I'm a little confused about color theory, I did some studying and research, I understand the concept of color harmony, analogous, complementary etc...should match, but then, some color schemes that don't meet the criteria look good, why is that?

The colors from image below for instance, the red and the blue seem to match but they are NOT analogous, and NOT complementary, they aren't triadic either...

Can anybody shed some light on this?enter image description here

  • 2
    Is this another gold/blue question? I see only black. – Lenne May 5 at 8:32
  • 4
    I guess the same reason why songs that don't follow music theory can sound good... – Andrew T. May 5 at 13:39
  • 6
    The red and the blue? It doesn't look especially harmonious to me. I don't think that's a pleasing color combination in any way. Thus proving how subjective this all is, I suppose. – Cody Gray May 6 at 2:37
  • @Lenne the button in the bottom right is black. The background is blue. Must be your screen or the lighting in your environment. – Preston May 6 at 21:36
T h i s   d o e s   n o t   c o m p u t e .

< h u m a n   m o d e   o n >

Color theory is not about numbers, it is not about angles. Nobody will be around measuring the color angle of the palette used to approve it or not.

It is about taste, about culture, about ambient, about feeling. It is a psychological interpretation, not a numerical one.

We are not machines.

If you are preparing your palette using one of those online tools that prepares automatic color schemes... stop doing it and start watching the design.

< / h u m a n   m o d e   o f f >
| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    And it's worth reading Goethe's views on the matter: brainpickings.org/2012/08/17/goethe-theory-of-colours – Michael Kay May 5 at 8:55
  • 1
    I think your view of the difference between humans and machines is going too far. Machines are built by humans and we've built them like us in many ways. We can say that colour theory and automated color schemes will never completely encompass or replace things like taste and culture, but that doesn't make it a useless tool. We're not machines, but machines are a lot like us. Numbers can tell us a lot about psychology. – Alan Dixon May 5 at 19:46
  • I am not saying it is a useless tool. I am saying that you should look your design, not just the numbers. – Rafael May 5 at 20:41
  • 2
    FWIW, I have a background in both STEM and humanities. And I think we probably agree that machines can be useful, but are dangerous when we stop remembering they are only tools. And I think we do best when we recognize their value for what they are. – Alan Dixon May 5 at 20:57
  • 1
    @AlanDixon. It's generally dangerous to blindly believe numbers, but in this case it's also a problem that we don't even have one single theory about choosing "nice colors". So which numbers? There are several different color wheels which yields different complimentary colors. The color wheels generally don't take into account that the hues are perceived differently by the human eye or that colors affect each other and so on. While you focus on some numbers you might be overtaken by someone who just chooses colors by intuition. – Wolff May 5 at 23:23

Look. Selecting colors based on a color wheel is an incredibly weak algorithm. For starters, we have not even agreed yet what the color wheel should look like. And obviously, you can not select a color with mathematical accuracy if you don't even agree with the underlying construct you use to select things.

See, the color wheel and color theory are Humanist constructs, not a scientific one (like hard sciences). This is why we have color theory and color science as separate subjects. Now, color science cannot help us here because there is no clear evidence that a color wheel makes sense as an interpretation other than: If you have 3 things to mix, yeah, it's someway cyclic in a plane. Which can have an interpretation of a wheel if you particularly want to have a nice simple shape*. If we would have 2, then it would be a line; if we would have 4, then it would be something more complex.

So the wheel is primarily a tool to help you think. Not so much of an exact tool.


Image 1: See, the color is close to 120 degrees, marked by lines. Wheel by color.adobe.com

Note: color.adobe.com uses some derivative of LCh color wheel. So, being harmonious according to theory just depends on the wheel used. Note it can be that the image is 120 degrees but has a blue filter on top of it... Since human senses are relative, that's fine that gets filtered away. Maybe the unconscious idea is to make the white warmer? Or perhaps authors monitor was calibrated clearly yellow. Who knows.

* If color science would try to build this, it would probably be a color blob. But they don't so... and the wheel is much nicer than blob.

| improve this answer | |
  • Yup, that wheel looks wrong to me. It doesn't even match the color wheel in Photoshop or Illustrator. The yellow looks shifted by 10 or 15 degrees to the left (in theory it should be the angle that bisects cyan and magenta and direct opposite of blue). Adobe have clearly modified the color.adobe.com wheel to match some theory of theirs either human perception or something else – slebetman May 7 at 5:34
  • @slebetman yes but the normal RGB wheel you all allways see is just polar transform of RGB. And the color wheel you saw in school when they talked about watercolors was also different. THe thing is the wheel in photoshop is definitey no more right in terms of theory than this one. The RGB colorwheel is not necceserily correct in terms of VISUAL oppsite, but signal opposite its true. LHc should e better but not perfect either. – joojaa May 7 at 6:31
  • The thing is, the LHC and RGB color wheels both look exactly the same with yellow being the opposite of blue and bisecting the angle of magenta and cyan. Only the color.adobe.com color wheel is weird and doesn't match the LHc/RGB/CMYK (let's call it computer color) wheel – slebetman May 7 at 9:48
  • @slebetman Depends on how you normalize the LHc. yellow is oppsite of blue.Its just that when you make a wheel you need to optimize for some color output system i the exact RGB opposite exactly oppiste of what humans sense? No yes we dont know it depends on what kind of device you have. But in addition to having the exact reverses a color wheel tries to capture a harmonious spread which is somewhat in contradiction with the numerical opposite. These requirements contradict themselves. so you need to balance beetween the two. – joojaa May 7 at 10:01

One thing to add to the other great answers:

Perfectly mathematical balance often seems lifeless to the eye. Whether you talk about color or shape, something gets more interesting when there is a slight unbalance, and how you dispose of it is often what makes the style of an artist. Mondrian for example couldn't stand the green color, it was a part of what made his personnality in art.

One example are in trees, they are never fully symmetric, and it adds to the beauty of them. In early 3D designs, the repetition of too much "perfect" trees that were all the same was really awful in making a forest.. introducing diversity by adding random whas a huge step forward.

A very simple example I've been taught in architecture is the balance between full and empty, for example with pillars. You should never perfectly balance the filling and the void, or else it doesn't "vibrate", it seems dull:

balance = lifeless:

enter image description here

slight unbalance = more interesting:

enter image description here

enter image description here

All these tools for colors are the same than with shapes, they are just tools, but there should be more about what you do, an intention, your taste, and it often traduce into unbalancing things towards what you prefer.

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    nice top bar adding the life back – Joshua May 6 at 18:32

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.