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Understanding Color Theory
- Aug 18, 2018 -

By definition according to Wikipedia - In the visual arts, color theory or colour theory is a body of practical guidance to color mixing and the visual effects of a specific color combination. There are also definitions (or categories) of colors based on the color wheel: primary color, secondary color and tertiary color.

Tattoo artists must have a complete understanding of color theory.

Below are the three definitions of colors based on the color wheel.


Primary Colors: Red, yellow and blue

These 3 pigment colors, (red, yellow and blue), cannot be mixed or formed by any combination of other colors. Any other colors are created from these three primaries.

Secondary Colors: Green, orange and purple

These are the colors made by mixing the primary colors.

Tertiary Colors: Yellow-orange, red-orange, red-purple, blue-purple, blue-green & yellow-green

These colors are formed by mixing a primary and a secondary color. This is why the hue is a two word name, such as blue-green, red-violet, and yellow-orange. 

 Color Harmony

Harmony is pleasing to the eye. It creates an inner sense of order and balance visually. When something is not harmonious, it can turn out either dull or busy. When the color scheme is boring to the eye, people aren't attracted to it because of the blandness. On the other end of this is the too busy in color that the brain finds it difficult to organize or process well because it doesn't understand clearly what's going on. Visually, our brains require a pleasing/not confusing structure. Color harmony delivers visual interest and a sense of order.

A Few Formulas For Color Harmony

1. Analogous Color Theme


Analogous colors are any three colors that are side by side on a 12-part color wheel, such as yellow-green, yellow, and yellow-orange. Typically, one of the three colors is dominate.

2. Complimentary Color Theme

Complimentary colors are two colors that are opposite of one another, such as, red/green, red/purple and yellow/green. The opposing colors create maximum contrast and maximum stability.

 3. A Color Scheme Based On Nature


Nature provides a perfect example for color harmony. Red, yellow and green make a harmonious design. The combination fits into a formula for color harmony.

Color Context

How colors flow in relation to other colors is more complex in color theory. Below, the contrast offer different color backgrounds for the same red square and the effect it shows with each.


Red appears brilliant with a black background and almost dull against the white background. With the orange contrast, the red appears meh; however, the blue-green, appears brilliant and exciting. Also, if you look, the red square seems larger with the black background than on colors.

Different Readings Of The Same Color


The small purple rectangle on the left seems to look a bit red/purple compared to the right side's small rectangle. They are both the same color but this demonstrates how three colors can be perceived as four colors.

Color relativity and it's effects that colors have on one another is important to understand. The relationship of their values, saturations and whether they are  warm or cool hues can create differences in our perception of color.