color schemes defined

Color Schemes

Learning the basic color schemes are a good way to get started in designing any project that requires the use of color.

Whether you are a graphic designer, painter or interior decorator we are always faced with that often difficult choice of which colors to use. Picking a set of colors that go together is something you probably faced this morning when you got dressed!

With so many colors to choose from wouldn’t it be nice to have some kind of framework to help you choose which colors to go together? That’s where knowing color schemes can be a really good starting point.

The following are 8 of the classic color schemes that you’ll encounter most often.


The warm color scheme consists of hues red through yellow one the color wheel. In the image above you can see that all hues are grayed out – except those that lie between and include red and yellow.

Warm Color Scheme
Warm Color Scheme

In effect if you design a room using the hues: red, orange, and yellow or any combination of the hues in between you have designed that room according to a warm color scheme!

Check out the following landscape photograph of a sunset. An analysis of the colors reveals that this photograph conforms to a warm color scheme.

This Sunset Contains a Warm Color Scheme


In direct contrast to the warm color scheme a cool color scheme can be found on the other side of the color wheel (hue circle). A cool color scheme is any color combination that limits the hues to the range green through purple.

Cool Color Scheme
Cool Color Scheme


An analogous color scheme consists of related hues only. A good rule of thumb when picking analogous colors is to use 1/3 or less of adjacent hues.

In all of the examples so far we have been examining a hue circle (color wheel) made up of 12 hues. 1/3 of 12 = 4. So for our hue circle here just pick the range occupied by 4 hues next to each other around the hue circle’s circumference Check out the analogous color scheme in the image below!

Analogous Color Scheme (purple through red-orange)

Remember the rule for analogous colors was 1/3 of the circle? Check this other example of an analogous color scheme below. Notice how I have reduce the hue range slightly? It’s not the full 1/3 of the wheel, but it’s still analogous!

Analogous Color Scheme (reduced range: blue-green through blue-purple)


A monochromatic color scheme is a color scheme limited to a single hue. If you create artwork only from a single hue you have utilized a monochromatic color scheme.

Monochromatic Color Scheme
Monochromatic Color Scheme

Just for good measure I’ll show you one more example…

Monochromatic (blue) color scheme
Monochromatic Color Scheme (blue)


A complementary color scheme consists of two hues that are exactly opposite each other on the color wheel (hue circle). To find complements, simply pick a hue, then draw a line right through the center of the hue circle to find its complementary color.

Complementary Color Scheme (red | green)

Here’s another example utilizing only intermediate (tertiary) hues.

Complementary Color Scheme (red-purple | yellow-green)
Complementary Color Scheme (red-purple | yellow-green)

It’s worth noting that complementary colors when used near each other create color contrast.

Color contrast is when one hue makes the other hue stand out. Color contrast is the term that most artists and designer use to describe this phenomenon but if you really think about it a better term would be hue contrast. This is similar to value contrast in which light-values contrast with dark-values and vice versa only the effect is with a color’s hue, not value.

We can also talk about saturation contrast but I don’t want anyone’s head to explode just yet!


A split complementary color scheme consists of 3 hues in total and is limited to a hue and two (near-complement) hues adjacent to its complement. This arrangement of colors is difficult to describe in words alone but easy to see when looking at the hue circle.

Split-Complementary Color Scheme
Split-Complementary Color Scheme

If you want to have color contrasting effects much like a complementary scheme but would like more hue options split-complements is a good choice. Many athletic teams and logo utilize split-complementary color schemes in their branding designs.

Here’s another example:

Split-Complementary Color Scheme (yellow-orange | purple | blue)
Split-Complementary Color Scheme (yellow-orange | purple | blue)

Here’s a beautiful real-world example of using split-complements:

Split-Complementary: Sunflowers & Status
Color Analysis: Split-Complementary “Sunflowers & Status”

In the photograph above I have extracted the dominant colors from the flower arrangement. From there I saturated each color to better understand what hue I was seeing. This wasn’t really needed with the purple and the yellow-orange but was helpful with the yellow-green which was very dark and of very low-saturation.

This is a lot of fun to do… start looking for color schemes in the wild!


A triadic color scheme consists of three equidistant hues on the color wheel. If you want to pick three hues that contrast each other equally your solution is color triads. Note in the example below how if we connect each of the triadic colors with a straight line they form an equilateral triangle.

Triadic Color Scheme
Triadic Color Scheme

And of course it’s the positioning around the hue circle that makes each of these color schemes different from each other. If we turn our triadic formation a few degrees we can easily come up with another triadic color scheme:

Triadic Color Scheme (red-orange | yellow-green | blue-purple )
Triadic Color Scheme (red-orange | yellow-green | blue-purple )

Notice how we have 3 completely different hues this time, but the formation (equidistant hues) is the same.

Achromatic (neutral)

When you utilize only colors in which no hue is identifiable you have yourself an achromatic color scheme. This is also known as a neutral color scheme.

Just like asymmetry refers to without-symmetry ( the “a” signals the “without” ) achromatic refers to without-chroma! If we have no chroma (saturation) we have no identifiable hue and value only.

Achromatic Color Scheme
Achromatic Color Scheme

Just to keep the graphics consistent I’ve shown a color wheel in grayscale only, but of course you can pick your achromatic colors from a value scale as well!

grayscale 11-step
11 Step Gray Scale

In the real world especially when designing spaces with fabrics and appliances (interior design comes to mind) you would have a difficult time finding all pure neutrals. But, I think all designers will agree that anytime you are using colors that have incredibly low-levels of saturation – to the degree that the actual hue is unidentifiable you are designing within an achromatic color scheme.

Sports Team Color Schemes

Let’s analyze some of the popular sports logos to figure out what color schemes they fall into. Here are some popular baseball, basketball, and football logos and an analysis of the dominant colors associated with each team logo.

Mets: Complementary Colors

Dolphins: Complementary Colors

NY Nicks: Complementary Colors

Vikings: Complementary Colors

Hornets: Split-Complementary Color Scheme

Orlando Magic: Monochromatic Color Scheme

Sonics: Analogous Color Scheme

Steelers: Triadic Color Scheme

Now, what other sports teams can you find that fall into one of the 8 color schemes defined here?

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