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Color Theory for Digital Artists

Color Theory for Digital Artists

In this lesson, concept artist Magdalena Proszowska explains how to approach colors and some good tools to help you understand color theory.

  • Color Theory
  • Video Tutorial
  • Illustration
  • Digital Painting


First, I want to explain the tool that should be every artist’s best friend: the color wheel. This color wheel is the traditional painter color wheel.

digital color theory assignment

It’s built on three primary colors: yellow, red, and blue. By mixing primary colors together you get secondary colors between the primary colors. These are orange, violet, and green. The outside of the circle organizes the colors according to how they combine.

digital color theory assignment

A key point we will focus on today is “complementary colors”. Complementary colors are on opposite sides of the color wheel. When you mix complementary colors together, for example, blue and orange, the result will be a gray color. That is true for every single of these color pairs. When you mix violet with yellow, you will get a muddy gray color.

digital color theory assignment

Gray is in the middle of the color wheel. The color wheel is important because it will be a guideline to identify how colored light influences the original or base color, called the “local color”.

Before I start using colors, I’ll explain the principles of shading. In a simplified world, everything would be grayscale because it would be easiest to draw and paint.

For this example, let’s imagine a neutral grey ball on a gray table with a source of light.

digital color theory assignment

The light comes from the right top corner. When the light hits the surface, all planes of the geometry facing the light are lit and become brighter, while all planes not hit by the light are in shadow.

digital color theory assignment

There’s also a third kind of light source that comes from the physics of the light itself. Light bounces around everywhere and so a little bit of reflected light appears in the shaded area. The reflected light is never as strong as the light itself.

digital color theory assignment

Those are the basics of shading. With these principles, you can create the illusion of dimension just by knowing the source and direction of the light.


Even though this is a flat surface, when we look at this picture we can understand geometry and the depth expressed in the picture. When you add color, that’s where the hard stuff is happening. Not only do we have to think about the values, the light source, the shadow shape, and the reflected light, but also the color of the environment, the color of the light, and the color of the shadows. There are a lot of complicated elements.

Let’s use the same grey ball in a different environment. The environment is quite warm with earthy tones, and the light source has a color. If we imagine this as an outside environment, the source of light will be the Sun so it will be yellow.

digital color theory assignment

What happens when the light hits the surface of the grey ball? The light is yellow, so the highlight on the grey ball is yellow.

digital color theory assignment

The environment is a warm brown. Shadows are influenced by the color of the environment, so the shadow is a warm color, not just black.

digital color theory assignment

There’s also some reflected light from the blue sky that influences the shadow side. It’s very delicate in this example, but I think it makes the point.

digital color theory assignment


So what does the color wheel have to do with this explanation of how the light works?

We started with just a grey ball because it’s easier to explain. Grey is in the middle of the color wheel. We have a yellow light source so we look for yellow on the color wheel and we know that we can push in this direction to predict the resulting color from the light. It’s very simple with gray because it always goes toward whichever color we want to apply to it.

digital color theory assignment

For the highlight, we move from the middle of the color wheel toward the yellow. For the warm shadows, move from the local gray color to the warm tones. Finally for the blue reflected light, we move from the gray toward blue.

digital color theory assignment

This is a simple example, but it’s really important to imagine it on as simple a situation as possible. When you use different local colors, you will have a much easier understanding of what is going on with the colors and why they change the way that they do.


So far we’ve looked at the basic color theory. Now let’s see it in action by painting this character.

digital color theory assignment

In this example, we’ll use the same lighting conditions as our gray ball, with warm light coming from the Sun, warm shadows from earthy tones, and some reflected light from the blue sky.

For the skin and the hair, I choose the shadow color by darkening the local color and moving it towards red to make it warmer. For the highlights, I make the local color brighter and more yellow.

digital color theory assignment

Adding warm light to cool local colors

It’s simple when working with warm colors and making them warmer for shadows and highlights. The difficulty starts with more drastic colors like the bluish blouse.

We start with blue on the color wheel. If we draw a straight line through from blue to orange, the line goes through grey. This means that for blue, we need to desaturate it to make it warmer.

When I did not understand colors at all, I would take the local color and slide it down and increase the saturation for this color.

But as you can see, the shadow is much bluer and cooler than the local color even though the other elements in the piece have warm shadows. It feels wrong because it has a different color shadow.

digital color theory assignment

Here’s the appropriate shadow color for the shadow on the blue blouse. All the colors are unified by the same lighting conditions, with warm light and have warm shadows.

digital color theory assignment

Skin is never just one color, so I add some red tones using the airbrush. I add red on the cheeks, as well as where the skin is thinner and has more blood vessels close to the surface.

Next is the reflected sky color that hits the shadow area. Orange and blue are on opposite sides of the color wheel, so they are complementary colors. When we mix two complementary colors, they turn gray, so when the blue light hits the color of the skin, we will see gray. I use a slightly pinkish violet color.

Then, I blend the colors together.

digital color theory assignment

You can use the same approach to do something more drastic with the colors under different lighting circumstances.

digital color theory assignment

You can take any type of color reference and apply it to your paintings. Just remember to always think about the color of the light, the influence of the environment on the shadows, and any secondary light sources that can influence the surface.

Colors can make a huge difference to your artwork in the emotions that come with the colors, so use them wisely!

Watch Magdalena’s webinar for the full live drawing and Q&A session!


Magdalena was born in Poland, and is currently living and working in Germany as a Senior Concept Artist for game developer Ubisoft. Digital painting is her passion, spending any free time working on illustrations and character design. She’s an active speaker and guest teacher at top game development universities in North-Rhine-Westphalia area of Germany.

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digital color theory assignment

Art - Color Theory

How to Use Color Theory in Your Digital Art

Mike Tapia

  • June 23, 2023

In digital art, color plays a pivotal role in capturing attention, conveying emotions, and shaping the overall impact of a design. Whether you’re a seasoned digital artist or just starting, understanding and harnessing the principles of color theory can significantly enhance your creative journey.

With the right knowledge and approach, you can infuse your artwork with depth, meaning, and visual harmony.

Color theory forms the foundation of art and design, encompassing the study of colors and their relationships. By exploring the science and psychology behind colors, artists gain a powerful toolset to communicate and evoke specific emotions and messages within their creations.

In this comprehensive guide, I will delve into the world of color theory and its application in digital art. 

I will uncover the basics, such as the color wheel, primary, secondary, and tertiary colors, as well as more advanced concepts like color palettes, harmonies, and contrast. 

Let’s embark on this enlightening journey to discover how you can utilize color theory to elevate your digital artwork and create visually striking masterpieces.

Table of Contents

Understanding the color wheel, color palettes: creating a harmonious ensemble, using color harmonies to enhance visual flow, harnessing the power of contrast.

Color Wheel - Irham Setyaki

At the heart of color theory lies the color wheel, a visual representation of the relationships between different hues.

The color wheel consists of twelve main colors, which can be categorized into primary, secondary, and tertiary colors.

Primary colors are the foundation of all other colors and cannot be created by mixing other colors.

Primary colors include:

  • and yellow. 

Secondary colors, on the other hand, are formed by mixing two primary colors.

Secondary colors include:

  • green (blue + yellow), 
  • orange (red + yellow), 
  • and purple (red + blue). 

Tertiary colors are the result of mixing a primary color with a secondary color.

The arrangement of colors on the color wheel is essential in understanding their relationships and how they interact with each other. 

The wheel is divided into warm and cool colors, with warm colors, such as red, orange, and yellow, evoking a sense of energy and vibrancy, while cool colors, like blue, green, and purple, create a more calming and soothing effect.

Digital Color Palette

Now that we have a grasp of the color wheel and its components, let’s explore the concept of color palettes. 

A color palette refers to a set of carefully selected colors that work harmoniously together within a design. 

By using a well-curated palette, artists can evoke specific moods and ensure visual coherence in their artwork.

When creating a color palette, it’s crucial to consider the emotions and messages you want to convey. 

Each color carries a psychological impact. For example, red symbolizes passion, energy, and urgency, while blue represents calmness, trust, and reliability. 

By choosing colors that align with the intended mood or theme of your artwork, you can create a stronger connection with your audience.

There are various approaches to selecting color palettes. 

Analogous Colors

One popular method is analogous colors, where you choose hues that are adjacent to each other on the color wheel. 

Analogous palettes create a sense of harmony and are often used for designs aiming for a cohesive and peaceful ambiance. 

For example, combining different shades of blue and green can result in a tranquil and refreshing composition.

Complementary Colors

On the other hand, complementary colors are those positioned opposite each other on the color wheel. 

These combinations provide a striking contrast that can be highly effective in creating visual impact. 

