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What are the 3 parts of color theory?

Color theory is a framework for understanding how colors interact with and relate to each other. There are 3 main parts or components of color theory that designers and artists use:

The Color Wheel

The color wheel is a visual representation of colors arranged according to their chromatic relationship. The basic color wheel consists of 12 colors – 3 primary colors, 3 secondary colors and 6 tertiary colors.

The primary colors are red, yellow and blue. These are known as the additive primary colors. When mixed together, these 3 colors create all the other colors on the wheel.

The secondary colors are green, orange and purple. These are created by mixing two primary colors next to each other on the color wheel. For example:

Secondary Color Created By
Green Yellow + Blue
Orange Red + Yellow
Purple Red + Blue

The tertiary colors are created by mixing a primary and secondary color. For example red-orange, yellow-orange, yellow-green, blue-green, blue-purple and red-purple.

On the standard color wheel, complementary colors are located directly across from each other. Common complementary color pairs include:

  • Red & Green
  • Yellow & Purple
  • Blue & Orange

These opposing colors create high contrast and vibrant visual effects. Understanding color relationships on the wheel helps designers combine colors in pleasing ways.

Color Harmony

Color harmony refers to the visually pleasing combination of colors in design. While color preferences are subjective, there are specific guidelines for harmonious color combinations based on the color wheel and color theory.

Some common types of color harmony include:


Monochromatic color schemes use variations in lightness and saturation of a single base hue. It creates a cohesive look with subtle interest.


Analogous colors are located right next to each other on the color wheel, creating a soothing, harmonious look. Example color schemes might include blues with blue-greens and blue-violets.


Complementary color schemes use opposite colors on the wheel, creating a high-contrast, vibrant look. Common examples include red & green, yellow & purple.

Split Complementary

This scheme uses one base color, plus the two colors adjacent to its complement. This provides some of the contrast of complementary colors, with less tension.


Triadic color harmonies use three colors equally spaced around the color wheel. This creates a balanced, vibrant look with good color harmony.

Rectangle (Tetradic)

Rectangle or tetradic color schemes use four colors arranged into two complementary pairs, creating a flexible harmonious look.

In addition to these traditional color harmonies, designers may use less conventional harmonies, color gradients, and departure from formal rules to create desired visual effects and reinforce brand identities.

Color Psychology

Color psychology examines how color influences human perception, emotion and behavior. Understanding these effects allows designers to use color strategically to evoke certain moods, reinforce brand identities and influence users.

Some examples of color psychology effects:

  • Red – Passion, excitement, intensity, aggression
  • Orange – Cheerful, confident, creative, friendly
  • Yellow – Joy, optimism, intellect, youth
  • Green – Natural, peaceful, stable, growth
  • Blue – Professional, trusting, calm, faithful
  • Purple – Spiritual, wise, dignified, mystical

More examples of psychological color associations:

Color Psychological Associations
Red Energy, passion, aggression, excitement, intensity
Pink Femininity, innocence, nurture, warmth
Orange Friendly, confident, creative, adventurous
Yellow Joy, optimism, intellect, youth
Green Natural, stable, restful, growth, health
Blue Professional, trusting, faithful, calm, peace
Purple Regal, spiritual, dignified, mysterious
Black Power, sophistication, mystery, death
White Innocence, purity, cleanliness, simplicity

These associations provide general guidance, but can vary based on context, combinations and individual experiences. Color psychology remains an important consideration in design, branding, advertising and many other fields.

Putting the Parts Together

Understanding these 3 foundational parts of color theory allows designers to strategically apply color in visual communication:

  • The color wheel provides a framework for combining colors harmoniously.
  • Color harmony principles guide the creation of aesthetically pleasing color schemes.
  • Color psychology gives insights for eliciting desired reactions and conveying the right brands values.

Used together, these components of color theory enable designers to communicate more effectively through careful, intentional color choices. While color subjectivity means there is flexibility in interpretation, color theory principles are invaluable creative guides.

With the structured color wheel, flexible harmony guidelines, and psychological context of color meanings, designers have robust tools for making color work best in their visual designs to delight, inform, influence and serve users.

Learning and applying color theory takes practice, but mastery over color gives designers immense ability to bring their visual visions to life. Color wields enormous influence, and color theory arms creatives to use this power effectively and responsibly in all of their work.


In summary, the 3 main parts of color theory are:

  1. The color wheel – visual representation of color relationships
  2. Color harmony – guidelines for pleasing color combinations
  3. Color psychology – emotional/behavioral effects of different colors

Understanding these foundational principles equips designers to strategically apply color in branding, user interfaces, advertising, art and more. While subjective, color theory provides important guidance for visual communication and aesthetically appealing graphic design.