Color Theory Part 3: Color Harmony

Combinations of color are called Color Harmonies.  Also known as color schemes, they are a way of choosing colors in a way to create a certain effect.  Color harmonies are all based on the color wheel.  The list below covers the basic color harmonies that are used in art and design.  This is by no means exhaustive, and there are hundreds of other color schemes, sometimes called palettes,  that can be used.  However, most other color schemes are derived from these basic color harmonies.


A monochromatic color scheme uses a combination of different tins, shades, and tones of a single hue.  Recall that a hue is a single pure color, a tint is when white is added to a pure color, making it lighter, a shade is when only black is added, which makes it darker, and a tone is when gray is added, making the color darker and less saturated.  In this color harmony, the contrast is created between the darker shades and lighter tints of the color, rather than between different hues. The reference image above gives examples of tints and shades of a single hue of blue color.

My painting “Celtic Horse” below is an excellent example of a monochromatic color scheme.  In this painting, I used various tints and shades of blue to create depth while keeping an overall blue color.

Celtic Horse


An achromatic color scheme is one without any strong hues, and is also referred to as unsaturated or neutral.  These color schemes include black, white and gray, as well as near-neutrals such as browns and tans.  Near neutrals are created by mixing complementary colors.  For example, red and green can be mixed to create brown, and can be adjusted further by adding white, black, or gray.

The painting of Rocky the Cane Corso Dog below is a great example of an achromatic color scheme.  It is primarily black, white, and gray, with some very subtle beige and brown.



Analogous color schemes are created by 2-4 colors adjacent to each other on the color wheel.  An example is red-orange-yellow.  These colors will match well with each other, and tend to be harmonious and pleasing to look at.  Generally, there will be one color which is more dominant.

My pastel painting “Wolf Aurora” is a great example of this.  I used teal, blue, and violet.  This creates a peaceful and pleasing color scheme which is calming to look at.

Wolf Aurora


Complimentary color schemes use colors that are the direct opposite of each other on the color wheel.  Examples of complementary colors are red-green, blue-orange, and yellow-purple.  These color combinations create maximum contrast, and when used at full saturation can be very stunning but if overused can create dissonance.  An example that is used a lot in media is the teal and orange combination, which is a great contrast of warm and cool.

I use this color combination a lot in my artwork. Psychedelic art tends to use full spectrum and saturation rainbow colors with the complimentary colors directly next to each other to create a sense of movement and vibrancy. In the Red Fox painting below, orange and blue are the dominant colors.

Red Fox.


Split complementary is a variation of the complementary color scheme where you have one dominant color, and chose two colors adjacent to the complement.  In the case of the wheel above, green is selected as the dominant color.  Red is the complement of green, so select two colors on either side of red, which in this case is magenta and vermilion.  This creates a strong visual contrast without the color clash that can often occur with pure complementary colors.

An example of this color scheme in my own artwork is the portrait of Kona below.  The dominant color is amber, which is a tertiary color of mixing orange and yellow.  The color directly opposite the color wheel of amber is violet, which is a tertiary color of blue and purple.  So the split complementary of amber would be pairing it with blue and purple, which are the colors in the background.



Triadic Color SchemeThe triadic color harmony is selecting three colors that are evenly spaced around the color wheel.  This creates an equilateral triangle on the color wheel.  The best examples of this is the primary colors (red-yellow-blue) and the secondary colors (orange-green-purple).  These color harmonies are very vibrant and offer great contrast and color richness.  Primary color schemes are very popular among artists and designers.

A good example of the triadic color harmony can be seen in my painting of Gizmo, below. This painting uses a green-purple-orange color scheme.  You can see the orange tones in his ears, the purple tones in the shadows of his fur, and the bright green background.



Tetradic color schemes use four colors selected around the color wheel.  The two main tetradic schemes are rectangle and square.  The rectangle tetradic scheme is composed of four colors of two complementary pairs each.  An example is red-orange-green-blue.  The square tetradic is the selection of four colors evenly spaced around the color wheel, which is also composed of two pairs of complementary colors.  An example is red-amber-green-violet.

A good example of the rectangle color scheme is my painting titled “Anticipation – Rainbow Tabby Cat”.  This painting uses red and orange in the cat, and green and blue in the background.  For the square color scheme, the painting “Sunset on the Savanna – African Lion” is the best example.  It features vermilion, teal, yellow, and purple.

Anticipation – Rainbow Tabby Cat

Sunset on the Savanna

Other Articles in the Series About Color Theory

Further Reading