For instance, pairing yellow with purple or red with green can produce a vibrant and energetic composition.

Triadic Colors

Triadic color schemes involve selecting three colors evenly spaced around the color wheel. 

This approach offers a balance between contrast and harmony. 

By using triadic palettes, you can create dynamic compositions that capture attention while maintaining a sense of unity.

In addition to these methods, artists often draw inspiration from nature, art movements, or even existing color schemes to build their palettes. 

Online tools and applications such as Adobe Color and Coolors are dedicated to color palette generation and can also assist in finding harmonious combinations that suit your artistic vision.

Visual Flow - Milad Fakurian

To further refine your digital artwork, it’s important to understand and leverage color harmonies. 

Color harmonies are specific combinations of colors that create pleasing visual effects when used together. 

By utilizing harmonies, you can guide the viewer’s eye through your composition and establish a sense of balance and unity.

Monochromatic Scheme

One widely used color harmony is the monochromatic scheme, which involves using different shades, tints, and tones of a single color. 

Monochromatic palettes provide a clean and sophisticated look, as well as a sense of continuity. 

This scheme is particularly useful when aiming for a minimalist or elegant aesthetic.

Analogous Scheme

Another popular harmony is the analogous color scheme, mentioned earlier in the context of color palettes. 

Analogous harmonies create a smooth transition between colors, making them ideal for conveying a sense of serenity or warmth. 

By incorporating different shades and saturations of neighboring colors, you can achieve a cohesive and visually pleasing composition.

Complementary Scheme

Complementary color harmonies, consisting of colors directly opposite each other on the color wheel, offer a high level of contrast and visual impact. 

When used strategically, complementary colors can create focal points and draw attention to specific elements within your artwork.  

However, it’s important to use them sparingly and balance their intensity to avoid overwhelming the viewer.

Split Complementary and Triadic Scheme

The concepts of complementary colors are further developed through split complementary and triadic harmonies.

Split complementary harmonies involve using a color and the two adjacent hues to its complementary color. 

This creates a vibrant and dynamic palette with a slightly less intense contrast compared to complementary schemes. 

Triadic harmonies, as mentioned earlier, utilize three colors evenly spaced on the color wheel, resulting in a visually balanced and engaging composition.

Beyond these harmonies, there are additional techniques like tetradic (double complementary) and square color schemes that offer even more possibilities for creative exploration. These harmonies provide a rich color palette that can add depth and complexity to your digital artwork.

Digital Art Contrast - Li Zhang

Contrast is a powerful tool in digital art that helps create visual interest, emphasize focal points, and enhance legibility. 

Understanding how to effectively use contrast in color selection can significantly elevate the impact of your designs.

Value Contrast

One aspect of contrast is value contrast, which refers to the difference between light and dark colors. 

By strategically incorporating light and dark tones in your composition, you can add depth and dimensionality. 

For example, placing a light object against a dark background can make it stand out and become a focal point.

Hue Contrast

Another form of contrast is hue contrast, which involves utilizing colors that are far apart on the color wheel. 

Hue contrast creates a strong visual impact and draws attention. 

For instance, pairing a warm color like red with a cool color like blue instantly catches the eye and adds energy to your artwork.

Saturation Contrast

Saturation contrast focuses on the intensity or purity of colors. 

By juxtaposing saturated colors with desaturated ones, you can create a sense of emphasis and balance. 

For example, a highly saturated object against a desaturated background can create a striking focal point.

Textural Contrast 

When creating digital art, it’s important to consider textural contrast. This involves incorporating various textures and patterns to create a visually interesting piece.

Textural contrast adds visual interest and can help define separate elements or areas in your composition. 

By combining smooth and rough textures or intricate patterns with simple ones, you can create a sense of variety and depth.

When utilizing contrast, it’s important to strike a balance between harmonious cohesion and visual impact. 

Too much contrast can create a chaotic or jarring effect, while too little can result in a bland and unremarkable composition.  

Experimentation and iteration are key to finding the right balance that suits your artistic vision.

As you embark on your journey in digital art, understanding and applying the principles of color theory will open up a world of possibilities. 

By mastering the color wheel, selecting harmonious palettes, leveraging color harmonies, and harnessing the power of contrast, you can create captivating and impactful digital artwork.

Remember, color theory is not a rigid set of rules but rather a guide that empowers you to make informed decisions.  

Take the time to experiment, explore different combinations, and trust your intuition. With practice, you’ll develop a keen eye for color and be able to create art that resonates with your audience on a profound level.

So, go ahead and infuse your digital art with the magic of color theory. Let your creations speak volumes through the strategic use of colors. 

If you haven’t already, check out the article, “ 10 Essential Tips for Digital Artists Just Starting Out ” to learn more about the basics of digital art.

Elevate your designs, evoke emotions, and embark on a visual journey that captivates and inspires.

Mike Tapia

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Digital Color Composition

Posted August 17, 2021

digital color theory assignment

Cynthia Zhou — Analogous "Wistful"

digital color theory assignment

Jean Wong — Split Complementary "Exhaustion"

digital color theory assignment

Will Behrndt — Complementary "Vivid"

digital color theory assignment

Nick Brown — Monochromatic "Glitchy"

digital color theory assignment

Devin English — Triadic "Candescent"

Project Brief

Using a Google or Excel spreadsheet, create one dynamic color composition that fills columns A–Z and rows 1–50. You can use any combination of hues, values and saturation to make this composition. You can change the width and depth of each cell or column in the spread sheet. Follow the principles of color shared in lecture. Strive to make your color combinations harmonious and your composition dynamic. Use the color wheel to determine an optimal color palette. You should be able to tell us which palette you are using, and why it works:

Greyscale  Monochromatic  Analogous Complementary Split Complementary Triadic  Tetradic/Double Complementary Warm or Cool

After creating your composition, title it with the color scheme and an emotion (one word only). For example: MONOCHROMATIC / CALM

Learning Objectives

Explore color combinations based on color theory, using software everyone has access to


One spreadsheet, shared with a link posted in Canvas



This one-week assignment introduced color theory to a group of non-design majors (Computer Science, Linguistics, Business, Anthropology to name a few). The course was taught online because of the pandemic. I used spreadsheets because everyone had access to them, and most of students were familiar with the software (vs Adobe). 

A majority of the students had never explored the color wheel and color theory. The lecture introduced the various color combinations and terms such as hue, value, saturation, tints and shades. 

The pitfalls: The one word description didn't mean much. One student's "serene" was another's "despair". Perhaps it was a useful exercise for them to understand that color and mood are related but for critique purposes we didn't spend much time debating the appropriate description. The bigger issue was that at least half the students initially created representational compositions: a wave, a sunset, a school of fish, an alien invasion. I did not anticipate this since most design majors are taught to deal with abstraction fairly early on in their schooling. They course corrected after the critique but it would have been helpful if I had been more explicit about what to avoid. 

If you run this exercise, I recommend you show "successful" and "less successful" compositions at the start so students understand they shouldn't recreate Starry Night in Excel. Be prepared for the "Atari" look though — spreadsheets aren't exactly great for color, but it's an easy way to get a group of non-designers (not Adobe software users) to explore. 

This assignment lasted one week: lecture/project introduction on Wednesday; quick review the following Monday (students loaded screen shots of their files into a shared Google presentation so they could see one another's and comment as needed); due on Wednesday. I don't think they needed more time. 

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10 Free Online Color Theory Classes for Beginners

  • by Lauren du Plessis @lauren.duplessis

Journey through the spectrum of color and discover how to use it across different art forms, from photography to illustration, with these free lessons

Color is a fundamental aspect of creative work, that appeals to our senses of emotion and beauty. To give your work the maximum impact, it’s useful to understand the set of essential rules that apply to color.

These rules lay out how colors are created and how they complement each other (or not). When you understand color, you can communicate ideas and mood more clearly, create palettes within your work, and streamline decision-making in your process.

Here, we’ve opened ten classes from top Domestika teachers for a limited time, to show you how.

Read on to discover top tips curated from a range of courses, covering interior design, photography, illustration, and more. You’ll follow a winding path around the color wheel, through the key terms you need to know, and into specializations. Whether you want to breathe new life into your home or workspace, discover inspiration in the world around you through your camera lens, or master the blank canvas with emotive and inspiring hues, there will be something for you on this list.

These classes will be free until March 6, 2022. If you want to access the classes after this date, you can sign up for each teacher’s full course and dive into their topics in detail.

1. Free Class: Colors and Mood

You may have noticed that sad scenes in movies often have dark backgrounds, blue lighting, or similar. Karmen Loh, also known as Bearbrickjia ( @bearbrickjia ), is here to explain why and give you a primer on mood! Karmen has been illustrating digitally for almost ten years. Her work captures a sense of calm with a dream-like feeling that has grown an impressive following on her Instagram.

