Another great article by Rikard Rodin of Zeven Design.
One of the basics of design is colour harmony. This is how colours are combined in an image. Done correctly, the image will look good. Done incorrectly and the image will look amateur.
Colour harmony is determined using a colour wheel. This is a wheel representing all colours in a circular fashion. As it is circular, each of the colours are next to their closest relatives—red is next to orange, green is next to aqua (blue-green) and so forth. Every designer should have a color wheel. You can get the iPhone app Color Expert here.
The first thing to understanding colour harmony is to understand what a “key colour” is. This is the colour in a scene or piece of art which cannot change (as in an outdoor scene where there may be predominantly green grass). It is either the biggest amount of colour in the scene (a blue sky, for example) or what you are trying to concentrate your public’s attention on in the picture (an animal in the forest).
Using a colour wheel, the key colour determines the rest of the colours in your color harmony.
There are four primary types of colour harmony: direct, split, triad and related. These can be seen above—and any of these can be used for an image.
Let’s take a closer look at each one.
Also called Complementary harmony or Complement. This is the colour directly opposite the key colour on the colour wheel. In the direct harmony one has the equal or lesser amount of colour in the scene as the complementary.
Here are some examples of direct harmony:
Also called Analogous harmony. The immediate adjacent areas to the key colour are the analogous colours. When you go two spaces away from the key colour on a colour wheel, you are stretching colour harmony.
Here are some examples of related (analogous) harmony:
I mentioned above that if you two spaces on the colour wheel (away from the key colour) you are stretching colour harmony. And in case there is any question, this is a bad thing. The image will start to look “wrong”. Here’s an example, where the sky should have been more purple. Because it isn’t, the whole image looks like it has too many different colours.
Also called Splits. These refer to the colours immediately adjacent to the complement of the key colour.
Here are some examples of images that use split complementary:
Also called Triadics or Triads. This refers to the colour two spaces to either side of the key colour’s complement. When using triadics, you are dealing with just spots of colour in a picture.
This is my personal favourite of the four colour harmonies. These are much more restrained in their colour usage and give a touch of contrast with spots of other colours.
Here are some examples of the Triadic Colour harmony:
There is no “right” or “wrong” colour harmony to use in your design. As you use them, however, you will find that certain harmonies work better for certain applications. For example, Direct Harmony, is more commonly used for children’s products whereas high-end products usually use Triadic or Related as these are more sophisticated (using a smaller colour palette).
Not using any of the colour harmonies is the only fault you can make. While it may not be obvious, it is irritating to look at an image that isn’t harmonious. A good example is the poster above for X-Men, which just looks like the designer couldn’t decide on a colour to use and so used too many.
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