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Introduction to color theory

Basic Color Theory

Colors are everywhere. Look around you. Everything has a color. Somehow, we can tell that some colors fit well together, whereas some other don't. Some colors are calming, other stressing. But is there any logic behind this feeling ? In fact, yes. We will see that colors can be organized, and this is called color theory. After learning some concepts of color theory, we will be able to pick nice harmonious colors which will have a huge impact together.

Origins of color theory

Color theory was originally formulated in terms of three "primary" or "primitive" colors. These colors were

  • Red
  • Yellow
  • Blue

These colors were believed to be capable of mixing all other colors.The RYB primary colors became the foundation of 18th century theories

In the late 19th century, scientists found that color perception was best described with a different set of primary colors

  • Red
  • Green
  • Blue
Additive color

The RGB model was born. To obtain any color, we just have to add a quantity of each primary color together. That's why RGB is part of the Additive color system. It's modeled through the additive mixture of three monochromatic lights.Adding the three colors together at a same ratio gives the white color.

On the other side, there are substractive color systems. One of the most famous is the CMY system, better known as CMYK.The CMY primary colors are

  • Cyan
  • Magenta
  • Yellow
Subtractive color

Adding the three colors (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow) together at a same ratio gives the black color. In printing, dark colors are supplemented by a black ink (which gives Cyan, magenta, yellow, and Key (black))

Color Structure

To understand color theory, we will first have to understand how colors are built.

Three attributes defines all colors:

  • Lightness (light vs. dark, or white vs. black),
  • Saturation (intense vs. dull),
  • Hue (e.g., red, orange, yellow, green, blue or purple).

This representation is called HSL (Hue, Saturation, Lightness). We will see in the next parts that this representation makes it easy to create harmonious colors with mathematical calculations.

Color theories creates a logical structure for sorting colors. Now that we have attributes to describe colors, we are able to classify them. The color wheel or color cirle is a representation of the classification of hues, and is the main tool used to combine colors.