IXD101- Colour Theory

Colour Theory

The first known theory of colour was developed by Aristotle. He believed that colour was sent down by God through celestial rays of light, that they came from lightness and darkness and from the four elements – earth, fire, air and water. This theory was widely accepted for around 2000 years until it was replaced with Newtons Theory.

During the 1660’s, Issac Newton carried out a series of experiments with sunlight and prisms and theorised that clear white light was comprised of seven separate colours. This is what we know today as the visible colour spectrum. The colours he identified within the rainbow were red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. These colours make up just a narrow portion of the electromagnetic spectrum that is visible to the naked eye. Our eyes are sensitive to the wavelengths that create the different colours due to cells called cones.


These colours can be divided into 3 groups known as primary, secondary and tertiary colours.

Primary Colours

primary colours consist of red, yellow and blue and cannot be created by any combination of other colours.

Secondary Colours

Secondary colours are formed by combining the primary colours and these make green, orange and purple.

Tertiary Colours

Tertiary colours are made from a combination of primary and secondary colours such as yellow-orange, red-orange, red-purple, blue-purple, blue-green and yellow-green.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe argued that colour was more than a scientific measure, that it was subjective to the viewer and that colours carried physiological effects.

Colours can also be separated into cool tones and warm tones with each reminding us of things we find in nature like the cool ocean and warm sunny days.

The foundation of modern colour printing was outlined by J. C. LeBlon, which consisted of the use of the primary colours red, yellow and blue to create secondary colours green, purple and orange. Leblon published the first documentation that refers to additive and subtractive colour systems. Additive colour systems are those that use red, green and blue , combining to make white light such as rainbows, TVs, computer screens and mobile devices. Subtractive colour systems are based on the chemical makeup of an object and the light it reflects such as red, blue and yellow and can be mixed together to make black, these also include magenta, cyan and yellow.

During our lecture we discussed the relationships between colours and used a programme, choosing one colour, that would allow us to find the analogous, monochromatic, complimentary and split complementary colours.

Analogous Colours

Analogous colours are groups of hues that are found next to each other on the colour wheel. Colour palettes composed of analogous colours appear easy to look at and harmonious in design and can commonly be found in nature.

Monochromatic Colours

Monochromatic colours are all the tints, shades or tones of a single hue. Tints are made by adding white and shades or tones by adding grey or black. Monochromatic colour schemes can be used to create a sense of visual cohesion within a design.

Complimentary Colours 

Complimentary colours are described as being two apposing hues on the colour wheel which can result in a high contrast palate which makes each colour pop. Often the two colours will consist of one warm and one cold hue which creates what’s known as simultaneous contrast and can create a natural illusion making the colours appear brighter.

Split Complementary Colours

A split complementary colour scheme usually involves 3 colours, choosing one colour and finding its complimentary (opposing colour), then taking the two colours on either side of it.


Colour Accessibility

Colour Blindness








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