Nov 23, 2023 • 8 min read

What is Color Theory? Master The Complete Basics With Mixam’s Guide

Do you use color theory? Get to know the foundations with us and see how it can transform the way you print.

What is Color Theory? Master The Complete Basics With Mixam’s Guide

Color plays a pivotal role in print. It’s a powerful communication tool, helping us make decisions, generate emotional responses and better understand our world. But color theory is both a science and an art that can take print aesthetics one step further.

Color theory provides a logical structure for organizing, combining, and mixing colors. For humans, our eyes and brains work together to translate light into color. Light travels to the retina at the back of the eye, covered in light-receptive cells. When these cells detect light, they combine the information and send it along the optic nerve. The brain will then help us distinguish individual colors for us to interpret. While terminology surrounding color has existed since Ancient Greece, polymath Sir Issac Newton was the first to formalize color theory. He proved that light consists of separate colors by conducting experiments that refracted light through a glass prism. His work provided a foundation for the color wheel we know today - an illustration depicting individual colors and their relationship with others in the spectrum (above). Most color wheels are divided into 12 visible colors, and we divide them into three main categories:


Primary Colors

Red, Yellow, and Blue are colors from which other colors are made when mixed. You cannot create primaries by mixing other colors together. 

Secondary Colors

Green, Orange, and Purple are colors made by mixing two primaries. Yellow and Blue make Green, Red and Yellow make Orange and Red and Blue make Purple.

Tertiary Colors

Mixing a primary and secondary color creates a tertiary color, giving some hues a two-word name, such as Blue-Green and Red-Violet. These are also known as intermediate colors.

The color wheel can then be further divided into color harmonies:

Complementary Colors

Complementary Colors appear opposite each other on the color wheel. For example, Yellow and Purple are intense hues that can compete with or enhance each other to create a harmonious color palette.

Analogous Colors

Analogous Colors appear next to one another on the color wheel. Red, Dark Orange, and Light Orange, is an example of an analogous color pallette. When used together, they have a striking visual impact, and often, one color, like Red, will dominate while the other two act as accents.

Triadic Colors

Triadic Colors are a group of equally spaced colors on the color wheel, forming a triangle. For example, primary colors and secondary colors are triadic colors. Like Analogous Colors, one color will tend to dominate while the other two serve as accents, giving printed artwork a visual ‘balance’.

Tetradic Colors

Tetradic Colors employ two sets of complementary colors, forming a rectangle shape on the color wheel. They’re also known as Rectangle or Double Complementary Colors. They provide bold and vibrant color schemes, and one color will tend to dominate while the others act as accents.

Square Colors

Square Colors consist of four evenly spaced colors around the color wheel, forming a square. This color scheme creates rich, evocative designs, providing a cohesive balance of warm and cool colors. But more on that later.

Split Colors

Split Colors, or Split Complementary Colors, employ a single base color and the two on either side of its complement, forming a ‘Y’ shape on the color wheel. It creates a colorful equilibrium that is more understated than traditional, complementary colors.

Monochromatic Colors

Monochromatic literally means one color, deriving from the Ancient Greek terms ‘mono’ (‘only’, ‘single’, ‘alone’) and chromatic (‘color’). This color scheme employs a single color and varying shades and tints. It has a low contrast and can make print work look sleek and polished.


You can see these color harmonies and more in practice using Adobe’s Color Wheel tool.

Next, we need to establish how we see colors in print...


Additive Color Theory vs Subtractive Color Theory

Additive Color Theory denotes color is made with light. Adding more color makes a color appear lighter. The additive color primaries are Red, Green and Blue. This color model is known as RGB, which we use for viewing colors on screens like computer monitors. Red, Green and Blue combined create white light. But by manipulating the light wavelengths that produce the primaries, we add colors, thus creating a color spectrum. 

Every pixel on a screen emits light, and when lights possessing different wavelengths are combined, the waves interfere with each other, enhancing and/or cancelling each other out. Each wavelength depicts a different color. For example, Blue light plus Green light (with no Red) produces Cyan; Red light plus Blue light (with no Green) produces Magenta; Red light plus Green light (with no Blue) produces Yellow.

Subtractive Color Theory denotes how color appears when applied to a semi-absorbent surface like paper. The subtractive color primaries are Cyan, Magenta and Yellow, which we use in print. Colored substances like ink absorb varying levels of light and specific wavelengths that impart their color. The more added color, the greater the number of lightwaves and the darker a color becomes. Electronic devices with screens emit light, but a white piece of paper reflects it and, therefore, reflects every wavelength of light to produce color. Cyan and Magenta combined reflect Blue light, Magenta and Yellow combined reflect Red light and Yellow and Cyan combined reflect Green light. So RGB and CMY work oppositely to each other, and we can create a wider variety of colors by subtracting the values of the primaries and printing with black ink (K) to get a variety of shades. 

Dive deeper into RGB and CMYK Color profiles here or watch this quick video guide.


Black and White (Grayscale) Printing

Creating black and white colors depends on whether you work with an additive (light-based) or a subtractive (ink-based) color. In the physical world, black isn’t present in the visible color spectrum. All other colors are a reflection of light, except for black, because according to science, black is the absence of light. However, some argue that white is a color because it contains all the colors in the visible light spectrum. This theory can also be applied to black, as combining all pigments makes this color. But black images printed on a white page contain an ink pigment, which is subtractive. So, if you’re printing any of your projects in grayscale, just like full-color images, they’ll be printed in CMYK.

Find out more about Standard vs Rich Black for Grayscale Printing here.


Warm vs Cool Colors

The positioning of each color on the color wheel means it can be split into two categories: warm and cool. Colors can ‘speak’ to us on a visceral level, and their characteristics impact our visual perception. Colors like Red, Orange and Yellow are considered warm colors and have the longest wavelengths in the spectrum. Green, Blue and Violet are considered cool colors and have short wavelengths. Warm colors appear to advance towards our eyes while cool colors recede. It’s thought that this is why we associate warm colors as bold while their cooler counterparts are softer on the eye.


Additional Color Theory Terms
What’s the difference between hues, shades, tints and tones? Let’s start with hue. A hue simply means color. Therefore, tints, shades and tones are variations of a hue. A tint is where white lightens a hue (e.g. Red + White = Pink), and a shade is where Black darkens a hue (e.g. Red + Black = Burgundy). And finally, a tone is where Black, White or Gray is added to a hue to change the attributes that make up a color, such as intensity or lightness.


Color Theory does more than make prints look good. It’s a strategy that triggers emotion and helps make all kinds of printed material interesting and accessible. And for more news and inspiration, check out the array of posts on Mixam's Blog and visit our Support section for helpful guidance and advice on all things print.


Image Credit: Freepik and PicMonkey

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