In this lesson on colors and mood, she addresses how different hues and lighting result in different moods and atmospheres , by sharing examples from well-known movie screenshots, photographs, and artworks.

Study color and mood as part of Karmen's course on digital portraits.

2. Free Class: Color Theory Crash Course

Now you understand a bit about how color can tell a story and appeal to our emotion, it’s time to analyze it in more detail. Do you know the difference between hue, saturation, and value?

Camille Labarre ( @camillelabarre ) uses her understanding of color to create unique embroidered portraits using the punch needle technique. She’s a freelance fabricator based in New York, specializing in props, puppets, and sets for animation, film, and theater.

In this crash course on color theory, she outlines the keywords you need to know when it comes to deeply understanding color and how certain hues mix together to create others .

Get ready to make punch needle artwork by learning about color theory.

3. Free Class: The Basic Terminology of Color

James Eccleston ( @james80 ) uses the science of color for communication: he has eighteen years of experience working for major brand communication agencies in London, digital start-ups in Latin America, and running his agency, Bridge, in Madrid. Graphic design for branding and campaigns is reliant on color to catch people’s attention and create an impression of the brand.

In this lesson, you’ll learn color terminology that will help you to improve your communication. Take your understanding to the next level by learning terms like RGB and CMYK , and breaking down descriptive words for different hues .

Create cohesive digital designs with James in his course on color in online projects and campaigns.

4. Free Class: Choosing the Right Color Palettes

You might not realize it, but even gray hues can be full of emotion and interest. Explore the complexity of choosing a thoughtful color palette , even with grayer, muted tones, understanding the differences between cold and warm.

Sara Luna ( @saralunart ) is a visual artist and illustrator who specializes in textile art. She grew up surrounded by weavers and craft makers in her family, but when she moved to the US, she rediscovered the punch needle and honed her skill. Her work has been exhibited in New York and Salt Lake City, and she’s been featured in Create! Magazine and Carper Contemporary .

Make an impactful punch needle portrait by using a simple, limited color palette, with Sara's course.

5. Free Class: Designing a Digital Color Palette

Coming back to more saturated hues, it’s time to think about digital art. It’s important to note that computer monitors use the color setting RGB (Red, Green, Blue), while print media uses CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Black).

Owen Davey ( @owendaveydraws ) is an award-winning illustrator from the UK who is known for geometric shapes and curated color palettes. He has worked with Google, Facebook, Flying Eye Books, and more, and is the lead illustrator for the multi-award-winning app Two Dots .

In this class, he demonstrates how he explored digital color palettes in certain projects, noting how context and placement can make a color look completely different.

Bring bold color schemes into your vectorized digital art, with Owen's course.

6. Free Class: Complementary Colors

By now you should have an understanding of what complementary colors are. It’s time to learn how to use them to create highlighted areas and strong compositions .

James Chapman ( @jameschapman ) is an illustrator and children's author based in the UK. His professional work is mostly in animation and digital art, but his thousands of Instagram followers know him for colorful sketchbooks filled with film and pop culture references, created with Posca pens.

In this class on complementary colors, he demonstrates how to work with bright Posca pens, quickly testing color combinations before committing to a final project.

Discover the colorful joy of Posca pens in James's course.

7. Free Class: Understanding Color for Interior Design

If you’re looking to bring more color into your surroundings, this is the lesson for you. Shari Francis ( @sfrancis ) walks you through color for interior design by dissecting the color wheel in a specialized context. Understand how color creates mood and evokes certain emotions in interior spaces . Then, add an extra layer to your understanding by combining color with texture.

Shari Francis is the owner and head interior designer at Dädapt, a Brooklyn-based interior design studio, and is a part-time interior design professor and member of the Black Artist and Designers Guild. Shari’s portfolio includes interior narratives for development, residential, commercial, and hospitality projects, with work featured in The Wall Street Journal, Architectural Digest , and many more.

Inject life into your home with Shari's course on color and texture.

8. Free Class: Working with Composition and Color Together

With a basic knowledge in place, it’s time to bring your artwork to life by using color and composition together.

Marcos Chin ( @marcoschinart ) is an award-winning illustrator whose work has appeared on surface and wall designs, books, CD covers, magazines, and more. He has worked with companies such as Rolling Stone Magazine and The New Yorker .

In this class, Marcos demonstrates in full his process for using color and composition to add dynamism and symbolic meaning to a drawing of birds flying around a cage. He details each step of organizing and coloring the image to ensure it has maximum impact on the viewer.

Tell stories through dynamic illustrations with Marcos's course.

9. Free Class: Psychology of Color

Dive deeper into the emotional responses provoked by color , and consider how they especially affect photography, in this class on the psychology of color.

A native of Malaysia and a surgeon by trade, Yaopey Yong ( @yaopey ) has combined these facets of his life with a love for photography inherited from his father. Yaopey has received awards including the Award of Excellence from The Spirit of Resilience Awards. His work has featured in publications like National Geographic, Photography Week, and Asia Overland .

Yaopey shares that color is more than it appears. It appeals to our subconscious—to memories, past emotions, and experiences. This can stir our feelings up when looking at certain images, and can encourage us to form a meaningful attachment.

Unlock emotions with color in Yaopey's photography course.

10. Free Class: Cinematography and Cinematic Color

As we learned earlier, color in cinematography performs many functions, including setting the scene and developing a character’s story. How can you use cinematography as an inspiration for photography?

Fine art photographer Teresa Freitas ( @teresacfreitas ) is from Lisbon, Portugal and developed a successful career by creating colorful images. Teresa started a visual diary on Instagram and was approached by several global brands because of her work which allowed her to photograph professionally. She has worked with Netflix, Dior, Polaroid, Chloé, and American Express.

In this class on cinematic color, Teresa shares insights and examples on the use of color for setting the tone of an image and how you can work with a cinematic subject to bring a distinct look to your photos.

Create storytelling sequences of colorful images in Teresa's photography course.

Color can unlock emotion , communicate ideas , and add an extra layer of meaning to any creative project, whatever your medium. If you’re keen to learn even more about color, check out each teacher’s course in full or explore our other color theory courses .

Remember to watch the classes by March 6, 2022 for limited-time free access. You may also like:

- Free eBook: Color Theory by Domestika - What is Color Blocking in Interior Design? - What is Color Harmony, and What Types Are There?

Margarida da Mota

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Understanding colour theory in digital art and design

Colours affect how we feel. Here, we explain the reasoning behind colour theory in design throughout the ages.

Would you stop for a burger if the McDonald's logo was green and purple?

Social scientists tell us the division between warm and cool colours seems woven into the fabric of our human existence.

Take a look at the McDonald's sign on this page. Would you stop for a burger if the logo were green and purple? The neural pathway that processes colour is not only separate from our perception of tone, but it's also strongly tied to the emotional brain.

The evolution of colour

Anthropologists Paul Kay and Brent Berlin have studied the evolution of colour terms in languages around the world.

European languages have about 11 or 12 basic terms to describe colours. Yet some so-called primitive languages, such as the New Guinean Dani, have only two basic terms.

Kay and Berlin wrote: "One of the two encompasses black, green, blue and other 'cool' colours; the other encompasses white, red, yellow and other 'warm' colours." Primitive peoples don't have poor vision.

Anthropologists suggest that as language evolved, it developed its first word concepts around the most psychologically important groupings.

Contrasts of warm and cool colours in this illustration help depict a true story: Eskimos in their dwelling 500 years ago, about to be buried by storm-driven ice.

Cool vs. warm

The cool colours seem to evoke feelings of winter, night, sky, sleep and ice. So the colour blue suggests quietness, restfulness and serenity.

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Warm colours such as red, orange and yellow make us think of fire, energy and hot spices.

Advertisers use all these bright, warm colours to whet the appetite for fast food.

Complementary colours suggest an opposition of elemental principles - such as fire - and they can suggest a feeling of conflict in a painting.

The emphasis on the complementary oppositions of blue-violet versus yellow, green versus red, and light versus dark echoes the opponent process system of colour vision, where all colours we see are the result of interactions between opposing pairs of colour receptors.

Further reading

True colours:.

Colour speaks to people. It's one of the most instant forms of graphic communication, yet it can so easily be the medium most over-looked. Time, then, to open your eyes to colour all over again. Read more.

New Adventures in Colour:

Be it eye-poppingly vibrant or high-contrast monochrome, the design world's use of colour is shaping our reactions to the world around us more than ever. Mark Penfold discovers how. Read more.

