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What is the difference between a triadic and Tetradic color scheme?

What is the difference between a triadic and Tetradic color scheme?

Color schemes are an important part of design, whether for graphic design, web design, interior design, fashion, or any other visual medium. The colors used in a design convey mood, create visual interest, and attract attention. Two common types of color schemes are triadic and tetradic. Both use colors spaced evenly around the color wheel, but they vary in complexity and effect.

In this article, we will look at what defines triadic and tetradic color schemes, how they create harmony and contrast, examples of each scheme, and when to choose one over the other for your project. Understanding these key differences allows designers to make intentional color choices that align with the desired look and feel.

What is a Triadic Color Scheme?

A triadic color scheme uses three colors spaced evenly around the 12-part color wheel. The three colors form an equilateral triangle on the wheel, giving this scheme its name.

To create a triadic palette, you:

  1. Choose a base color on the wheel
  2. Move clockwise around the wheel to find the second color 120 degrees away from the base
  3. Move clockwise again 120 degrees to find the third color

For example, if you chose blue as your base, the other two colors would be yellow and red – forming a triad.

Some examples of triadic color combinations are:

  • Red, yellow, blue
  • Purple, green, orange
  • Teal, red-violet, yellow-orange

The evenly spaced colors create a vibrant, energetic look with strong visual contrast. Triadic palettes tend to pop on the page and feel exciting or playful.

How Triadic Colors Create Harmony

Although triadic colors have high contrast, they form a harmonious scheme. The colors are spaced evenly around the color wheel so no one color dominates. This balance prevents the palette from appearing dissonant or clashing.

While the three colors contrast strongly with each other, they share undertones that tie them together. For example, red, yellow and blue all contain touches of one another. The balance and mixture of the hues creates harmony.

How Triadic Colors Create Contrast

The far spacing of the colors around the color wheel results in high contrast triads. Each color is as different from the other two as it can be while remaining balanced. This contrast creates vibrancy.

In the red, yellow, blue triad, the colors are all primary hues spaced four colors apart on the wheel. This creates maximum contrast – red and blue are complementary colors opposite each other, while yellow contrasts strongly with both. The contrast makes the colors stand out clearly from each other.

What is a Tetradic Color Scheme?

A tetradic color scheme uses four colors spaced evenly around the 12-part color wheel. The four colors form a rectangle on the wheel, giving this scheme its name.

To create a tetradic palette, you:

  1. Choose a base color on the wheel
  2. Move clockwise 90 degrees around the wheel to find the second color
  3. Continue moving clockwise 90 more degrees to find the third color
  4. Move clockwise once more 90 degrees to find the fourth color

For example, starting with green, the other colors would be red, violet, and yellow – forming a tetrad.

Some examples of tetradic color combinations are:

  • Cyan, magenta, yellow, black
  • Red, yellow, blue, green
  • Purple, orange, teal, chartreuse

Tetradic schemes offer richer variations than triads but are more complex. Their four colors create a nuanced color story.

How Tetradic Colors Create Harmony

Tetradic colors are spaced evenly like triads, allowing the colors to balance each other. This prevents any one hue from dominating and creates an integrated palette.

Having four hues gives more options for creating color harmony. Triads only have three colors, limiting color mixing opportunities. With four tetradic colors, more shades and tints can be made by blending hues. This adds nuance within the palette.

How Tetradic Colors Create Contrast

Tetrads offer two color contrasts – complementary pairs, and adjacent colors.

The four hues naturally contain two pairs of complements opposite each other on the wheel. These contrast strongly while complementing each other.

The other two hues are adjacent colors separated by a triadic (120 degree) angle. These colors have enough difference to contrast but contain enough similarities to keep the palette cohesive.

Overall, this combination of complementary and triadic contrasts creates more nuance than a simple triad.

Comparing Triadic and Tetradic Color Schemes

Now that we’ve looked at triadic and tetradic schemes individually, let’s directly compare their key similarities and differences:


  • Both are derived from evenly spaced colors around the 12-part color wheel
  • Both contain colors balanced enough to create color harmony
  • Both offer high contrast through their color spacing


Triadic Tetradic
Contains 3 colors Contains 4 colors
Forms an equilateral triangle on the wheel Forms a rectangle on the wheel
Colors are 120 degrees apart Colors are 90 degrees apart
Only opposing colors contrast Both opposing and adjacent colors contrast
Creates maximum vibrancy Creates more nuance
Can feel playful, vibrant, energetic Can feel sophisticated, elegant, complex

As shown in the table, triadic color schemes create bold, contrasting palettes since they use only primary hues. Tetradic schemes offer more color variety through their four hues, creating nuanced and elegant palettes.

When to Use Each Type of Color Scheme

Now that you understand the difference between triadic and tetradic color schemes, when should you use each one?

When to Use a Triadic Color Scheme

Triadic color harmonies work best when you want a bold, vibrant look. Their three colors are easy to balance and create contrast.

Triadic palettes are great for:

  • Graphic design – their contrast grabs attention
  • Children’s designs – their vibrancy appeals to kids
  • Sports designs – their energy matches athletic brands
  • Highlighting key elements – the colors pop against neutral backgrounds

When to Use a Tetradic Color Scheme

Tetradic palettes work well when you want a sophisticated, nuanced aesthetic. Their richness can elevate formal designs.

Tetrads are ideal for:

  • Luxury or high-end designs
  • Complex information design
  • Editorial illustrations
  • Products or branding with a modern feel

Tetrads allow more flexibility through color mixing than triads. This creates elegance and depth for upscale designs.

Choosing the Right Scheme for Your Goals

Consider your overall design goals when choosing between triadic and tetradic color schemes.

Triads punch, pop, and grab attention through contrast. Tetrads blend, nuance, and provide depth through their color relationships.

If you want energy and vibrancy, go with a triadic scheme. If you want subtlety and elegance, use a tetradic palette. Both create harmony and visual interest through unique color interactions.


Triadic and tetradic color schemes both offer harmonious palettes by evenly spacing their colors around the color wheel. Their shared use of color theory makes them pleasing to the eye.

Triads use three colors to form bold, primary color palettes. Tetrads use four colors to create elegant, nuanced palettes through more complex color relationships.

Consider your design goals when choosing between triadic and tetradic harmonies. Triads pop with energy, making them perfect for graphic design. Tetrads blend with sophistication, ideal for upscale, elegant branding.

Color schemes are key to conveying visual styles. Understanding the contrasts and harmonies in triadic and tetradic palettes allows designers to strategically create the look and feel they want. With the right scheme, colors work together to enhance designs and engage audiences through sight.