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How to Create a Color Scheme

With all the options we have available to us for selecting colors, how to create the right color scheme for a situation is still a common dilemma. While we work with color as designers and artists, the need to make a color decision can stop us in our tracks and keep us pondering.

We cannot simply use colors that appeal to us personally. This is the issue when working with clients who are going to use your creations to build their businesses. Color choices need to be appropriate for their customers. Appropriate colors work for the purpose of the design or artwork, and are meaningful to the end user. They should not be based on the style preferences of the client or the designer.

Here are a few ways to approach color scheme selection as a designer, web designer or illustrator:

Use color theory

While color theory is a complex topic, understanding the properties of color and how we see color is vital to using it well. Color theory includes a logical, systematic study of color character, interaction, psychology and scheme constructions using the 12-hue and other systems. This makes color selection very practical because it’s based on a system in which colors are harmonious and balanced.

Itten's 12-hue color circle
Johannes Itten’s 12-hue subtractive color circle with primary, secondary and tertiary hues.
Construction of harmonious color schemes in the 12-hue color circle
Harmonious color scheme constructions: top row: monochromatic, complementary, triad, tetrad, partial tetrad; middle row: analogous, split complementary, triad (isosceles), tetrad (rectangle), partial tetrad (rectangle); bottom row: accented neutral, partial triad, partial triad, hexad (tertiary), hexad (primary-secondary)

An analogous scheme is made up of related hues with various colors created by tinting, shading and toning hues. This example includes orange, red and red-orange hue families:

analogous colors

A complementary scheme uses 2 opposite hues with tints, shades and tone variations. Here are blue and orange working together:


Choose from existing color schemes

Successful color schemes are all around you. “Steal” and modify. One technique I often use is to pick colors from a photograph and create a scheme from them. Adobe Capture is an app you use to collect and share “hidden” color palettes in your immediate surroundings or in photos stored in your cloud library.

color scheme selection

Borrow color schemes

There are a number of online creative communities where you can create and share color palettes.  Color Hunter lets you upload a photo and extract color schemes from it.

On Colour Lovers you can create, share and discuss palettes, patterns and more.

Consider the purpose of your project

Who is the audience? What do you want to communicate? Do you want an active scheme that evokes excitement and vitality? Select colors from contrasting hue families and include wide variations in value among the colors:

active color scheme example

If you want a scheme that is quiet and peaceful, reduce the range of value contrast:

passive color scheme example

Note that both schemes above use the same hue families, but manipulate value and saturation levels to create very different personalities.

Do you need an ominous,  heavy scheme? Select colors that are high value (low luminance) and reduce the range of value contrast.

heavy color scheme example

Do you need something that has a nostalgic, old-time feel? Select hues from the warm side of the 12-hue circle and neutralize them a bit to subdue the color.

neutralized color scheme example

Consider additive and subtractive color

Color on your computer and devices is light (direct light), and color printing, paint, ink, pencil, and dyes are pigment. Light involves the additive color system, and pigment uses the subtractive. Ultimately, it’s all about light. The subtractive system cannot exist without the additive. We cannot see without the additive system.

Designers and artists utilize both systems. Since pigment does not filter light perfectly, what you see on your device is not exactly the same as what you see on paper. Be aware of color differences in different mediums. A saturated yellow that works very comfortably in print will be garish when viewed on a web site.

You’re safer using desaturated colors in web and UX design: tints (pastels), shades (darkened colors), tones (grayed colors), chromatic neutrals (earth tones) and achromatic neutrals (true grays). Avoid using a lot of highly saturated colors that will be hard on the eyes when viewed on screen. Use intense colors as accents.

Be a trend watcher

Color popularity changes constantly. Because of this, it is wise to be aware of current trends and use good judgement when you want to create a palette that will maintain relevance over time. Trendy color palettes become dated very quickly. Check out the Color Marketing Group and Pantone for the latest in color trends and forecasting, and to know what kinds of color schemes have a timeless appeal.

Ultimately, the right color scheme for a project is based on what that project needs to do. You will want to use color to convey the right message to the right audience. Take advantage of trial and error, and experiment with color schemes to build your confidence and skill.

Your turn: Color selection exercise

Select a digital photograph from your own archives, and create 3 different color schemes using colors in the photo. Use 5-6 colors in each scheme. Vary the value range to create a quiet scheme, a lively scheme and a heavy scheme.

You can do this in Photoshop with the eyedropper tool, on Color Hunter or with the Adobe Capture app. Share your results on my Facebook page (like my page if you want some feedback).

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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