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Color Basics: 10 Absolute Truths About Color

Color is fundamental to life. We not only see color, we experience it. To apply color appropriately in art and design, you need foundational knowledge about how we see color, how color works, and its effects on us physically.

A person who lacks this knowledge, may be able to create and copy color schemes, but won’t be able to truly solve art and design problems that involve communication, spatial dynamics, digital-to-print conversion, color mixing, color psychology, user experience, marketing and visual perception.

These are 10 essential truths about color:

  1. To see anything is to see color. There is no getting around that. We see objects in our visual field because we perceive their color.
  2. Color is an aspect of light. Without light, color perception is not possible. In fact, color does not exist without light.
  3. No object or surface is actually colored. If we see color on a surface it’s because light is being reflected from that surface.
  4. Color is not a tangible thing, although it appears to be. Color is a perception. It’s the result of light interacting with photoreceptors in our eyes that are interpreted by our brains as color.
  5. Because color is an aspect of light, it is energy.
  6. When we study and apply color we work with it systematically. Color systems are methods of sorting and organizing color so that we can work with it. There are systems for light and systems for pigment. And there are sub-systems of systems.
  7. Color systems do not make color do what it does. Color is physics and biology. Color systems describe what color does — what we observe about it.
  8. Color theory and application combines scientific, biological and symbolic facets.
  9. Color is the most complex of the formal design elements, and requires time to comprehend and master. Students often approach the study of color with the expectation of grasping all the concepts easily, and are surprised and frustrated at the challenges they face. Technology has added to the complexity of color study and use.
  10. Color problems, especially color mixing, are some of the most common challenges faced by visual designers, artists and photographers.


The 12-Hue Color Wheel

A wheel (circle) construction is used in some systems to organize color. The most common color wheel in use today when working with pigments is the 12-hue wheel created by Johannes Itten, an artist and instructor at the Bauhaus. While many color theorists through the years diagrammed color relationships on a circle, Itten’s 12-hue system is the most practical based on how we actually perceive color and the way pigment colors mix.

The circle or wheel is a flat geometric expression of a sphere. Color is volumetric, and can be organized into a sphere, a cube, or a cone. Both Itten and Munsell, the other most-used system today, organized color in spherical volumes and flat circles.

The terms, hue circle and color wheel are interchangeable.

Itten’s system consists of 12 hues:

3 Primaries: foundational hues that cannot be made by mixing other hues. All colors are mixtures of primaries in various proportions.

Red (magenta)

Blue (cyan)


3 Secondaries are made by mixing 2 primaries together:

Orange (Red + Yellow)

Violet (Red + Blue)

Green (Blue + Yellow)

6 Tertiaries are made by mixing a primary with a secondary:

Red-Orange [Red + (Yellow + Red)]

Red-Violet [(Red + (Blue +  Red)]

Blue-Violet [(Blue + (Blue + Red)]

Blue-Green [Blue + (Blue + Yellow)]

Yellow-Green [Yellow + (Blue + Yellow)]

Yellow-Orange [Yellow + (Yellow + Red)]


This is 12-hue circle represents the natural ordering of the hues, and is the basis for color relationships, visual phenomenon and color palette construction. Hues are positioned in equal visual steps around the wheel, and each hue is the visual midpoint between the 2 adjacent hues:


12-hue color circle

What is hue?

Hues are spectral colors, fully and equally saturated. Mixing hues around the wheel does not affect their saturation.

Hues are heads of color families, and each family has thousands of colors. For example, within the red hue family there is pink, rose, carmine, crimson, scarlet, burgundy, magenta, and many others. All reds are considered primary colors but only fully-saturated, pure reds are considered hues (spectral colors).

Similarly, all blue-greens (teal, aqua) are considered tertiary colors, but only the pure, spectral colors are considered hues.

Both Kelly Green and Veridian are secondary colors in the green hue family, and their fully-saturated versions are considered hues.


The concept of complements

The 12 hues are placed on the wheel in a natural order or spectral sequence, based on their relationship to the primaries. The primaries together imply an equilateral triangle superimposed in the circle. They are equidistant from each other.

Each secondary is a visual midpoint between two primaries, and each secondary is a visual midpoint between a primary and a secondary. The secondaries are equidistant from each other.

The tertiary hue is equidistant from each other.

Each hue has a direct opposite or complement. It’s spelled complement and not compliment due to the idea that opposites balance or complete each other. The nature of complementary pairs is that between each pair there is balance between the 3 primaries. For example: blue and orange: blue and (red + yellow). There are 6 pairs of complements:

Red and Green  primary — secondary
Blue and Orange primary — secondary
Yellow and Violet primary — secondary
Red-Orange and Blue-Green tertiary — tertiary
Blue-Violet and Yellow-Orange tertiary — tertiary
Red-Violet and Yellow-Green tertiary — tertiary


subtractive color complementaries

What about RGB primaries?

Direct light has different primaries than pigment. You may be more familiar with the RGB system that is used by computer displays, television screens, film, video, digital photography and lighting design. This system, with its primary hues — Red, Green and Blue — is directly related to the 12-hue system and is the topic of another article.


Using color requires sensitivity to nuances, attention to color interactions, and knowledge of psycho-biological actions. Color theory is logical and orderly, but is by no means dry and boring as a topic of study. Once you understand the basics, everything else begins to fall into place, and, although complex, color can be mastered so that you can create meaningful work in a variety of mediums. Your first step in mastering color is to learn the color wheel.

Alvalyn Lundgren

Alvalyn Lundgren is the founder and principal of Alvalyn Creative, an independent consultancy providing brand strategy design and bespoke illustration for more than 30 years. She is the creator of Freelance Road Trip — a business school and podcast for creative freelancers. She teaches design and design practice on the college level with design schools and programs.

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