Using the Color Wheel to Create Designs
Today, we’re going to talk about two dead geniuses, the number seven, and rainbows.
Now that we’ve got your attention, allow us to state the obvious. The perfect combination of colors can make or break a design.
We all learned about the classic color wheel or color circle in elementary school. And if you’re a professionally trained designer or artist, you likely had some more advanced lessons about color theory later in life as well.
But everyone can use a refresh in color theory, even seasoned graphic designers. That’s where we come in.
This article will discuss a brief history of color theory, types of color wheels, color pairings that come from the color wheel, and how to use the color wheel to create your own color palette.
Color palettes and color theory are at the crux of everything we do as designers. The best designers use color psychology and consider the emotional response they can elicit from a viewer when using the right colors.
Studies show that 90% of a viewer’s first impression of a design is based on how they recognize the color used. This, among other reasons, is why the color you pick for a design matters.
But it’s not always easy. Sure, everyone has favorite colors, but picking the right color for a design goes far beyond that.
There's a science behind the perfect color for a design. This is called color theory.
But before we can delve into color theory, we have to make sure we understand the most basic concepts of colors, including the color wheel.
So, let’s go back in time to see where the concept of a color wheel came from. Spoiler alert: things are about to get kind of weird.
Two Dead Geniuses, the Number Seven, and Rainbows
Okay, back to the dead geniuses, the number seven, and rainbows.
We're self-proclaimed color experts at Vectornator, so we’re going to give you a quick history lesson on how the color wheel came to be. And you might be surprised by how strange and exciting the story is.
It all started with the colors of the rainbow and Sir Isaac Newton, an all-around genius and super cool guy who first discovered the concept of the visible spectrum of light. You know him. He also created a formula for the three laws of motion.
We’ve all seen the colored light that reflects in the sky after rainstorms, known as the visible spectrum of light. In fancy science terms, the visible spectrum of light is the part of the electromagnetic spectrum that the human eye can see. In simple terms, it's a rainbow.
In 1665, Newton decided he would split up this spectrum of color (ahem, rainbows) into distinct colors so that it would be easier to talk about and understand. That’s how he came to establish the color wheel and the seven colors of the rainbow.
So, that explains the first dead genius and the rainbow thing, but maybe you’re wondering about the other dead genius and the number seven?
Enter, Pythagoras of Samos: a Greek philosopher and mathematician. Pythagoras was pretty influential during his day, and our guy Newton was a big fan of his work.
What you need to know about Pythagoras is that he loved the number seven. His theory was that seven was a magical number because it is the sum of the three known spiritual forces (father, son, and holy ghost) and the four earthly materials (earth, wind, fire, and water).
So, when Newton decided how many colors to break up the light spectrum into, guess which number he picked? That’s right—seven.
And so, the seven colors of the rainbow were born. But how did the wavelengths of light turn into the color wheel that we all know today?
We were hoping you would ask.
The Color Wheel
And, finally, we’re getting back to the reason you clicked on this article: the color wheel.
The color wheel was created by Newton so that relationships between colors were easier to define and identify. He decided to display the color spectrum in a circle because he felt that indigo (the last color in the color wheel) was similar to the first color, red.
To create the color wheel, Newton arranged the seven musical notes and put corresponding colors next to each one, bringing us back to the magical number: seven.
There are seven musical notes, which fit perfectly with Newton’s seven colors of the rainbow. Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet.
To remember it, some of you may have learned the acronym ROY G BIV.
This wheel is comprised of three main color categories: primary colors, secondary colors, and tertiary colors.
Here’s a little breakdown of each category.
- Primary colors: red, yellow, and blue
- Secondary colors: orange, green, and violet
- Tertiary colors: red-orange, yellow-orange, yellow-green, blue-green, blue-violet, and red-violet
The fact that they can’t be created from mixing two colors is why they're called primary colors, and secondary colors are called secondary colors. Secondary colors, and of course tertiary colors, can be created by mixing two colors.
Secondary colors are made by mixing one primary color with another primary color. Tertiary colors are created by combining the complete saturation of a single primary color with half saturation of another primary color.
The colors of light that Newton saw in water droplets came full circle (pun intended) to create this universal system of organizing colors.
There are two universal color wheels used in modern design. Let’s talk about them and break down the differences between the two.
The Two Types of Color Wheels
There are two different types of color wheels that designers need to know: the RGB Color Wheel and the RYB Color Wheel.
The basis of color theory is that some colors look better together than others. These two color wheels differ in their uses and how color mixtures are created, but both create a visual demonstration of the relationships between colors.
Balanced colors make for a harmonious design process, and the color wheel is the perfect tool to find which colors pair together best. The color wheel was created to quickly identify which colors can be mixed and which colors look best when used together in art and design.
Let’s learn more about color wheel theory by discussing the two types of color wheels commonly used.
RYB Color Wheel
The RYB Color Wheel stands for Red, Yellow, and Blue. This color wheel is usually used by artists such as painters because it helps when combining pigment colors.
Typically, an artist's paint palette includes the three primary colors they can mix to create other colors, as discussed above.
RGB Color Wheel
The RGB color wheel stands for Red, Green, and Blue. The RGB color wheel is most often used by graphic designers and printers, or artists who work digitally.
