How to Choose the Best Color Combination for Your Project | Part 1: Color Basics

There's a misconception that when it comes to combining colors some people just have it and others are out of luck. Like you're born with a special color-combo superpower or something.


Working with color combinations are much more like presenting to a room full of people than being tall or having blue eyes – while some people may find themselves in their element when it comes to color, everyone can pick up strategies to improve.

So that's what we're setting out to do with this series: Prep you for mastering the art of color!

And today we're getting started with learning some color basics that everything else builds upon later down the road. Ready to get started?

There's a misconception that when it comes to combining colors some people just have it and others are out of luck. Like you're born with a special color-combo superpower or something. Totally false! This guide is an introduction for any project – from painting a room to designing materials for your business, an essential foundation to color theory starts with the basics! | Hoot Design Co.

The color wheel – an essential starting place to understand color! | Hoot Design Co.


One important concept to understand when talking about color is the color wheel.

Seriously, everything starts with the color wheel

First off, the color wheel is grounded in the three primary colors (red, yellow, and blue). If you take a look, you'll see that the three primary colors are all spaced out evenly on the wheel and are mixed together little by little to create all the colors in between.

So you can see that by mixing yellow and blue we get not only green, which is right in the middle between yellow and blue, but yellow-green and blue-green as well. The same goes for all other variations in the rainbow!

The next step after understanding colors is putting them together.

Let's start out with looking at three basic color combinations based directly on the color wheel: Complementary colors, triadic colors, and analogous colors.

Complementary Colors

 Complementary colors are opposite one another on the color wheel.

Complementary colors are opposite one another on the color wheel.

Complementary colors are opposites on the color wheel. They're called complementary because they support one another and 'fill in' the areas each are missing. You can think of complementary colors as BFFs – a natural pair of total opposites.

Because they're total opposites, a pair of complementary colors has the highest sense of color contrast with each other of any two colors.

This means that if you busted out your paints and mixed any two complementary colors together, you'd find yourself with a neutral grayish brown. So the same contrast which makes the pairs super dynamic, with tons of energy also means the two can cancel out when mushed together. Remember how much it sucked to get purple on the end of your yellow Crayola marker? Yep.

Here are some complementary color combos you'll probably recognize:

 Complementary color pairings – these are high-energy and intense!

Complementary color pairings – these are high-energy and intense!

In fact, complementary colors are so high-energy they're often used for sports teams or school colors. My high school certainly did – our colors were purple and yellow, or purple and gold as we liked to say to sound more legit. [Fun fact: we are only school in the world that uses a Kewpie as its mascot 😎]

For example, NFL teams are a great place to spot these dynamic complementary color combinations. Check out how the Miami Dolphins, Minnesota Vikings, Denver Broncos and Baltimore Ravens make use of complementary colors to create high-energy contrast: 

See what I mean?

However, the dynamic energy a complementary color combo creates can be inappropriate in some cases. For example, you're not likely to catch a therapist or spa using bright complementary colors! 

Triadic Colors

Triadic colors are playful groups of threes evenly spaced around the color wheel. One of the important foundations to understand about color theory. | Hoot Design Co.

Next up are triadic colors. Now, there's not really any particular reason to know the term triadic if you can keep the concept pretty straight: Triadic color sets are in balanced groups of threes all along the color wheel.

Triadic colors are all spaced equally apart – for example, red, yellow, and blue are a triadic set. You'll also recognize those three as the primary colors, which are mixed together in various ways to create the rest of the colors on the wheel. I've highlighted them in the illustration – notice how the triadic set makes an equilateral triangle within the wheel! By rotating that triangle, you'll hit all the other triadic combinations you can find.

Triadic color combinations make for playful groups of threes that carry a similar level of energy as complementary pairs:

  Energetic groups of threes.

Energetic groups of threes.

In fact, triadic combinations are so high-energy they are often used as colors in children's toys or shows. Can you see the triadic color combos at work in the color palettes of Arthur, Barney & Friends, and Scooby-Doo?

Analogous Colors

Analogous colors are next to each other on the color wheel. They give a harmonious and balanced feeling for the viewer. | Hoot Design Co.

Last on the list today are analogous colors.

Analogous colors are those next to each other on the color wheel. We're talking a group of three colors that are all in a row: Think a nice range of yellow, yellow-orange, and orange.

Analogous color sets are more common to find out in the natural world. Think of a nice field of yellow, yellow-orange and orange flowers, or the way the ocean might flicker between shades of deep navy, blue, and green-blue.

Sets of analogous colors like these are quite harmonious and feel balanced to the viewer.

Each set of analogous colors really has its own tone and feeling:

  Analogous colors like these are harmonious and balanced.

Analogous colors like these are harmonious and balanced.

It's no surprise that using analogous colors is a great way to make groups appear more cohesive without being completely matching.

Kristen used analogous colors when prepping for her family's photoshoot wardrobe this summer – can you see the way the blues, blue-greens, and green-grays all work together?

Family photos are a great place to wear analogous colors – it makes you look like a group without being matchy-matchy! | Hoot Design Co.

These terms are just the building blocks for starting to work with color combinations. Keep them in mind when we move onto part two: creating your own palettes tomorrow! 

Until next time,

Edit: Added material!

Check out this full infographic recap of these color basics:


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