Exploring the Spectrum: Designing With Color

The world would be a dull and boring place without color. Using colors strategically is one of the most important aspects of art and design. Graphic designers, artists, and web developers are all required to have a keen eye for which colors blend well to create the best impression. Color theory can help you understand the basics of designing with color.

Spectral Colors

Spectral colors represent a single wavelength of light or a narrow band of wavelengths. Traditionaly the named colors of the spectrum are red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet. The continuous spectrum however includes various shades of each color as well. It however does not include purple colors, or grayscale colors like white and black.

  • Spectral Colors – This website provides a brief introduction to spectral colors. It speaks from an educational perspective.
  • Spectroscopy – This website briefly explains the purpose and meaning of spectral colors.

Color Perception

Color perception defines the way that the human eye views various colors throughout the visual spectrum. Scientifically speaking, this is possible because the human retina contains several small cones which are sensitive to various colors. Artists use their knowledge of color perception to create works of art that are visually pleasing to the human eye. For humans there are a few hundred hues which can be distinguished, and these hues can be mixed and diluted making for a large variety of chromaticies viewable by the eye.

  • Color Perception – This article talks about color perception from a scientific perspective.
  • Color Perception Tutorial – This is an art tutorial that teaches aspiring artists how to work with color perception.


Essentially, pigments are molecules that change color based upon variations in wavelengths of light. Some colors, such as indigo, can be used as a dye or as a pigment. Pigments are used in paintings for visual enhancement. In history mostly natural elements were used as pigments including insects, mollusks and botanical materials. Synthetic pigments were developed to provide a wider range of colors.

  • Pigments in Paintings – This is a highly visual, educational tutorial that shows artists how pigments are used in paintings.
  • Creating Pigments – This webpage describes the concept of pigments in painting and how they are made.

Color Contrast

Simply put, color contrast describes the way in which colors blend with one another. The farther apart on the color wheel that two colors are, the more that they will contrast. Artwork created in black and white is a classic contrast. Other color contrasts include pink and blue, green and purple, and red and yellow.

Complementary Colors

Complementary colors, similar to contrast colors, are a necessary component of color theory. To fully understand the role of complementary colors, one must first understand how colors contrast. Basically, the colors that appear opposite of each other in the color wheel are complimentary. This means that the complementary color of yellow would be purple.

  • Complementary Colors – This educational article identifies complementary colors and explains how they are used in art and in everyday life.
  • Color Harmonies – This article briefly explains color harmonies such as complementary colors and analogues.

Hue, Shade, and Tint

Hues, shades, and tints are another important aspect of color theory. These are also sometimes referred to as color properties. Hues are essentially full colors while tints can be compared to pastels as they are often lighter. Shades are colors mixed with black.

  • Hue, shade, and tint – This article explains the differences between hues, shades, and tints. The article includes helpful, pictorial examples.
  • Color Properties – This webpage briefly explains each color property and includes pictorial examples.

Brightness, Lightness and Luminosity

Brightness and luminosity basically describe the brightness of a particular color. These terms are frequently seen in graphic and web design as programs such as Photoshop allow users to edit brightness and luminosity with ease. These terms can also be used to describe the opacity of a particular color. The following articles contain more information on the ways in which brightness and luminosity are used in design.

Neutral, Primary, and Secondary Colors

Neutrals include colors such as beige, gray, and peach. These colors are often considered desirable when designing a home because they do not conflict with other colors and are relatively calming. Primary colors include red, yellow, and blue. Secondary colors are created by using a combination of these three colors.

Choosing Color Schemes

Whether you are designing a house or a website, choosing an appropriate color scheme can be crucial to your success. Color schemes usually consist of two or more colors. Common color schemes include black and white, gray and white, and blue and pink. The following articles can help you choose the right color scheme no matter what you’re designing.