The Creative's Guide to Color

The Creative's Guide to Color

Color seems to be one aspect of art-making that even accomplished artists struggle to do well. Maybe you're unsure where to start with color theory or have difficulty picking a color palette. Like many artists, you may add too many colors to your artwork and need help to narrow your options down. We've all been there!

Using color in your work doesn't need to be a mystery or a headache. In three easy-to-follow sections, we'll break down some actionable tools you can use to understand how to use color expertly in your work.


A color wheel and the Elements of Color with examples.

Understanding basic color theory is helpful for constructing your palette.

There are centuries of study in the field of color theory. If you wanted to dive deep into the subject, you would have endless options. But we'll stick with the basics. In the chart above is something that you have likely seen before; a color wheel. These help pick color palettes (which we'll get into later) and for learning how to mix colors. Although you might be working digitally, understanding these concepts will still be helpful, so let's break them down.

  • Primary Colors are pure colors that cannot be formed by mixing any other colors together. There's some debate over which hues are the actual Primary Colors, but for the sake of this article, we're going to define them as Blue, Red, and Yellow.
  • Secondary Colors are made by mixing two Primary Colors. These are Green, Violet, and Orange(although, depending on what you are using for your Primary Colors, your last Secondary might be Red!)
  • Tertiary Colors are what you get when you mix a Primary and Secondary Color. You'll often see them written as combinations of two hues, such as Blue-Violet or Red-Orange.

You can use these colors in any combination, and there are helpful formulas to make choosing colors easier. We'll get into those in the next section.

In this example by Robin Banks, two Primary Colors are used at different values and intensities.

But knowing the types of colors (or hues) is only the tip of the iceberg. You wouldn't want to use only colors at their most concentrated forever. That could be a real eyesore (literally!) So, it's helpful to understand a few more concepts before picking your palette.

  • Intensity is the purity of your color. It's also referred to as saturation. A high-intensity color will look the most like itself (think of a bright red stop sign, for example.) A low-intensity color will appear more subdued or greyed like an old comic book you'd find at a garage sale.
  • Value describes the lightness or darkness of a color. When a color has white added (or its digital equivalent), that is its tint; when it has black added, that is its tone.

It's important to remember that Value and Intensity are two different concepts. You can have a highly saturated color toned down with black and a tinted color that is not very intense.


An illustration of a woman making a peace sign in pinks and purples.
A digital illustration in green and red of a woman making a peace sign.
A digital illustration in green, purple, and orange of a woman giving a peace sign.

Examples of Analagous, Complementary, and Triadic color schemes.

Now that we have the basics covered, it's time to tackle which colors you want to use in your image. Color Schemes are one method that can take the guesswork out of picking colors. These patterns are meant to be used as a cheat sheet for choosing colors that look good together.

  • Complementary Colors are any two colors that sit opposite each other on a color wheel. In the middle example above, orange and teal are used.
  • Analogous Colors are three, or sometimes more, colors positioned right next to each other. We used red-violet, red, and red-orange in the first example above.
  • Triadic Colors include one main color and two supporting colors, an equal distance from its complement. In the last example, we used yellow-orange, yellow-green, and purple.

Using complementary colors is an easy way to plan your palette.

Some tried, and true color schemes are classic and instantly recognizable because of their association with specific topics. Primary colors are often used in designs meant for children. In contrast, red and green complements are typically used for Christmas.

Just because a particular color scheme has specific associations doesn't mean you are limited to only using them for those purposes. The chef's design above is an example of using a red and green complementary color scheme outside of its holiday ties. Using halftones, such as DupliTone, is a great way to vary the tone in your image without introducing new hues.

Understanding color schemes and how to make them will help you achieve a harmonious palette and exciting artwork.


DupliTone halftone brushes make it easy to add authentic halftones and shading that look like they came straight off a 1950s printing press.


Using visual hierarchy in aranging your colors lets a very limited palette look exciting and fresh.

The problem that beginner artists often encounter is not which colors to use but which colors not to use. Paring down your options into a limited palette can intimidate many artists. Colors are often the most eye-catching part of an image. It's easy to fall into the trap of using many colors to compensate for some of the artist's skill limitations.

Everyone loves color, but a restricted palette helps make your art harmonious when you make an image. Choose a main color to serve as your dominant hue. This utilizes a concept called visual hierarchy, meaning arranging parts of an image in terms of importance.

In the picture above, the main color is black, with red serving as an accent to highlight the characters. Because the image is well composed, it doesn't need the red at all, but its inclusion gives the illustration an exciting pop and solidifies where we should focus our attention.


Using blend modes such as Multiply can simulate real-world principles of color mixing to create new colors and expand your palette.

As we mentioned briefly in the previous point, the cowpoke artwork below was made using primarily yellow, but cyan and magenta are also included. The red, green, and brown colors were made using a combination of halftones and setting each layer to multiply. Even when working digitally, expanding your color options through simulated color mixing is possible.

Because we are working with a variation of primary colors, we have an almost endless number of possible combinations while maintaining cohesion and harmony. This mimics a technique called process printing which was used by printers back in the day to make a wide variety of colors out of just three or four because it would have been prohibitively expensive to do so otherwise.

A three color palette using halftones and blend modes opens up more color options.

Just because we are working with a limited palette does not mean we are limited in our options. We can make attractive designs with as little as two colors by utilizing the suggestions above. Products like ColorLab mimic the process printing technique meaning you can get hundreds of colors out of just a handful.


An illustration of a king split down the middle to show it in low and high contrast.

Although they're using the same colors, the version on the right has much more contrast.

Another common mistake beginner artists make is choosing all very saturated colors or picking colors with the same tone. This leads to images that can strain the eyes or colors that all blend into one another. Varying intensity and value in color choices will keep the image cohesive while avoiding dull or ugly color combinations.

A fast and easy way to check if your values have enough contrast is to place a layer of pure black over your artwork and set its blend mode to Saturation. Removing all the hue from your artwork will let you see how your colors interact.

The image above uses all the same Hues, but the intensity and values of each have been adjusted to create greater visual contrast.


There is a whole world of color that often intimidates beginner artists. Even accomplished artists who have been in their field for years have yet to learn everything there is to know about this exciting topic of study. The good news is that you don't have to be an expert in color theory to be able to make fantastic art.

Understanding the basics of how colors work together and how to use them in an image is all you need to craft engaging designs. Using variations in saturation, value, and blend modes can make even a palette limited to two colors yield beautiful results.

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