Brand New Colour:

Brands rely on colour as a shortcut to their customers' hearts, but how can a designer guarantee a palette says all the right things? We ask the experts. Read more.

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A More Creative Way to Teach Color Theory

color wheel hands

Teaching students about the elements of art is an important part of our job as art educators. But often, these lessons can seem rote and boring.

Simply telling our students about color theory and testing them isn’t a successful strategy. However, it’s important to find something that works because color theory is such a foundational art skill.

Personally, I believe students need time to experiment and enjoy creative freedom as they learn color theory. Thus, the Creative Color Wheels Lesson came to fruition.

A Step-by-Step Guide to Creative Color Wheels

creative color wheel

This lesson is best taught at a point in the year when students are familiar with various media, the elements and principles of art, and the sophisticated craftsmanship and care needed (and expected) in a high school visual art course. Here’s how it’s done.

1. Teach or Review Color Theory Basics

Begin by walking students through the color harmonies. Depending on the age of your students and your state or local standards, you might choose to include:

  • Primary colors
  • Secondary colors
  • Tertiary colors
  • Analogous colors
  • Complementary colors
  • Monochromatic colors

Then, discuss color vocabulary such as tint, shade, tone, hue, intensity, saturation, local color, etc.

2. Introduce the Project

Once you cover all of the color theory information, it’s time to open up the project. The goal is to make it as student-centered as possible. Students can, quite literally, do anything they want for the project as long as they meet the objectives.

And those objectives are simple.

  • The final piece must be round to echo a color wheel.
  • The final piece must include the primary, secondary, and tertiary colors.

That’s it! Of course, students immediately want to know what media they can use. My response is, “Whatever you want. You tell me!” And then they have questions about the size. Once again, my response is, “I don’t know, but I can’t wait to see what you come up with!”

Looking for even more creative color theory ideas? Do not miss the Color Theory Basics PRO Learning Pack. Johanna shares the best strategies for introducing theory, how to help your students experiment with color mixing, and engaging activities to support learning. You’ll also find many downloadable resources that would be perfect for this lesson!

3. Gather Ideas

Motivate your students by having them review their notes and then begin doing some research via Pinterest or Google Images. The goal is to get ideas from which to springboard. Their first homework assignment is to be prepared to share at least three ideas they will begin exploring the following day.

The ideas that come in are incredible! Each year my students seem to get more creative. I have seen fans, dresses, cakes, slushies, maps, wreathes, shoes, garbage lids with recycled dyed “trash,” balls, and more.

color wheel shirt

Opening up the media and size limitations allows our students the creativity to push their work to new levels. I am beyond impressed with the results. Most often, students can complete the work in class. However, sometimes you will have students who want to do things like cook or sew at home to complete their piece. What then?

My solution was pretty simple. These students created an ad or marketing tool to accompany whatever piece they were working on at home.

color wheel cupcakes

5. Present the Work

The final step is to have students present their creative color wheels to the class. As students work on their projects, they get more and more excited to have the opportunity to share their art. This is an exciting event and one that motivates them to work extra hard on their creative projects.

By the time we complete all of the presentations, students are more than ready for their color assessment, and I am content knowing students have mastered and authentically learned about color theory on many different levels!

How do you teach color theory to your students?

What type of choice-based lessons work for you and your students?

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.

digital color theory assignment

Debi West is one of AOEU’s adjunct instructors and a former AOEU Writer and NBCT art educator. She loves sharing with others and enthusiastically stands behind her motto, “Together we ART better!”

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Draw Paint Academy

A Comprehensive Guide to Color Theory for Artists

Color theory is a body of principles that provide guidance on the relationship between colors and the physiological impacts of certain color combinations. 

Color theory is one of the most fundamental areas of painting. The importance of understanding color theory far exceeds simply knowing how to mix colors together (for example, knowing that yellow and blue make green).

As an artist, you do not need to worry yourself about all the complex underlying principles of color theory. Rather, all you need to understand is the general application of color theory and the relationship between colors. Color theory is a fundamental base of understanding for artists and should not be ignored.

Color theory will help you understand the relationship between colors and how we perceive them.

In this post, we will discuss all the major elements of color theory. However, this will only just touch the surface of it. Color theory is an incredibly complex area. Luckily as artists, we only need to know certain elements of color theory that relate to us.

The History of Color Theory

Color theory terms, color temperature – warm versus cool color, color combinations or schemes, the psychology of color theory, idealized views of color, learning color theory as an artist, take the quiz, additional readings, want to learn more, thanks for reading.

Dan Scott, Elora With Christmas Lights, 2024

I’ll walk you through the entire process using one of my recent paintings. You’ll see how I go from idea all the way through to reflecting on the finished painting.

Painting the Landscape (Free Workshop)

General principles of color theory were evident in the writings of Leone Battista Alberti (c.1435) and the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci (c.1490). The first color wheel was developed by Sir Isaac Newton around the start of the 17th century. This color wheel was an arrangement of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet on a rotating disk.

Since the origination of the color wheel by Newton, it has become one of the most powerful tools available to artists for explaining the relationship between colors.

The three primary colors are red, blue, and yellow. The three secondary colors are green, orange, and purple, which are made by mixing two of the primary colors. There are six other tertiary colors.

Using the primary colors, you could mix pretty much any color in the spectrum. This is why a solid knowledge of color theory is so important when it comes to painting and mixing colors. This is also why you should always at the very least have the primary colors on your palette.

Boutet's 7-color and 12-color color circles from 1708

A simple red, blue, and yellow color wheel that you can place next to your easel.

Artist Color Wheel

There are a number of color theory terms you will come across in art that are commonly misunderstood and confused.

The term “ hue ” is often used as a simile for the term color. Hue generally refers to the dominant wavelength of color out of the twelve colors on the color wheel (being the primary , secondary, and tertiary colors).

For example, the hue of navy is blue. The hue of burgundy is red. The hue of sap green is green. 

The colors below are hues.


Saturation is a measure of how pure a color is. You can reduce the saturation of a color by adding gray or a color on the opposite side of the color wheel (which essentially kills the color). 

If you completely de-saturate the color wheel, you are left with the following:


Tone is a widely misunderstood term and many artists are not entirely sure what it means, despite it being used so commonly.

Tone is a broad term used to describe a color that is not a pure hue and is not black or white. In many cases, artists use tone to describe a color that has been grayed down (de-saturated).

Value is how light or dark the color is, on a scale of black to white. Value is widely considered to be one of the most important variables to the success of a painting.

A general rule I like to follow for painting is:

  • To increase (lighten) the value of a color – add white and/or yellow.
  • To decrease (darken) the value of a color – add blue, black, and/or raw umber.

Value should be simple to understand, however, the inclusion of color can make it a challenging concept to grasp. You can have different colors which have the same value. If you take color out of the picture, then you will be left with just a range of black to white colors, with black being the lowest and white being the highest value.

This is why drawing is so highly regarded for improving painting ability, as it makes it easier to grasp the concept of value without having to worry about the inclusion of color.

It is widely considered by artists that value is more important than the color used in a painting. This is because value really sets the structure of your painting.

A value scale is below, starting with the highest value (white) to the lowest value (black). Between is basically a grayscale. You can make a colored value scale by adding white to increase the value and black to decrease the value. When you take the color away (de-saturate) the scale should look exactly the same as the value scale below. It is that translation between color and value which is extremely difficult to learn in painting.


High Key Versus Low Key

You will often hear paintings described as being high key or low key. This refers to the overall value scale used in the painting. A high key painting has a high-value scale (light) whilst a low key painting uses a low-value scale (dark).

High or low-key paintings often have a very limited value range. Below is a low key painting by Vincent van Gogh (painted before he found color): 

Vincent van Gogh, Cineraria, 1886

Below is a high-key painting by Claude Monet.

Claude Monet, Grainstacks in the Sunlight, Morning Effect, 1890

Tints and Shades

Put simply, a tint is a color plus white. A shade is a color plus black. You can get a range of tints/shades by adding varying levels of white/black. 

TIP: At the moment, these are just words. They have no benefit without application. So I urge you to think of this scenario to put the terms into perspective. Say you have a tube of red paint. Most beginners would think, great, one color to use in my painting. But by adding different amounts of white, black, and gray, you have infinite variations of that color at your disposal. Once I understood this, I really started to see the options that were available to me. 

The color wheel is divided into warm and cool colors. When a warm color is placed next to a cool color, there is a very strong contrast. Alternatively, when a cool color is placed next to another cool color (for example, green next to blue), there is a pleasing, harmonious effect. These color combinations are discussed in more detail in the section below.

Warm colors traditionally indicate activity and light. Cool colors, on the other hand, indicate calm, distant, and soothing environments.