This color wheel applies to mixing light (like you would see on a TV or computer screen) rather than mixing physical paints to create colors.
Now that we understand how the two standard color wheels are different, let’s delve deeper and discuss color theory.
We’ve already covered the true basics of color theory and defined primary colors, tertiary colors, and secondary colors. Now, let’s explore the other methods artists and designers have to classify and specify colors.
Color relationships and the appearance of colors are determined by countless features such as temperature, contrast, and saturation.
Color temperature refers to the difference between cool colors and warm colors. Warm colors and cooler colors can be used together, but some color palettes separate hues based on their overall warmth.
Here are some other ways designers and artists can differentiate colors and find colors that pair well together.
Complementary colors are two colors from opposite ends of the color wheel. The idea of complementary colors is that these two colors are different enough to create a strong contrast.
If you’re looking to include complementary colors in your designs, here is a list to get you started.
The complementary color pairs for primary colors are:
- Red and green
- Yellow and purple
- Orange and blue
The tertiary complementary color pairs are:
- Yellow-orange and blue-violet
- Red-orange and blue-green
- Red-violet and yellow-green
Contrast is an important design principle to be aware of. Using contrast in your design will create dimension and draw attention to your designs.
Complementary color pairings will ensure that both colors appear more distinct and prominent.
Analogous colors are colors that are directly next to each other. Neighboring colors on the color wheel can be versatile and overwhelming when used together.
The analogous color pairs examples include:
- Yellow, yellow-green, and green
- Red, red-orange, and orange
- Violet, red-violet, and red
- Blue, blue-violet, and violet
Artists often pick one color as the primary color in an analogous scheme, and the second color is used as an accent color.
Triadic colors are three colors evenly spaced from one another on the color wheel. Using evenly spaced colors from the color wheel creates a more versatile contrast than the complementary color combination.
Triadic Color trios include:
- Red, yellow, blue
- Red-orange, yellow-green, blue-violet
- Orange, green, violet
- Yellow-orange, blue-green, red-violet
Tetradic color schemes are four colors on the color wheel that are evenly spaced from each other.
Often artists will have one of these colors take the place of a dominant color while the others are used as accent colors.
Tetradic Color pairings include:
- Red, green, blue-purple, and yellow-orange
- Yellow, purple, blue-green, and red-orange
Monochromatic color schemes are different shades of one single color. This variety of one color creates a subtle color combination that can be very pleasing to the eye.
You might think that using one color for your design would be repetitive and boring, but monochromatic color schemes can be very bold and creative when done right. And we’ve been seeing a lot of them created by major brands and designers lately.
Now, let’s talk about using this knowledge to create a color palette for your design projects.
Examples of Color Palettes
Color palettes are the basis of everything designers do, and creating the perfect palette for a project is the first step in many designers' creative processes.
We’ve got some examples of advanced color schemes and basic color schemes created by designers to evoke a specific emotional response. These are great examples of how you can use the color wheel to create a color palette.
Check out these examples and consider everything you’ve learned about color theory.
Neutral colors and natural color palettes are very-much in style this year. This color palette can remind people of time spent outside and create a sense of fondness for your designs.
We are also seeing a lot of retro color palettes and retro designs. Vintage retro designs are a fun way to give people a blast from the past in your designs.
We are obsessed with this bright color palette. This color palette would be perfect for a fun, young product or a summer design project.
Also, check out this beautiful and subtle pastel color palette. This is a perfect palette for soft and feminine brands like makeup companies or women’s fashion.
This dark color palette reminds us of cozy winter days. This palette would be perfect for creating a moody, rainy day atmosphere in your designs.
Once you pick a color palette for your design, the arrangement of colors and combinations of colors is totally up to you.
There are different types of color schemes and additional uses for color schemes that you might not have considered. Some of the most common include interior design color schemes, art color schemes, and wedding color schemes.
Vectornator Color Features
We just so happen to know of a particularly excellent design software with tons of cool color features. Maybe you’ve heard of it? It’s called Vectornator.
For the visual learners out there, check out this video by Soodabeh Damavandi (@sooodesign) to learn how to create a unique color palette with Vectornator:
With our software, any path, image, or shape can be edited. You have the ability to change its style and, most importantly—color.
You can use our Color Picker by clicking the Color Well. You can also simply change your shape's HEX Color by tapping on it.
The Color Picker allows you to change the color of your selected object's Fill, Stroke, or Shadow inside the corresponding section within the Style Tab. We also have Blending modes, the ability to add shadows, and an Eyedropper tool that enables you to select and copy a color from an image and add it to your design.
Plus, you can create and save a Personal color palette that can be used in Vectornator for any design. This is perfect for brands or designers who often use one specific color palette.
To learn more, visit our Learning Hub page, where you can read more about designing with color in Vectornator. We also offer design resources for new designers in our Design Tips section and our YouTube channel.
Wow, we really packed a lot of information into one blog post. Luckily for you, there’s no test at the end.
In fact, we encourage you to get creative and make your own color palettes and color schemes with the information we talked about today.
Now that you've joined the ranks of color experts, it’s time to get designing.
The options for creating unique colors and color palettes in Vectornator are endless. The only limit is your imagination, and we can’t wait to see what you do with it. Make sure to follow us on socials and tag us in any cool designs you post.