Color Theory 101: Part One – Hue

Coloring is supposed to be fun and relaxing. It brings out the creative part of ourselves. We can color at all stages of life, alone or with family or friends. We love this hobby! But then, there’s that moment when you finally sit down to color. You open your book to that lovely black and white illustration, you look over to your set of markers or pencils, and you think “How am I ever going to pick the right colors for this?” Whether it’s a small set of twelve, or a giant set of 150 amazing shades of color, you find yourself frozen with indecision.

Take a deep breath…did you know that humans can perceive as many as 2.8 million different hues? No wonder we struggle with color choices! To top that off, the entire concept of color harmony (the idea that certain colors seen together produce a pleasing response) is a notion that can’t easily be pinned down. This is because there are many factors that influence our color perceptions — including individual differences of age, gender, and personal experience, as well as cultural and social norms. Emotions and symbolism influence our preferences as well.

For example, in the United States, happiness is positively associated with the color yellow, while in Egypt, yellow is the color reserved for mourning. Pink is stereotypically a color associated with girls and blue with boys, but originally many people advocated pink for boys and blue for girls! We often think of red as hot and blue as cool. These cases are just a tiny sampling of how our color associations are intricate and deep seated.*

In ways more subconscious than we realize, making color choices is complex. However, we don’t have to know everything about color in order to gain confidence in making color choices that please us. And thankfully, there isn’t a set of markers or pencils with 2.8 million colors in it!

So lets explore color theory a bit . This is the first in a three part series to explore the basic aspects of color: hue, lightness (value), and saturation (chroma.) We’ll begin with hue.

The Color Wheel

Most of us can remember school art class where we learned that red, blue and yellow are the primary colors, or hues, on the color wheel. They are combined to create secondary colors: purple, green, and orange. Blending further we can create what are called tertiary colors; blue-green, blue-violet, red-violet, red-orange, yellow-orange, and yellow-green.

By arranging the primary, secondary, and tertiary colors in a circle, an understandable way to discuss color and their relationships is created. We can look at colors next to each other (analogous color schemes) or across the wheel from each other (complimentary colors) and make choices based on where they are arranged on the wheel.


A Basic Color Wheel Exercise

Click to enlarge

This exercise is designed to remind you how to use the basic 12-part color wheel. It will also allow you to compare the feelings that various color schemes evoke. Additionally, it will help you break away from coloring things the way you think you see them real life.

Picasso’s works come to mind as wonderful examples of extraordinary use of color applied to ordinary objects. To experiment and familiarize yourself with primary, secondary, and tertiary colors as well as complimentary and analogous color schemes, try the following.


  • 4 copies of a fairly simple coloring page that this not too large or complex, or 1 fairly simple coloring page divided into four quadrants
  • 12 colored pencils, crayons, markers, or pastels in the following colors:
    • Primary colors-red, yellow, blue
    • Secondary colors-orange, green, violet
    • Tertiary colors-red-orange and yellow-orange, yellow-green and blue-green, blue-violet and red-violet

(Note: If you have many colors to choose from, pick the most “traditional” looking colors for each, or the names that most closely match. Don’t worry if you think you don’t have the “correct” matching color, just find something close. Markers are not recommended for this particular exercise unless you are familiar with cross-hatching technique.)


Color four color schemes as outlined below. Try to keep the amount of pressure, or level of color saturation, the same throughout each exercise so that you can focus on the color relationships. Saturation will be discussed in the next article, part II, in this series.

  1. Color one drawing or quadrant in a primary color scheme using only red, yellow and blue. Choose one of the three colors to be dominant, another supportive and a third to be an accent. It does not matter which color you choose for which role.
  2. Color another drawing or quadrant in a secondary color scheme using only orange, green and violet. As in the first exercise, choose one of the three colors to be dominant, another supportive, and a third to be an accent.
  3. Color the third drawing or quadrant using complimentary colors. Compliments lie across from each other on the wheel:
    1. blue/orange
    2. red/green
    3. yellow/purple

    Choose one of the two colors to be more dominant.

  4. Color the last drawing or quadrant in an analogous color scheme. These are colors that lie next to each other on the color wheel and include tertiary colors. Choose one of the following color combinations:
    1. Red-violet/red/red-orange
    2. Red-orange/orange/yellow-orange
    3. Yellow-orange/yellow/yellow-green
    4. Yellow-green/green/blue-green
    5. Blue-green/blue/blue-violet
    6. Blue-violet/violet/red-violet

    Choose one of the three colors to be dominant, a second supportive and the third as an accent.

When you are all finished with coloring, take a few minutes to look at your work by spreading the pages out on the table or by putting them up on the wall.

  • Are there schemes that resonate with you in a certain way?
  • Are there color combinations that you particularly did or did not like?
  • How did you feel about coloring things in the “wrong” color?
  • Did focusing on only a few colors at a time help you feel more confident as you colored?

There are no right or wrong answers to these questions. You’re just evaluating your own preferences.

Application to Your Own Work

By now you are reacquainted with the color wheel, you’ve worked your way through these exercises and now you’re ready to tackle your favorite coloring page with that brand new set of 150  Prismacolors…and yet, you can’t make yourself take the plunge.

First, it may be that 150 colors are just too many right now. Try taking them out of the box and putting them in 12 pencil cups arranged just like the color wheel. Put the browns, grays, black and white in a cup in the middle (we’ll talk more about these colors in a different article, but please go ahead and use the browns!) Next, decide whether you want to take a realistic approach to your page or a bold/whimsical one.

For the colorist who prefers realism:

Pick your favorite color and choose an analogous scheme. Analogous colors are likely to be found in nature and thus are apt to feel more peaceful and eye pleasing. Be aware that enough  difference in color contrast between adjacent colors is necessary for this color scheme to work well otherwise the design may not be clearly visible. This means, for example, that the yellow-orange shouldn’t be so close to yellow that you can’t tell the two apart.

Additionally, when applying an analogous color scheme, remember that it is not necessary to be entirely rigid about it. The majority of the page may be analogous with a few other colors worked in judiciously. Choose the next most similar color or two on the wheel. Then, to add vibrancy and create some high contrast, add in a little complimentary color here and there. This is especially effective when you want something to stand out. If your overall coloring page seems too under-stimulated, look for places to add compliments.

For the bold or whimsical colorist:

Experiment with a primary or secondary scheme while utilizing aspects of an analogous scheme. The primary caution here is to tone down the bold nature of these schemes without using too many colors, as this can be can be over-stimulating. This is where the analogous scheme comes into play. Try expanding the primary or secondary scheme to include an adjacent tertiary color or two.

Overuse of complimentary colors in a bold scheme can also be jarring. Using one or two dominant colors with tertiary and accent colors worked in will yield the most harmonious results using these schemes. Try not to have a “shotgun” approach with either of these schemes, as this will result in a spotty look. Instead, work these colors into groupings.

Practice Makes Perfect

Becoming a better colorist is really a matter of experimentation and practice. Exercises such as these help build your awareness of how colors interact in relation to each other, and how they are perceived in certain combinations. You can repeat these exercises using every color combination mentioned in the instructions. As you become more mindful of these relationships, you will become more confident in putting your color choices to work on your favorite pages.

Let’s color!

*More fascinating information about the meanings of colors can be found at