White, black, and gray are generally considered neutral colors . I get the most use out of these neutral colors not by using them for what they are, but rather to change the value of my colors. For example, if you have cadmium red on your palette, you can add various amounts of gray to make a range of tones.

At the start of a painting, you should determine whether you want to achieve a warm, cool, or neutral (balanced) feel. When I write neutral, I do not mean just to use white, black, and gray, but rather an equal balance of warm and cool colors.

Learn more: 

Color And Light – What Is Color Temperature


There are a number of commonly known color combinations that can be used to evoke certain emotions from the viewer.

Before starting a painting, you should briefly consider your color combination to ensure it aligns with your desired statement of the painting. For example, a complementary color scheme could be used for an aggressive and active scene. Whilst an analogous color scheme could be used for a calm and passive environment. 

Here are some of the most well-known color combinations:


Complementary colors are opposite each other on the color wheel. When placed next to each other, there is an extremely strong contrasting and vibrant effect. If overused, your painting may become jarring and uncomfortable to look at.

You should select a dominant color and use the other color as an accent.


A relaxing color combination using colors positioned next to each other on the color wheel. Analogous color combinations were famously used by impressionist artists such as Claude Monet to create beautiful harmonious paintings.

It is often most effective to select one dominant color, a secondary color and a third accent color. 


A triadic color scheme uses three colors which are evenly placed around the color wheel. The resulting effect is a vibrant scheme, even with low saturation. It is important to properly balance the colors to not overwhelm the viewer.

Generally, a dominant color is selected and the other two colors are used as accents.



This is a variation of the complementary color scheme. In addition to the dominant base color, there are two complementary adjacent colors.

This color scheme is easier to balance than the complementary color scheme and is a great starting point for beginner artists.

split complementary2

Color Schemes in Art

Color has a powerful influence over human behavior, to the extent that it can manipulate your perception of what is actually there.

Here are some colors and their emotional influences:

Red: Passion, love, anger and danger

Orange: Vitality, creativity and activity

Yellow: Energy, light and hope

Green: Health, nature and wealth

Blue: Trust, security and spirituality

Purple: Creativity, royalty and wealth

We can use these psychological triggers to influence how we want the viewer to perceive the painting. If you want the viewer to have a passionate and aggressive response, then you should be utilizing reds and other warm colors. If you want a calming scene, then greens and blues should be utilized.


We all have preconceived ideas of what color an object should be. This idealized view can influence our perception of what is actually there.

If you are painting trees for example, there is a preconceived idea that trees must be green. But that is of course not the case. If you are not careful and do not observe the tree for what it actually is, then you may be drawn towards adding more green than is necessary based on your idealized view of what the tree is supposed to look like.

It is therefore important to paint what you see, not what you think.

Color theory can be incredibly complex, however for artists you only need to understand the general fundamentals of color theory. The best way to learn color theory is to purchase a color wheel or better yet, make your own using your own paints.

Another technique for learning color theory is to mix your own value charts of the twelve colors on the wheel (three primaries, three secondary and six tertiary). You will end up with a range of different values of the same color.

For the value chart, start with your base color, then work your way up in value by adding white (tints) and down by adding black (shades).

You should end up with a range of charts which you can use for later paintings as a reference.

You should also learn how to paint with a limited palette. The fewer paints you have on your palette, the more you will be forced to mix your own colors. This will train your mind as to how the colors relate to each other.

I hope you found this post useful. Color theory is a fascinating area and a fundamental knowledge for all artists.

This post just touches on the surface of color theory as it is an incredibly complex area. However, I encourage you to learn as much as you can about color theory as it will only improve your painting ability.

If you have any questions or comments, feel free to add them in the section below.

I put together a simple quiz to test your color knowledge. Click here to take the color theory quiz .

How To Mix Vivid Greens And Why You Must Understand Color Bias

Inspirational Color Quotes By The Masters

The Beauty Of Muted Colors – How You Can Use Muted Colors More Effectively

How The Impressionists Used Complementary Colors To Great Effect

Using An Analogous Color Scheme To Create Harmonious Paintings

You might be interested in my  Painting Academy  course. I’ll walk you through the time-tested fundamentals of painting. It’s perfect for absolute beginner to intermediate painters.

I appreciate you taking the time to read this post and I hope you found it helpful. Feel free to share it with friends.

Happy painting!

digital color theory assignment

Dan Scott is the founder of Draw Paint Academy. He's a self-taught artist from Australia with a particular interest in landscape painting. Draw Paint Academy is run by Dan and his wife, Chontele, with the aim of helping you get the most out of the art life. You can read more on the About page .

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44 comments on “A Comprehensive Guide to Color Theory for Artists”

Thanks for this Dan, I agree that a little colour theory goes a long way! I advise students to look for opportunities to exploit colour as they go in order to spice up the effect! Nothing like an orange boat floating on a blue sea, or a red cottage nestled in the green grass.

Could not agree more Norm. Great examples!

Thank you so much for this information there is so much to take in for a novice like me but I will keep reading .I’ve just taken painting back up after 10 years then I used watercolours now I’m trying acrylics. It’s going to be a long journey but such an enjoyable one ..thank you again for all your advice you give ?

Hi Lydia! No problem at all glad you liked it. Let me know if you need any help along way 🙂

I want to mirror the compliments. I’ve been looking for different tint options for my dogs, because I make all of their treats. I work with them everyday, and healthy treats are a must in my book!

Although, dogs see differently than humans do, I appreciate getting to play with decorating their treats with healthy options.

Thank you! Thank you for educating us by willingly sharing your knowledge and gifts!

Thank you so much Dan, your advice is so complete and everything I was looking for!

No problem at all Gerbrecht 🙂

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Nice use of graphics in your articles.

Thank you for telling me your knowledge. May I ask a few questions? Will color combination be established regardless of saturation? Also, should I understand that if saturation is low it will have less effect?

Hi there! Saturation will always have an impact on the overall color combination. It is after all an important element of a color. And yes, in general, a color with a low saturation will have less impact than a color with a high saturation.

I am amakeup artist new to the industry. I’m 64 to be exact and picked this as a second career since retired. Have certificate but never really received the color theory I needed to recognize skin n color matching. I hope by rereading this article (a million times) I will finally “get it”. Until then I rely on guess work and just what looks good.

This was a really useful post for me, who tends to have “jelly” colours in painting! The part on choosing warmth and colour triads before beginning was a real lightbulb moment! I usually bang ahead in a fit of enthusiasm for the colour or shape of something I have seen and then paint myself into a colour corner. Thank you for all the great posts.

No problem thanks Suzanne! Dan

Thank you!!!

No problem Antonella!

nice .enjoyed it

Thank you Dan, this was informative and stimulating information.

No problem glad you enjoyed it! Dan

The best example of understand principles of colour I’ve ever come across…thank you Dan Scott

Awesome! Thanks Rina

Such a good lesson… good to save for a reference. Thanks.

Great information. This is clearly written so anyone can understand and more importantly apply the basic principles of colour theory. Thank you.

Great to hear Cat! Thanks, Dan

This helped a lot! THANK YOU DAN SCOTT !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!l!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! haha find the difference in the exclamation marks.

Glad to hear! Thanks, Dan

Thanks, Dan! This is the best explanation of color I have read in a long long time! Everything “clicked”!

That is great Nancy! Happy to know this has helped. Dan

Thank you for this great guide to colour theory. I am experimenting with watercolour painting. To lighten watercolours I dilute them with more and more water. I don’t add white to create my value scale. Is that a correct understanding? Or am I to gray down the yellow using Payne’s grey? In my landscape painting of a town built into and on yellow and grey sandstone, and the houses are made with the same sandstone, I am truly dependent on value to make this a good painting. As a beginner, if I use your Split Complementary technique for yellow ochre which is more of a yellow orange, the split complemetary triangle would be would be yellow green, yellow orange and purple. The roofs of house are more of the red hue so I have to make sure they are red purple for this to work well.. I appreciate your guidance before I give this particular painting up as a novice.

Thanks Sharon! I will send you an email on this separately.

I would like to thank you very much for this great guide to color theory. I am experimenting with watercolor painting. To lighten watercolors I dilute them with more and more water.

Thank you for clarifying the color theory terminology! I’m working in water colors….I’m going to apply this new knowledge…thank you!

Thank you so much for sharing.

Thank you Dan for your generous sharing. There is so much to learn; Visual art it is indeed a long journey.

Good article, very interesting.

Brilliant explanation. I feel I have a solid base to find out more thanks to the clear description. Very much appreciated. One key bit of advice is draw and paint what I see not what I know. Very difficult.

Grazie è stato molto utile.

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Thank you for this post. Very informative and to the point. Thank you.

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beautifully described……………..

