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Basics of Color Theory

December 7, 2016 — by Dave Milam

Choosing the right color is trickier than you might think. If you’ve ever repainted a wall because the color you picked was repulsive, you know what I’m talking about. Some colors simply work well together and others do not. That’s why it’s imperative for every designer specializing in stage lighting, graphics, video, photography and architectural design to develop a good sense of color. Knowing how to create great color palettes is the difference between mediocre and extraordinary designs.

So, to help you understand color theory a little better, I’ve written a high level view of the major 8 color harmonies. [with no consideration of other impacting factors like hue, saturation & brightness] Once you understand how these harmonies work, you’ll be able to pick the perfect color combinations.


Monochrome literally means, “one color.” So, when you’re creating a monochromatic color harmony, just remember to use the same color with varying degrees of brightness within the design. On a color wheel, monochromatic colors form a straight line to the center of the wheel.

I love this example of “Tea Escapes.” It’s so easy to identify monochromatic design; notice that the colors used are all from the same color on the wheel.
color theory



Complimentary color schemes are one of the most popular color harmonies, especially in the world of stage lighting. Its name describes exactly what we want: two colors that compliment each other.

When you look at the color wheel, simply choose two colors directly oposite one another. Keep in mind that these color selections should also the same distance from the center of the wheel.

color theory


 Split Complementary

The Split Complementary harmony is similar to the Complementary color harmony, the only difference is that now you’ll be using three colors.

When you look at the color wheel, you’ll notice that the colors form a 1969 peace sign. (Which I affectionally call this harmony) The Firefox logo is a great example.

color theory


Double Complementary

Okay, now things are getting a little trickier. The Double Complementary forces us to use FOUR COLORS!

Simply put, the double complementary color scheme uses four colors arranged into two complementary pairs. Look at the color wheel below. You’ll notice that the color choices form the shape of a rectangle. Check out the photo of the interior design below: perfect Double Complementary color harmony.

color theory


The Analogous color harmony is another favorite among stage lighting designers. Just do a quick google search and you’ll see what I mean.

Analogous color schemes use colors that are next to each other on the color wheel. Analogous schemes are often found in nature and are harmonious and pleasing to the eye. Notice that the example below actually uses four overlapping colors that bleed together.

color theory


Accented Analogic

The Accented Analogic  harmony is kin to the Analogous. It is actually a combination of the Analogous and Complementary color schemes. In addition to colors that are adjacent to each other, it uses a complementary accent at its opposite.

On the color wheel, the Accented Analogic forms the shape of a witch’s broom.

color theory



If the points on the color wheel form a triangle, you are most likely using the Triad color harmony.

The triad purist prefers an equilateral triangle with three sixty degree angles, centered on the wheel. Fortunately, the Burger King logo serves us as a fine example.




The final color harmony of the day is called the square.

Though this harmony isn’t one of my favorites, it certainly creates a quirky feel to any design. Notice that the points on the color wheel form a perfect square centered on the color wheel.

color theory




If you’re still struggling, be sure to check out the hundreds of online color schemers. One of my favorites is on I also purchased the ColorSchemer iPhone App which allows me to create great color schemes anywhere with my iphone.

Have fun coloring!