Color theory is the collected understanding of the importance of color on a visual plane and its impact on the viewer. Color theory is particularly relevant to artists such as architects, photographers, painters, interior decorators, animators, print makers and graphic artists. Color theory is used to strengthen a design and maximize its potential.
There are three primary colors (red, yellow, blue) and three secondary colors (orange, green, and purple). The primary colors are the colors that cannot be made by mixing any other colors, and the secondary colors are made by mixing two primaries together. Red combined with yellow makes orange, yellow combined with blue makes green, and blue combined with red makes purple.
These six colors often appear together on a color wheel in this order: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple (then back to red). This places the warm colors (red, orange and yellow) on one side of the wheel, and the cool colors (green, blue and purple) on the other side of the color wheel. This also places the secondary colors in between the two colors that were used to create them. Colors found opposite each other on the color wheel are known as complimentary colors. Complimentary colors are known to be "opposites"--as different from each other as black is from white. Complimentary colors stand out against each other and are often used together for basic graphic designs.
Through the color theory system, different colors are known to achieve different effects. Different colors may draw the viewers in, lead the eye of the viewer around on the surface of the object or image, and create different emotional responses.
Color theory provides a framework for artists who are choosing color schemes for a new painting, photograph or color sketch. For interior decorators, who must choose a palette to show their clients, color theory is essential for choosing colors that will make sense in the surroundings and for the purposes of the client.
Color schemes that hold together well tend to be derived from the color wheel in a way that is logical and almost mathematical in nature. For example, a monochromatic color scheme is a color scheme based on one color only. Complimentary color schemes, on the other hand, are created from two colors that sit opposite one another on the color wheel (example: blue and orange). A triadic color scheme is created by choosing three colors of equal distance from one another on the color wheel.
Colors affect the emotions of the people who see them. In general, cool colors are colors of calm, sadness or peace, while warm colors are colors of passion, aggression and excitement. People are aware of this to some degree, and when they see an image that utilizes specific color schemes, they understand the meaning of those colors.
This gives the viewer the chance to interpret the meaning of the image as the artist intended it to be. For example, a blue and black painting of a somber looking child may signify to a viewer depression, introversion, isolation or sadness. That same somber looking child when painted in vivid pinks, oranges, reds and yellows may signify to the viewer an entirely different meaning. The portrayal of the child may become ironic or even humorous, depending on the artist's handling of the image.
Artists who understand color theory, who use it to their advantage, and who become comfortable with the notion that color is a tool just like any other, are likely to start developing their own color systems. They develop signature colors that they are attracted to, that they utilize often, and come to have personal meaning. Some artists even assign specific meanings to specific colors, as they would any other symbol. This helps the artist become more expressive and develop greater levels of meaning in his creations.
As a rule, any two-dimensional artist who arbitrarily chooses colors from a palette without giving thought to its meaning and its impact on the picture plane is likely to produce a weaker product than someone who studies color theory and uses it to his advantage. In some cases (for example, interior design), disregarding color theory can be disastrous.
Although it is possible to create technically impressive work without taking color theory into account, colors impact the viewers in ways they are and aren't aware of. Using color theory to enhance an image is likely to help, and not using color is likely to hurt. Therefore, studying color theory is a best practice for any artist.