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This was very informative! I just had one moment of confusion during the History section. It says Sir Issac Newton developed the first color wheel around the start of the 17th century, but if it was *the* gravity defining Issac Newton, this couldn’t be possible as he was born in 1642, the middle of the 17th century. If it was his father (who shared the same name) it’s more plausible, but I think you just meant to say start of the 18th century (1700s). Otherwise, loved how the information was presented in a digestible way! I like to paint storm scenes and revisiting Color Theory has given me some new inspiration.

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Lesson Plan: Color Theory - Digital Media


In this lesson, the student will create a color scheme using appropriate color theory and RGB setting and CYMK values for each color.

Download the lesson plan

Scroll to the related items section at the bottom of this page for additional resources.

A UI designer sitting at a table, working on a laptop

An Introduction to Color Theory and Color Palettes

CareerFoundry Marketing Content Editor Jaye Hannah

Have you ever seen a color that has immediately reminded you of a particular brand? Maybe you’ve struggled to feel relaxed in a room that has a clashing color scheme, or returned an item of clothing you got as a gift because the color wasn’t quite right.

Colors have the immeasurable power to inform our mood, emotions, and thoughts. Research conducted by the Institute for Color Research reveals that people make a subconscious judgment about a product within 90 seconds of seeing it, and between 62% and 90% of that assessment is based on color alone.

User interface (UI) designers have the challenging task of incorporating color into their interface in a way that poignantly communicates a brand’s visual identity. While it might seem like a website’s color palette is a matter of the client’s personal taste, in reality, UI designers rely on a framework called color theory: a multilayered set of guidelines that informs the use of color in design.

In this guide, we’ll take you through everything you need to know about color theory —from mastering the fundamentals of color variants right through to choosing the right color palette for your user interface.

Here’s what we’ll cover:

  • What is color theory?
  • Introduction to the color wheel
  • The importance of color harmony 
  • Additive and subtractive color models
  • Introduction to color palettes 
  • What are the different types of color palettes? 
  • How to choose a color palette 
  • The best online tools for choosing a color palette 
  • Final thoughts 

Before we jump in, check out this video presented by CareerFoundry UI design mentor, Olga. Olga explains what you need to consider when choosing a color palette, things to avoid, and top tips for picking the right color scheme:

1. What is color theory?

Let’s start at the basics: what actually is color theory?

Color theory is a framework that informs the use of color in art and design, guides the curation of color palettes, and facilitates the effective communication of a design message on both an aesthetic and a psychological level.

Modern color theory is largely based on Isaac Newton’s color wheel, which he created all the way back in 1666. The basic color wheel displays three categories of color; primary colors, secondary colors, and tertiary colors. If you remember learning about these in art class, well done—you’ve already grasped the basics of color theory!

Isaac Newton's original color wheel

Let’s have a quick refresh on what these color categories entail:

  • Primary colors are colors you can’t create by combining two or more other colors. The primary colors are red, blue, and yellow.
  • The secondary colors are orange, purple, and green—in other words, colors that can be created by combining any two of the three primary colors.
  • Tertiary colors are created by mixing a primary color with a secondary color. The tertiary colors are magenta, vermillion, violet, teal, amber, and chartreuse.

3 wheels depicting the primary, secondary and tertiary colors

2. Introduction to the color wheel

You might be thinking, “there are way more than 12 colors out there.” You’re right—and they can all be found on a more advanced version of the color wheel.

Advanced color wheel

The color wheel doesn’t just chart each primary, secondary, and tertiary color—it also charts their respective hues, tints, tones, and shades. By visualizing how each color relates to the color that comes next to it on a rainbow color scale, the color wheel helps designers to create bespoke color palettes that promote aesthetic harmony. Let’s dive into these color variants a little deeper:

Hue refers to the pure pigment of a color, without tint or shade. In that respect, hue can be interpreted as the origin of a color. Any one of the six primary and secondary colors is a hue.

Shade refers to how much black is added into the hue. As such, shade darkens a color.

The opposite of shade, tint refers to how much white is added to a color. As such, tint lightens a color.

Tone is the result of a color that has had both white and black added to it. In other words, tone refers to any hue that has been modified with the addition of grey—as long as the grey is purely neutral (only containing white and black).

Color temperature

Even if you’re a self-confessed design newbie, you’ve likely heard the terms “warm, cool and neutral” tossed around in relation to color. This is referred to as color temperature, and it’s an essential consideration when it comes to color theory.

Warm colors contain shades of yellow and red; cool colors have a blue, green, or purple tint; and neutral colors include brown, gray, black, and white. The temperature of a color has a significant impact on our emotional response to it. Within the psychology of colors, for example, warm colors show excitement, optimism, and creativity, whereas cool colors symbolize peace, calmness, and harmony. But we’ll talk a little bit more about color psychology later on!

3. The importance of color harmony

Arguably the most crucial aspect of color theory, color harmony refers to the use of color combinations that are visually pleasing for the human eye. Color palettes can either promote contrast or consonance, but as long as they make sense together, they can still result in a visually satisfying effect.

When it comes to UI design, color harmony is what all designers strive to achieve. Based on the psychological need for balance, color harmony engages the viewer and establishes a sense of order. A lack of harmony in a color palette can either result in an interface being under-stimulating (boring) or over-stimulating (chaotic and messy).

Unsure about what a user interface looks like? Check out our guide on what a user interface is, and what you might find within one. 

4. Additive and subtractive color models

Now that we’ve mastered the color variants, we can move on to adding and subtracting color. Color has two different natures: the tangible colors which can be seen on the surface of objects, and colors that are produced by light. These two types of color are known as the additive and subtractive color models. Let’s take a closer look at what they mean.

The additive color model (RGB)

RGB stands for red, green, and blue, and is based on the additive color model of light waves that dictates that the more color you add, the closer the color gets to white. The RGB color model forms the basis of all electronic screens, and as a result, is the model used most often by UI designers.

The RGB color model

The subtractive color model (CMYK)

On the other hand, CMYK is known as the subtractive color model, which obtains colors by the subtraction of light. CMYK stands for cyan, magenta, yellow, and black, and it is mostly used in physical printing.

The CMYK color model

5. Introduction to color palettes

So far, we’ve explored the various forms that a color can take, and gotten acquainted with the color model that you’ll use as a UI designer. Now, let’s dive into the fun part: color palettes!

A color palette is a combination of colors used by UI designers when designing an interface. When used correctly, color palettes form the visual foundation of your brand, help to maintain consistency, and make your user interface aesthetically pleasing and enjoyable to use.

While color palettes date back thousands of years, color palettes are commonly used in digital design, presented as a combination of HEX codes. HEX codes communicate to a computer what color you want to display using hexadecimal values. Back in the ’90s, most digital color palettes only included eight colors. Now, designers have a myriad of shades and hues from the color wheel to choose from.

3 colors with Hex codes at the bottom

Over the next few sections, we’ll learn how to choose and interpret a color palette to ensure you’re creating the best possible interface for your users.

6. What are the different types of color palettes?

Colors can be combined to form one of five color palettes that are commonly used by UI designers. Let’s go through them together.


A popular choice with designers, monochromatic color schemes are formed using various tones and shades of one single color.

Monochromatic color palette

An analogous color scheme is formed of three colors that are located next to each other on the color wheel. Analogous color palettes are commonly used when no contrast is needed—for example, on the background of web pages or banners.

An analogous color palette


Complementary color palettes are comprised of colors that are placed in front of each other on the color wheel. While the name may suggest otherwise, complementary color palettes are actually the opposite of analogous and monochromatic color palettes, as they aim to produce contrast. For example, a red button on a blue background will stand out on any interface.

A complimentary color palette


The split-complementary color palette differs from the complementary color palette only in that it employs a higher number of colors. For example, if you choose the color blue, you’ll then need to take the two colors that are adjacent to its opposite color, which in this case would be yellow and red.


The triadic color scheme is based on three separate colors that are equidistant on the color wheel. Most designers employ the triadic color scheme by choosing one dominant color, and using the other two colors as accents.


Commonly used by more experienced designers, the tetradic color scheme employs two sets of complementary pairs—four colors from the color wheel in total that should form a rectangle when connected. While it’s a little harder to balance, it makes for a visually stunning end effect!

7. How to choose a color palette

Now that we’ve mastered the basics of color theory, let’s look at how you can use this newfound knowledge to select a color palette that tells your brand story and resonates with your audience.

When choosing a color palette for your user interface, here are a few things to consider:

Research your audience

Emotional responses to colors are can depend on a range of personal factors, including gender, cultural experiences, and age. Before you get started with choosing your color palette, be sure to establish who your audience is. What are their common traits, and what are their expectations? What brands relating to yours are popular among your target audience—and how can you out-do their designs?

