Basic Colour Theory

The desire of ordering colours is definitely something a lot of designers have. The first time this was demonstrated was in 1666. Sir Isaac Newton developed the colour wheel and since then many artists, designers, and even scientists have created or in some opinions developed several versions since. All claiming that one format is superior to another. As you can imagine this still continues to provoke debate around the word.

Depending on what the designer is doing, different methods will apply. When painting or printing, an artist has a vast range of paints to choose from, and mixed colours are achieved through the subtractive colour method. If you are a digital designer then, colours are achieved with the additive colour method.

A subtractive colour method consists of cyan, magenta yellow and black also known as CMYK. It is the traditional way of representing the colour chart. Painters and printers tend to use this as it based on the availability of pigments.

A Scientist would use the colours Red, green and blue also known as known RGB, as these colours are based on light also known as additive colour. Additive colour is the primary colour components that make up the white light. These colours are called additives because you must add the colours together to create the white.


The Visible spectrum contains billions of colours; a monitor can only display millions. A high quality printer is only capable of producing thousands.

Reproducing colours can be somewhat of a problem when it comes to printing digital media because the screen displays ‘true colour’ and millions of these colours are outside of the spectrum that is available to printers.  A good rule of thumb is anything dealing with the web should always be in RGB and printed material should be in CMYK.


Primary Colours

Red, yellow and blue are primary colours. In traditional colour theory paint and pigments use primary colours. So the primary colours are the three pigment colours, which cannot be formed by any combination of colour. In other words red, yellow and blue create all colours but cannot be created by other colours.

Secondary Colours

Green, orange and purple

You can create these colours by mixing the primary colours (Red, yellow, and blue)

Tertiary Colours

Yellow-orange, red-orange, red-purple, blue-purple, blue-green and yellow-green are tertiary. You create these colours by mixing the primary colours with the secondary colours. This explains why the hue has a two-word name – yellow-orange.

Whatever your opinion is on the colour wheel debate, there is only one conclusion I can make – it’s a very handy tool to use when it comes to creating the perfect website or email campaign.