross-dependencies make tetradic the hardest color schemes of all.
In its essence, a harmonious palette is the end result of a systematic approach throughout the entire design process. Every successful color combination reflects the message your design is trying to convey to the observers.
Traditional color theory took many years to develop into its current form. From Newton, to the Bauhaus movement and the recent mass digitization, we are just starting to truly bare the fruits of the systematic approach to color usage and it is a mistake to think everything has been explored. Color theory is a vast field, quietly awaiting its next pioneer.