Conducting structured, thorough research on your target audience will not only help you to fine-tune the story you want to communicate, but it will also help you to prevent a potentially catastrophic design failure.

To learn more about how to become a better designer, check out our article on how to avoid the 10 most common UI design mistakes! 

Consider color psychology

With clarity on your target audience, it’s time to look at the psychology behind your potential brand colors. Color psychology is a branch of psychology surrounding the influence of colors on human mood and behavior. According to color psychology, the human mind subconsciously reacts and interprets colors in a way that influences our actions.

If you want to create a color palette that attracts your target audience and accurately tells your brand story, it’s essential to have a basic understanding of color psychology. To get you up to speed, let’s take a look at some of the most common color associations below:

  • Orange is energetic and warm. Some common associations with orange include creativity, enthusiasm, lightheartedness, and affordability.
  • Red is the color of blood, so it’s often associated with energy, war, danger, and power but also passion, desire, and love. Some common associations with red include action, adventure, aggression, and excitement.
  • Yellow evokes positivity, youth, joy, playfulness, sunshine, and warmth.
  • Pink evokes feelings of innocence and delicateness, gratitude, romance, softness, and appreciation.
  • Blue is perceived as authoritative, dependable, and trustworthy. Common associations with blue include calmness, serenity, confidence, dignity, and security.
  • Green is the color of nature. It symbolizes growth, freshness, serenity, money, health, and healing.
  • Black represents power, elegance, and authority. Common associations with black also include class, distinction, formality, mystery, secrecy, and seriousness.

Choose your colors wisely

Commonly, color palettes are made up of six colors. These colors should include one dominant color, four accent colors, and one standard color for your text (which is usually black or grey). Your dominant color is what your customers will forever associate with the brand, so be very careful when reflecting on what this color should be. Take your time to get inspired, keep the color associations in mind, and do some user testing if you have to.

Note: you’re free to add more or fewer colors depending on your brand personality, and the aesthetic you’re aiming for. Choosing monochromatic, analogous, or complementary colors will help you to achieve a streamlined color palette. Remember: color harmony is the goal here!

Don’t skimp on contrast

Color contrast is core to any interface, as it makes each UI element noticeable and distinct. User interfaces containing only shades from the same color family are unlikely to draw users’ attention—and, moreover, run the risk of being a complete headache to navigate. On the other hand, if copy and background colors contrast each other too much, the text could become illegible.

Designers control the level of contrast depending on what the interface aims to accomplish. Experienced designers strive to create a mild level of contrast and apply high contrasting colors only for elements that are supposed to stand out—such as call-to-actions. This ties into my next point…

Stick to UI conventions

When working with colors, it’s easy to get carried away with aesthetics over practicality. Of course, your interface should be visually pleasing—but it also needs to be accessible, easy to navigate, and enjoyable to use. Of course, it’s great to be experimental—but challenging design conventions with “edgy” designs can confuse your users, and make them work harder than they need to.

Some common UI design color conventions include:

  • Using a dark color for text to ensure legibility
  • Keeping light colors for backgrounds
  • Using contrasting colors for accents (as mentioned above)
  • Sticking to classic call-to-action colors—such as red for a warning sign

Sticking to these conventions will reduce the cognitive load for your users, and allow them to navigate the interface intuitively.

Get feedback

Want to know if you’re onto a winning color palette? Conduct some user testing! Color palettes should never be a matter of personal preference, no matter how much you adore the colors you’ve chosen. As we saw when discussing color associations, the emotional response that color can illicit is not to be taken lightly; it can pretty much make or break the relationship a brand has with its customer base.

Getting user feedback at the earliest opportunity will ensure you’re creating an interface using colors that your users will love. Find out how to conduct a user testing session in this comprehensive guide.

8. The best tools for choosing a color palette

When it comes down to the actual task of choosing a color palette for your interface, it’s easy to feel like you have no idea where to start. Luckily, there is a myriad of helpful tools and online color palette generators currently available to give you a dose of inspiration and help you to choose a color palette for your design.

Below, we’ve rounded up the three best tools for generating online color palettes. Take your pick!

Adobe Color

Poised as the “bread and butter” resource for all digital creatives, Adobe Color has just about every color palette out there. Compared to other color scheme generators, Adobe Color is a lot more comprehensive—so don’t make it your go-to if you want something quick and simple. Among Adobe Colors’ key features is a color palette generator that pulls colors from the images you upload.

Coolors is a useful and beginner-friendly color palette generator, perfect for getting to grips with HEX codes. You can click through random premade color palettes, play around with shades and hues, and save your favorite colors to build your own custom palette. But it’s even more fun to play around with their generator. Once you find a color you love, simply copy-paste it into any external application and start designing!

Adobe Illustrator color guide

Adobe Illustrator Color Guide sets itself apart with its popular ‘color guide’ feature. Once you’ve chosen a color, the color guide will generate a five-color palette for you. It will also provide you with a range of tints and shades for each color in the palette. If you switch your main color, the color guide will automatically refresh the corresponding colors to ensure your accent colors are complementary.

9. Final thoughts

If you feel like this was a lot of information to take in, don’t worry! You don’t need to become an expert in color theory in order to be a successful UI designer. Color theory is an extremely complex science that many people dedicate their entire lives to studying. Grasping the basics will help you to understand the psychology behind choosing the perfect color palette for your website or app.

Looking for some UI design inspiration? Check out these blog posts:

  • 10 examples of beautiful blogs that have nailed their UI design
  • How to improve your skills as a UI designer
  • Mobile app UI design: 10 key principles for beginners

Two-Minute GenAI Tips

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Block I

Using Claude to Create Structured Assignments

I think I’ve mentioned previously that Claude AI has the ability start a conversation around a pdf file. This means you can use existing structures, frameworks, and models to help create unique assignments for any course. I’ll use the TILT model as an example for this post. Below is an introduction of this model from the TILT website .

TILT Framework

“The following resources from the  Transparency in Learning and Teaching project (TILT Higher Ed)  can help faculty, educational developers and administrators to apply the Transparency Framework (of purpose/task/criteria) in contexts including assignments, curricula, assessment and strategic initiatives, all toward the goal of enhancing student success equitably.”

This TILT template is available as a pdf document through the TILT website.

So, I can give Claude this file and ask for an assignment appropriate for my course using this template. The basis of TILT is to clearly document the Purpose, Task and Criteria to provide students with a clear picture of the assignment requirements and outcomes.

I provided Claude with the following prompt:

digital color theory assignment

And here is the assignment that was created.

Here is a draft assignment using the transparent assignment template for a digital color theory course:

Assignment: Color Palette Project Due date: End of Week 5

Purpose : The purpose of this assignment is to help you practice selecting, evaluating, and applying colors digitally to convey specific moods or themes. These skills are important for success in digital design and art fields. Through this project you will become more skilled at:

  • Understanding color theory, its terminology and methods
  • Analyzing how color combinations evoke different moods/emotions
  • Synthesizing your knowledge of color theory to curate color palettes for specific purposes
  • Evaluating and selecting the most effective color palettes

Knowledge: This assignment will help you become familiar with:

  • The basics of color theory like hue, saturation, value
  • Complementary, analogous, and triadic color schemes
  • Tools and techniques for selecting, sampling, and applying color digitally

Task : Create three unique color palettes, each containing 5 colors, using digital design software. Each palette should convey one of the following themes: energetic, soothing, mysterious. Provide a brief rationale for each chosen color and how it contributes to the overall mood of the palette.

Criteria for Success : Characteristics of excellent work include:

  • Colors are selected thoughtfully to create a cohesive palette
  • Palette colors evoke the stated mood/theme
  • Explanations show understanding of color theory and palette choices
  • Palettes and text are visually appealing and clear when presented

To achieve excellence, avoid selecting colors arbitrarily. Instead, intentionally curate colors and provide insightful rationale. Vague, minimal explanations will result in an average grade. This assignment is worth 15% of your total course grade. Reflecting on your finished, graded project will help improve future assignments.

Please let me know if you would like me to modify or expand on any part of this assignment draft. I’m happy to incorporate any feedback to better meet your course needs.

I ask Claude to iterate on this just a bit and then asked for a rubric for the assignment.

Here is the rubric updated to have the assignment worth 100 points:

Total Points __/100

Now the assignment is worth 100 points total. Let me know if you would like me to make any other changes to the rubric or assignment details. I’m happy to continue refining this until it meets your needs.

While all of this may still need some attention this is a decent starting point for an assignment and took maybe five minutes to get me started.

