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Color as an element of design is taught as an essential component of curriculum in art schools. All this information may not be relevant for photographers but still this knowledge is essential especially to appreciate and abstract composition or images where colors are major component of composition and content is secondary. Similarly when organizing studio, such an aesthetic sense comes in handy.

Color Hierarchy: Colors have a hierarchy—primary, secondary and tertiary.

Basic colors (RGB) are Red, Green and Blue. Secondary colors, Yellow, Cyan and Magenta are formed by combing equivalent amounts of the primary colors as shown in above diagram where primary colors overlap. Tertiary colors are formed by combination of a primary and adjacent secondary colors. Name of tertiary colors are are some times designated as hyphenated expression of primary-secondary colors like, yellow-green, cyan-blue etc,.

The only exception is the red-yellow combination named after a popular citrus fruit – orange. The other combinations do not have names that everyone would associate with a given hue. For instance, when we say purple, some people imagine a blue-violet while others imagine a lavender color. has used the terms, orange, charteuse green, spring green, azure, violet and rose for tertiary color (in clockwise direction)

In the image below, primary colors are 120 degree apart starting from zero, secondary colors lie 120 degree apart, starting from 60 degree and tertiary colors reside 30 degree to each side of primary or secondary colors.

Color Harmonies:  The concept of color harmony is relative to your target color, e.g. if you have selected red as your target color in a picture, you have to select which colors would harmonize with red color.

There are seven basic types of color harmonies.

1. Mononchrome

2. Warm–Cool

3. Diads

3. Analogues

4. Compliments

5. Triads

6. Split compliments

7. Tetrads

Monochrome Color Harmony:- (mono-one) Monochrome color scheme is the one in which only one color is used in its different shades, tints and values, simplest example is of Black & White, Sepia and Cyanotropes.They are easy to manage, look balanced and visually appealing but lack color contrast and not as vibrant as other schemes.

Warm-Cool Colors: are colors which mind associates with temperature. Warm colors are vivid, energetic and perceived as advancing in space. Cool colors give an impression of calm and have a sooting effect. They are perceived to recede in space. Black, white and gray are considered neutral colors.

In the following images, artists, has tried to harmonize warm with cool colors to create visual balance.

Dyad Colors:- Non-adjacent proximity of two colors.  It may be a primary-secondary color scheme or two two tertiary colors. This is explained below

In the image below, a dyad color scheme was employed. Can you identify the scheme?


Analogues:- It consists of a three color scheme. One is the target or dominant color, and two more colors which lies adjacent to target color on a color wheel. In the following image, central color was the target color while two adjacent colors were added to enrich the color scheme. They are not as rich as complimentary colors and may be boring, however when used in right circumstances, they may used to produce soothing color schemes.

In the images below, analogous color scheme has been presented. In the first image, red was the main color with orange and pink as analogous colors. In the second scheme, blue is the main color with adjacent cyan and violet as analogous colors. Addition of medium grey will compliment any color or color scheme as it is the combination of all three primary colors.

In the following image, try to find the analogous color scheme.

Complimentary Colors:- are colors that exist on opposite of color wheel. One is always warm and the other is cool. Complimentary color compositions are the second least complicated of color harmonies.

I have selected a painting of von Gaph in which he used complimentary colors in his composition of ‘Cafe Terrace’

I am including one of my own picture which was taken as an exercise in colors, using complimentary colors in composition.

Triad colors: This color scheme consists of three colors, all equally spaced. The scheme includes either all three primary colors, all secondary colors or all three tertiary colors due to equal spacing between them as shown below

A triad of primary and then secondary colors below, gray as neutral colors

An abstract painting by Elsworth Kelly in 1963

And finally a painting, ‘water lilies’ by Monet

Split compliment: Split harmony is the one in which a target color is selected and then two more colors opposite to the target color are selected. In the figure below target color is green. Its complimentary color would be red, in split harmony, pink and orange colors would be selected as they are analogous to red.

Examples of split components are as follows

This color scheme like complimentary colors has strong visual impact but with less tension as it is less bold. Regardless of the target colors , split colors would always be tertiary colors.

The following picture from Llyod Barnes on flicker is an example of using split color schemes in image

A picture of interior decoration using split color scheme.

Double split compliment: (Tetradic, Rectangular or Quadratic harmonies). The scheme consists of four colors, consisting of two sets of complimentary colors. Some authorities divide them in to subgroups, square and rectangular schemes.

Square: The impact of this color scheme is that it double the impact of colors contrast of complimentary scheme. It requires a lot of judgment on color placement in composition. This is the sort of thing which tests the ability of a  artist.

 Some of the examples of square double split composition are as follows.

Rectangular: It consists of two sets of complimentary colors, skipping one color between them. This scheme is softer than square double split.

Some of the examples are as follows

A painting done in this scheme(don't know the name of painter)

Ranking color schemes for impact

No color scheme that is better than others. It depends upon what visual message you want to convey. .Do you want to create calm and tranquility, or do you prefer energy and vitality to be expressed?

As shapes and lines transmit a sense of stillness, action, or energy, so do the colors you use. Based on the reaction you are trying to get from the viewer, you can select the colors to use with the help of the classic color schemes.

Feisner has an interesting summary of how all the different colour schemes rank in terms of impact – by reason of the fact that some have more contrast than others. Her designated order of contrast is:

  • complementary colors
  • triad
  • split complementary
  • double complementary
  • analogous
  • monochromatic.



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Replies to This Discussion

Thanks Aamir

Wow!  What a wealth of information!  I will be back to complete this reading and to experience the vibrancy

of the colors.  Have a nice day. 

Thanks John and Diamond for appreciation. The knowledge about color selection is as important for a photographer as it is for a painter. In this regard, I am especially impressed by  David Chauvin. I am presenting few of his picture as a visual delight.


Here are a few from the Island of Sardenia, the town of Alghero.  Lots of color there.

Wonderful images, As far as I can see, first images was in contrast (to be discussed in next part) next, two are in monochromes and the last one is a combination of warm-cool.

Thanks Alex.

Thanks Aamir, I've learned alot about color combos and schemes I didn't know!

Thanks Keen, It is really encouraging to be appreciated by persons like Alex and you. Next time I shall start on some color contrast.

A very useful link has been provided to me by Ahmad Shazad from

It is interesting way to understand and remember color hierarchies. It is just like a game. Please do look at it 


Ending Soon!

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