Unicorn Style – How Simple Color Theory Helps Design.

November 21, 2012 in Beginners, Lvl 0

The whole world, as we experience it visually, comes to us through the mystic realm of color. Our entire being is nourished by it. The mystic quality of color should likewise find expression in a work of art. – Hans Hofmann

Why Color?

If you’re into fashion, you know color is important.

If you’re into interior design, you know that color is important.

If you study paintings, you know that color is important.

If you’re not really into any of that stuff you’re saying to yourself,

“Color? So what?”

You’d be surprised how a little color knowledge could change the way you see the world around you.  Everything is in color and those colors have an effects on your mood, thoughts and actions.

Color is a very powerful force and lots have been said and written about it.

In this post, we’ll start at the beginning.  We’ll simplify it down to its most basic principles. The foundations of what you need to know about color.

You’ve been taught about basic design and the decisions you make when applying those principles to a drawing.  But all those principles apply to color as well.  Knowing the basics of colors will give you the foundations for choosing colors that will make your drawings sing.

The Color Wheel

Color theory is a theory for a reason. None of this is an absolute. There are many theories of color. The theory I’ll be writing about is the one most beginning artists learn at first.

It’s the basic theory that all the other theories tend to compare themselves with.

The color wheel is the standard way most artists use to understand color and it will become clear why as we go. So let’s begin:

Primary Colors

The theory of primary colors is that these three colors are the main colors that all other colors stem from.  The idea is that these three colors cannot be created using other colors. These are THE colors.

The Primary colors are: Red, Blue, and Yellow.



Secondary Colors

Mixing the three primary colors together get you the secondary colors.

Here are the mixing formulas and the secondary colors they create:

  • Red + Yellow = Orange
  • Yellow + Blue = Green
  • Blue + Red = Purple

Neutral Grey is in the middle of the wheel because if you mix all the colors (or all the primaries) together, you end up with neutral Grey.

Tertiary Colors

Tertiary colors are the offspring of the Primary and the Secondary colors.

They often have very generic names that give away what was mixed to get the color.  Here they are:

  • Red Orange
  • Yellow Orange
  • Yellow Green
  • Blue Green
  • Blue Purple
  • Red Purple

Not very original names, huh?

Color Divisions

Colors are often divided into two types: Cool Colors and Warm Colors.

Cool Colors

Cool colors are mostly dominated by the Primary color blue. The feel of these colors are often soothing and calm. These colors often tend to recede in space.

Warm Colors

Warm colors are often dominated by the TWO Primary colors Red and Yellow.  This causes them to have a higher range than cool colors.

Warm colors often have  a lot of energy and pop out more than cool colors.

Color Harmonies

Color harmonies are exactly what you think they are, colors that work harmoniously together. Knowing what they are, will give you short cuts to color combinations you would like to use.

The trick with color is NOT to use ALL the colors in one drawing. Instead, it’s best to limit the colors you use.  Limit colors to a small group that work well together and experiment from there.

Monochromatic Color Range

First, let’s talk about simply using ONE color.

Simply by tinting or darkening a single color you can get a great value of colors.  This is the ultimate harmonious color scheme.  All the colors in this group are guaranteed to look good together.

Just be aware that, as far as coloring something goes, it can be a tad dull.

Complimentary Colors

Complimentary colors are opposite each other on the color wheel.

For example:

  • Red and Green are complimentary.
  • Purple and Yellow are complimentary
  • Blue and Orange are complimentary


Complimentary colors are to each other what Black and White are to each other, opposites. They are called “complimentary” because, just as putting a white dot in a black background would make the white dot stand out, the equivalent can be done with complimentary colors.

So just to clarify: Complimentary colors are opposite colors to each other. They make each other stand out.

These colors are often used in moderation in a picture where you want the audiences’ eyes to go.

Analogous Colors

Analogous colors are colors that are next to each other on the color wheel. These colors are used when you want a larger range of colors but still want the unifying feel of the a monochromatic colors scheme.


Here’s a sample of a drawing I did a long time ago:

Notice how the whole picture is mostly Monochromatic, with a touch of Analogous colors in order to unify the picture.  But when it comes to the protagonist in the middle, he’s wearing a red shirt, which is complimentary to green, in order to draw the eye.


Color is tricky to wrap your  head around if you don’t use it. The best way to start getting a handle on it is to start coloring stuff.

So here’s what I think you ought to do: when you doodle or draw your characters as I’ve shared with you how to do, color them.


Try to color your characters monochromatic or by using analogous colors.

Color your characters using only primary colors or secondary colors. What are the results like?

Mess around, play around.  See what happens.

It’s the best way to learn.


Q: What’s the best tool to use to color with?

A: This is really up to what you feel most comfortable with or quite frankly, what you have around the house. But here is my suggestion, if you really need an answer:

Color Pencils.

They are easy to control. They don’t give you the brightest and best colors, but they get the job done and you can experiment with them all you want and feel comfortable doing it.

Pro Tip

Limiting your palette is the best way to go.  Don’t use every color you’ve got.  Think about design. Remember the whole: Harmonizing Balance and Contrast thing from Lesson 3?

What you want to do is, get a group of colors that work well together like monochromatic colors or analogous colors (Balance) and then pick a few places in the drawing to stick in some complimentary colors (Contrast). Doing this just right will result in a well designed color scheme.


I can’t help you if you don’t ask.

What’s your burning color questions?

Is there something you’ve always wanted to know about color? Ask.

I’ll give you my best answer and, who knows,  probably write a post about it.

Leave any comments and questions in the comments below.

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