Fink’s Taxonomy of Significant Learning

Let’s try it with a more complicated framework like Finks Guide for Significant Learning .

digital color theory assignment

Here is a handout for students explaining the Digital Color Theory Project assignment using Fink’s taxonomy:

Digital Color Theory Project Handout For this assignment you will create an original digital artwork that demonstrates your understanding and creative application of color theory principles. The project has several interrelated components:

Foundational Knowledge

  • Demonstrate comprehension of key color theory concepts like hue, saturation, value, color harmonies, color mixing, etc.
  • Write an artist statement explaining why you chose your specific color palette and harmonies.


  • Use digital tools and techniques to effectively mix and apply color in your artwork.
  • Experiment with different color combinations and effects to convey mood, emotion, meaning, etc.


  • Make explicit connections between color theory principles and their practical application in your digital artwork.
  • Explain how your color choices connect to the intended meaning, mood, or message of your artwork.

Human Dimension

  • Reflect on how color usage impacts viewers emotionally and psychologically. What feelings do you want people to have when viewing your artwork?
  • Discuss how your color choices allow you to creatively express yourself. What personal meaning or value does this hold?

Learning How-to-Learn

  • Identify your key learnings from experimenting with color in a digital format. What specific skills have you gained?
  • Reflect on effective ways to teach yourself new creative techniques and improve your skills.

This assignment provides an opportunity to synthesize your new knowledge of color theory and apply it creatively. It also allows you to develop self-direction in expanding your artistic skills through reflective practice. Please let me know if you have any other questions!

Here’s one more PDF focused on UDL to try out.

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Digital Colour in Graphic Design - Ken Pender

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Related Papers

Carinna Parraman

The chapters contained in the appendix are presented as background information to support the main body of the thesis. The appendix includes the technical detail of early experiments and background reference data for the reader. The appendix also includes a visual timeline of artists and technologists’ colour models, which are referenced in the body of the thesis. The timeline demonstrates the different methods of colour classification, from those using lines and circles to two and three dimensional models and diagrams, which can be read from left (prehistoric models) to the right (contemporary models). As a demonstration of dissemination and knowledge exchange, there is also a list of meetings, publications, papers and workshops that were undertaken during the period of research.

digital color theory assignment

Abdul-Rasheed A . Afolabi

The book focuses on the broad aspects of graphic communication in Nigeria. It covers graphic design strategies, printing techniques, digital printing trends, and regulation of printing. The presentation of information in the book helps in prompting further enquiry by the reader.

In this changing environment in which the artist and designer has access to a wide range of digital imaging tools and technologies, that on first glance, are dedicated to the creation of colour mixtures, why is the digital interface and colour outcome often disappointing? It appears that hardware, software tools and methods for digital printing are not necessarily suited to the specific requirements of the artist. In fact, they are too generalised to obtain a high degree of quality and too inflexible to allow artists to obtain precision and predictability. Is it possible for an artist to mix and print a colour that captures their creative imagination? The motivation for this research is based on how artists mix and print colour by traditional means (painting and printmaking) and how these differ from colour picker tools, slider bars and methods developed for digital printing, and whether it is possible to incorporate both? The paper provides a brief historical background to artists who have developed colour systems to assist their particular colour choices. Based on existing hardware and software, the paper suggests alternative approaches to colour selection, demonstrates methods for the creation of novel inkjet printed palettes, and how these can be visualised and compared.

Abhay Sharma

Hayri Yildirim

Becky Gooby

Digital textile printing (DTP) offers exciting, creative potential and entrepreneurial business models in textile design. Designers are no longer restricted to a number of colours or pattern repeat. It has become possible to print fabric without large set-up costs. This relatively sustainable technology reduces water-usage and dye-wastage. DTP meets Just in Time, Concept to Consumer demand, reducing stock wastage. However, there is a marked difference between screen-colour to print-colour and software allows a user to select colours unprintable using CMYK colorants. Colour results are further affected by factors such as structure and composition of the fabric, dye type, printer communications, fabric pretreatments and secondary processes. A textile designer will be required to understand and experiment with a number of variables in order to feel colour confident. These variables were considered, and existing colour management tools and methods evaluated, using a practice-as-research methodology. Experiments showed that neutral and achromatic colours were the most difficult to replicate, and hues with magenta/blue undertones were problematic. The choice of substrate had a sizeable impact on colour visualisation. The results were used to establish a best practice guide for designers wishing to obtain a more acceptable print-colour match.

Ronb NêCôChii

Lindsay MacDonald

Filippo Rotolo


Moisés Arellano

Franz Ervy Mallari

Darren Southee

Magnus Lestelius

Computer Supported Cooperative Work

Tommaso Colombino , Jutta Willamowski

Alessandro Artusi

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Digital Color Theory Assignment

digital color theory assignment


Students are asked to demonstrate an understanding of the color wheel and color theory vocabulary. Common household items will be collected, photographed and arranged as a visual representation for each color term. The final assignment is to create a slide show for each term that includes a definition and the photographed image. Terms included are: primary, secondary, intermediate, complementary, analogous, color wheel, value scale, tint and shade.

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Art and creative activities across the curriculum.

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Color Theory Projects & Assignments

Art 260 / Greg Clayton

Notes on course assignments

Assignments will vary somewhat from semester to semester. Notes and examples may be posted here.

QD: Personal Prefs Palette I

Intro color mix samples, color mapping, personal prefs proportion study variations, value staff, intrinsic value staff, complement mix plate, complement mix 4-design set, personal prefs palette ii, munsell constant hue plates, presentation of a master, synesthetic color response, nature as color source, resources and links, glossary | cida curriculum | class schedule |.

Exploring Color Theory

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  • Using Comparison Boxes
  • Using Scale Chart

Color Theory Assignment Suggestions

The assignment suggestions are not listed by age or difficultly level but, of course, the instructor or the person completing the assignments can decide to what degree any assignment should be done

Color Wheels

digital color theory assignment

Painting with a Monochromatic Palette


Color Scales

On Scale Chart II practice painting color value scales. Instructions here. Do one a day for two weeks. Try to do one each for the primary colors. This exercise is surprisingly difficult to get just right. Try to be neat and don't give up.

Painting with an Intensity Scale

Self portraits.

Self Portrait 2 - Create another self portrait with only colors from any one of the split-complementary color schemes (below)

Warm and Cool Colors

Painting using a triadic palette.

Three Assignments - Create three paintings using a triadic palette. The paintings shall be - 1.still life, 2.landscape, 3.figure painting. You may choose to use any one of the triadic color schemes per painting primary, secondary or tertiary triad.

Triadic Colors

These are the colors that are evenly spaced on the color wheel.

Optional Assignment

Finding Color Schemes in Paintings - Look at the color groups below . Look through paintings and try to identify paintings that have a color scheme such as: complementary, split complementary, warm colors, cool colors, monochromatic, primary, secondary, etc.

Color Schemes and Group Terms

Artists can use color groups for their palette to make a visually pleasing color scheme. Analogous Color Scheme uses any three or more colors on the color wheel that have a color in common and are adjacent on the color wheel. See possible example: Edward Hopper - Compartment C, Car 293 Complementary Color Scheme uses colors that are across from each other on the color wheel. See possible example: Vincent van Gogh - Noon: Rest From Work Monochromatic Color Scheme uses one color and all of the tints, tones, and shades of that color.

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  20. Digital Color Theory Assignment

    Students are asked to demonstrate an understanding of the color wheel and color theory vocabulary. Common household items will be collected, photographed and arranged as a visual representation for each color term. The final assignment is to create a slide show for each term that includes a definition and the photographed image.

  21. Color Theory Course Assignments

    Color Theory Projects & Assignments. Art 260 / Greg Clayton . Notes on course assignments. Assignments will vary somewhat from semester to semester. Notes and examples may be posted here. QD: Personal Prefs Palette I Intro Color Mix Samples Color Mapping Personal Prefs Proportion Study Variations Value Staff Intrinsic Value Staff

  22. Color Theory Assignment Suggestions

    Color Theory Assignment Suggestions. The assignment suggestions are not listed by age or difficultly level but, of course, the instructor or the person completing the assignments can decide to what degree any assignment should be done. Color Wheels. Practice mixing the 3 primary colors. Draw or print a color wheel and paint the color wheel.

  23. 07.03 DIT Presenting Color Theory.pptx

    View 07.03 (DIT) Presenting Color Theory.pptx from DIGITAL INFORMATION TECHNOLOG 4244 at Florida Virtual School. 07.03PRESENTING COLOR THEORYASSIGNME NT BROOKE RICHARDSON EMOTIONS WHY THEY WORK. ... View 07.03 Presenting Color Theory Assignment.pdf from HS MISC at Florida Virtual Schoo... Recently submitted questions