Color Theory in Web and Print Design

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.

Although color theory principles first appeared in the writings of Leone Battista Alberti and the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, a tradition of “color theory” began in the 18th century, initially within a partisan controversy around Isaac Newton’s theory of color and the nature of primary colors. From there it developed as an independent artistic tradition with only superficial reference to colorimetry and vision science.


The foundations of pre-20th-century color theory were built around “pure” or ideal colors, characterized by sensory experiences rather than attributes of the physical world. This has led to a number of inaccuracies in traditional color theory principles that are not always remedied in modern formulations.

The most important problem has been a confusion between the behavior of light mixtures, called additive color, and the behavior of paint, ink, dye, or pigment mixtures, called subtractive color. This problem arises because the absorption of light by material substances follows different rules from the perception of light by the eye.

photo-1464820453369-31d2c0b651afA second problem has been the failure to describe the very important effects of strong luminance (lightness) contrasts in the appearance of colors reflected from a surface (such as paints or inks) as opposed to colors of light; “colors” such as browns or ochres cannot appear in mixtures of light. Thus, a strong lightness contrast between a mid-valued yellow paint and a surrounding bright white makes the yellow appear to be green or brown, while a strong brightness contrast between a rainbow and the surrounding sky makes the yellow in a rainbow appear to be a fainter yellow, or white.

A third problem has been the tendency to describe color effects holistically or categorically, for example as a contrast between “yellow” and “blue” conceived as generic colors, when most color effects are due to contrasts on three relative attributes that define all colors:

  • Hue
  • Lightness
  • Saturation

Thus, the visual impact of “yellow” vs. “blue” hues in visual design depends on the relative lightness and saturation of the hues.

These confusions are partly historical, and arose in scientific uncertainty about color perception that was not resolved until the late 19th century, when the artistic notions were already entrenched. However, they also arise from the attempt to describe the highly contextual and flexible behavior of color perception in terms of abstract color sensations that can be generated equivalently by any visual media.

Many historical “color theorists” have assumed that three “pure” primary colors can mix all possible colors, and that any failure of specific paints or inks to match this ideal performance is due to the impurity or imperfection of the colorants. In reality, only imaginary “primary colors” used in colorimetry can “mix” or quantify all visible colors; but to do this, these imaginary primaries are defined as lying outside the range of visible colors; i.e., they cannot be seen. Any three real “primary” colors of light, paint or ink can mix only a limited range of colors, called a gamut, which is always smaller (contains fewer colors than the full range of colors humans can perceive.[citation needed]