Color Schemes  

As we improved our ability to reproduce any color imaginable, the problem of choice arose. How do we decide what colors to use?

Experts publish guides to color harmonies, forecasting color trends to creating pleasing environments, from homes, car paints, kitchenware to our digital enviroments.

Benjamin Moore & Co. 1890


from Édouard Guichard Die Harmonie der Farben 1882

Architect and decorator Édouard Guichard promoted the concept of color harmony for the design of wallpaper, curtains, upholstery, and paint schemes in architecture and interior design.


1936, the Homer Laughlin China Company introduced Fiesta Dinnerware in five vivid colors. Brilliant orange-red had natural uranium oxide in the glaze, which made the product slightly radioactive. The color was discontinued in 1944.



Limit the number of colors to a few, such as:

• Dominant color

• Subordinate color

• Accent color

Choose hues with common characteristics such as analogous colors.

Choose colors opposite one another on the color wheel.

Don’t use too many vivid colors, mix up with tints.

Use achromatic colors with pure hues, tints, and shades.

Begin with the basic color schemes and then expand and elaborate further.  

Dominant Color

One easy way to design a color scheme is to use black and white, plus a single "key color" to highlight important information such as headings, or emphasized text, or to include graphical elements like rules or background shading. 

A color key, or dominant color, can heighten psychological as well as composition impact.


In Egon Schiele's Portrait of Paris von Gutersloh, the flaming orange around and within the figure places the anxious man in an emotional electric chair. 



"Colors are only symbols. Reality is to be found in luminance alone." "When I run out of blue, I use red."
Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)

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The monochromatic color scheme uses variations in lightness and saturation of a single color.

This scheme looks clean and elegant. Monochromatic colors go well together, producing a soothing effect. The monochromatic scheme is very easy on the eyes, especially with blue or green hues. You can use it to establish an overall mood. The primary color can be integrated with neutral colors such as black, white, or gray. However, it can be difficult, when using this scheme, to highlight the most important elements. 

Colors are never emotionally neutral. The color in Sandy Skoglund's Radioactive Cats creates yet another interpretation of an interior space. The gray humans seem lifeless, while the lime-green cats glow with an inquisitive energy that may be toxic!

Sandy Skoglund, Radioactive Cats, 1980


A monochromatic color scheme is often used by sites whose content is of extreme importance, overriding the need to capture an audience with the site itself. It can give a site a clean and classic look, but also provides excellent opportunities to let full color photographs dominate. Think serious political and business sites, banks, customer confidence, as well as fashion sites that understand monochromatic schemes support their own branding and allows photographs to really stand out.


Pros: The monochromatic scheme is easy to manage, and always looks balanced and visually appealing.

Tips: Use tints, shades, and tones of the key color to enhance the scheme. Try the analogous scheme; it offers more nuances while retaining the simplicity and elegance of the monochromatic scheme.

Analogous Colors


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Analogous colors are any three colors which are side by side on a 12 part color wheel, such as yellow-green, yellow, and yellow-orange. Usually one of the three colors predominates.

The analogous color scheme uses colors that are adjacent to each other on the color wheel. One color is used as a dominant color while others are used to enrich the scheme. The analogous scheme is similar to the monochromatic one, but offers more nuances.


Pros: The analogous color scheme is as easy to create as the monochromatic, but looks richer.

Tips: Avoid using too many hues in the analogous scheme, because this may ruin the harmony.  Avoid combining warm and cool colors in this scheme.



Any combination of the primary hues: red, yellow, and blue; and their tints and shades.  

Any combination of the secondary colors: violet, orange, and green; and their tints and shades.  

Lozenge Composition with Red, Black, Blue, and Yellow1925.jpg (35287 bytes) Lozenge Composition with Yellow, Black, Blue, Red, and Gray1921.jpg (34575 bytes) Composition with Blue, Yellow, Black, and Red1922.jpg (40887 bytes) Piet Mondrian

The triadic system pushes the choices even farther apart so they are now located in a triangular position, equally spaced around the wheel. This scheme is often used when variety and a strong impact are essential.

Pros: The triadic color scheme offers high contrast while retaining harmony.

Tips: Choose one color to be used in larger amounts than others.  If the colors look gaudy, try to subdue them.

Tertiary or Dbl-Complementary

Any combination of the tertiary colors:

- red-orange, yellow-orange, yellow-green, blue-green, blue-violet, and red-violet.

- Colors fall between the primaries and secondaries.

The tetradic (double complementary) scheme is the richest of all the schemes because it uses four colors arranged into two complementary color pairs. This scheme is hard to harmonize; if all four colors are used in equal amounts, the scheme may look unbalanced, so you should choose a color to be dominant or subdue the colors.

In a tetradic color scheme, four colors are separated by 90° of hue. To create a tetradic color scheme, set the variation amount for hue to 90°, the number of swatches per row to at least five and choose any four successive hues.


Pros: The tetradic scheme offers more color variety than any other scheme.

Cons: This scheme is the hardest scheme to balance.

Tips: If the scheme looks unbalanced, try to subdue one or more colors.  Avoid using pure colors in equal amounts.

Complementary colors


A juxtaposition of any hue and the two colors located on either sides of its complement.

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The split complementary scheme is a variation of the standard complementary scheme. It uses a color and the two colors adjacent to its complementary. This provides high contrast without the strong tension of the complementary scheme.

 Georgia O'Keeffe's Jack in the Pulpit No.V is dominated by rich green and violets, with accents of yellow at the top of and a line of scarlet down the center of the composition.

Georgia O'Keeffe Jack in the Pulpit No.V

Pros: The split complementary scheme offers more nuances than the complementary scheme while retaining strong visual contrast.

Cons: The split complementary scheme is harder to balance than monochromatic and analogous color schemes.

Tips: Use a single warm color against a range of cool colors to put an emphasis on the warm color (red versus blues and blue-greens, or orange versus blues and blue-violets).  Avoid using desaturated warm colors (e.g. browns or dull yellows), because this may ruin the scheme.

Chromatic Grays and Earth Colors

chromatic gray is made from a mixture of color, rather than a simple blend of black and white.
The result is both subtle and vibrant. In The Magpie, the grays vary widely, from the purples and blue-grays
in the shadows to the golden-gray light in the foreground and the silvery grays for the snow-covered trees.
This is not a dark, sullen winter day; through the use of chromatic grays, Claude Monet makes the warm
light an transparent shadows sparkle in the crisp air.

Earth colors, including raw sienna and burnt sienna, raw and burnt umber and yellow ochre, are made literally from pigments found in the soil. Generally warm in temperature, when used together they create a type of analogous harmony.



Combinations of black, white, and gray hues.

Bridget Riley Drift No. 2 (1966)


Selecting harmonious colors can make the difference between a visual atrocity and a visual delight.
As a result, color harmony is the subject of endless books offering advice to artists, architects, and surface
pattern designers. Cultural definitions of harmony are as changeable as popular music. In search for fresh and eye-catching images, designers in all fields invent new color combinations each year. The pink, gray, and black prized by designers in one year may seem passé in the next year. Furthermore, when the subject matter in a painting is disturbing, conventional harmony is inappropriate.

In this triptych, Francis Bacon used an unusual
combination of pinks, grays, blues, and black to produce a painting that is disturbing as it is beautiful.


Online Color Combination Tools