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How are colors related to each other?

Colors are related to each other in several key ways. The main relationships between colors have to do with the color wheel, color harmonies, and color mixing. Understanding these color relationships is important for artists, designers, and anyone who wants to use color effectively.

The Color Wheel

The color wheel shows the relationships between primary, secondary, and tertiary colors. The primary colors are red, yellow, and blue. These are the only true colors – all other colors are made by mixing primaries. The secondary colors are orange, green, and purple. They are made by mixing two primary colors next to each other on the color wheel. For example, red and yellow make orange. Finally, the tertiary colors are made by mixing a primary and secondary color next to each other. For example, red and orange make red-orange.

Colors that are next to each other on the color wheel are analogous colors. They create color harmony and gradient effects. Colors opposite each other are complementary colors. They contrast strongly with each other. Some examples of complementary color pairs are red & green, purple & yellow, and blue & orange.

Color Harmonies

In addition to adjacent and contrasting colors, there are several other traditional color harmonies:

  • Monochromatic – Shades, tones, and tints of a single hue
  • Analogous – Colors next to each other on the color wheel
  • Complementary – Colors opposite each other on the color wheel
  • Triadic – Three colors equally spaced on the color wheel
  • Split-Complementary – A color plus the two colors adjacent to its complement
  • Rectangle (tetradic) – Two pairs of complementary colors forming a rectangle on the color wheel

Understanding these harmonies allows artists and designers to intentionally create color combinations that look pleasing together. Monochromatic palettes convey unity and simplicity, while bold complementary contrasts grab the viewer’s attention.

Color Mixing

Mixing colors follows logical, predictable rules. At its most basic, mixing primary colors together produces secondary and tertiary colors. For example:

  • Red + Yellow = Orange
  • Blue + Yellow = Green
  • Red + Blue = Purple

Additionally, mixing two secondary colors produces various browns. For example, green and purple make brown. Finally, mixing all three primary colors together produces a dark brown or black.

When mixing colors, it’s important to understand that the mixing occurs by lightening and darkening. For example, here’s how to mix all tertiary colors by mixing a primary with a secondary:

  • Red + Orange = Red-orange
  • Red + Purple = Red-purple
  • Yellow + Orange = Yellow-orange
  • Yellow + Green = Yellow-green
  • Blue + Purple = Blue-purple
  • Blue + Green = Blue-green

The primary darkens the secondary in each case, creating the tertiary. This same principle applies to mixing any colors. Understanding color mixing gives artists greater flexibility and control over the colors they use.

Color Temperature

Another important relationship between colors is color temperature. This refers to how warm or cool a color appears. Warm colors like red, orange, and yellow give a heated, energetic feeling. Cool colors like blue, green, and purple feel more calm and tranquil. Most natural colors have both warm and cool elements.

Understanding color temperature allows you to create color schemes that match the mood you want to convey. Warm palettes feel active and upbeat, while cool palettes feel serene and reserved. Color temperature also describes how colors advance and recede in space – warm colors pop out while cool colors recede.

Color Context

While colors have innate relationships based on the color wheel and mixing, colors can actually change depending on the colors around them. This is called relative color appearance. A color placed against different backgrounds will appear to shift. For example, gray looks darker against white and lighter against black. This proves colors can only be truly understood within the context they are used.

Psychology of Color

In addition to their intrinsic relationships, colors also carry symbolic associations and psychological effects. While subjective, general patterns emerge:

  • Red – Passion, love, intensity
  • Orange – Energy, happiness, enthusiasm
  • Yellow – Joy, optimism, intellect
  • Green – Nature, growth, harmony
  • Blue – Stability, professionalism, melancholy
  • Purple – Creativity, spirituality, luxury

These associations are important to keep in mind when choosing brand colors, painting, or using color in any context. While not definitive rules, these baseline associations help provide meaning and guidance for color use.

History and Evolution of Color

Our understanding of color has evolved over centuries alongside art, science, and technology. Some key milestones include:

  • c. 1500 BC – Ancient Egyptians create first synthetic pigments.
  • c. 350 BC – Aristotle discusses color theory and optics.
  • 12th century – Stained glass coloring techniques develop in European cathedrals.
  • c. 1300 – Painting masters like Giotto and Michelangelo refine realistic color blending.
  • 1642 – Isaac Newton demonstrates that white light contains the entire color spectrum.
  • 1810 – First synthetic purple dye is created by mixing red and blue.
  • 1861 – James Clerk Maxwell photographs the first color image.
  • 1878 – William Henry Perkin invents the first synthetic dye – mauveine.
  • 1937 – International Commission on Illumination establishes modern CIE color space.
  • 1970s – Pantone creates the first standardized color matching system.

This evolution continues today with advanced color models, digital technology like Photoshop, and new pigments and dyes. Modern colorful LCD displays would amaze artists from centuries past.


In summary, colors relate to each other in a variety of key ways. The color wheel describes primary, secondary, and tertiary colors. Harmonious color schemes rely on analogous, complementary, and other relationships. Mixing colors follows innate subtraction and addition principles. Color temperature describes warm and cool tones. Colors also shift based on surrounding colors and context. Psychological color associations provide additional meaning. Studying and applying color theory allows artists and designers to use color purposefully and effectively. Color relationships form the foundation for mastering color in any medium.