The biggest problem in project design (and the area most prone to design mistakes) is color. So here’s a basic primer to help you choose the right combination of colors that you love for your next project.

The color wheel is an arrangement of all the colors in a circle showing their relationships. This is a simple one:

Color Wheel 1

(This color wheel comes from The Artist’s Toolkit, a site that gives the basics of design in a very clear, elementary way. Great for kids, but also great for a refresher course for adults.)

The primary colors (red/yellow/blue) are the most intense colors because they’re pure, they haven’t been mixed with anything else. They can be made lighter to cut the intensity: pink/pale yellow/pale blue. They can also be made darker which will also cut the intensity–maroon/navy/brown.

Secondary colors (orange/green/purple) are less intense because they’re mixtures of the two primary colors they’re in between (that is, orange is really red and yellow mixed together, and so on). Use a secondary color scheme if you want a clashing, jarring, edgy look.  Team colors are often complementary to invoke excitement and conflict.

Tertiary colors are made by mixing a primary with the secondary next to it, so they tend to be a lot more interesting which probably explains the weird names that get attached to them: yellow-green or chartreuse, blue violet or periwinkle, blue-green or turquoise, etc.

These colors can be mixed and matched in three classic color schemes:

Monochromatic: Different values of one color. That’s purple/light purple/dark purple.

Analgous: Two or three colors next to each other on the color wheel: red/orange/yellow or yellow/green/blue or purple/red/orange. Adding tertiaries makes the contrasts softer: blue/blue-green/green. Analagous color schemes tend to be soothing and stable because they relate so well to each other.

Complementary: The colors straight across from each other on the wheel (red/green, orange/blue, yellow/violet) are complementary which is not a good description because they actually fight with each other. If you stare a red square for awhile and then look away you see a green square floating in the air as the after image. Now imagine putting red and green together: the colors actually bounce off each other. This scheme is good for excitement, attention, contrast, bounce, anything that you want to jar the viewer. You can cut down on the jar considerably by making the colors lighter (peach/pale blue, pink/pale green, lavender/pale yellow) or darker (orangish brown/navy, maroon/hunter green, yellowish brown/dark purple) but the bounce is always going to be there.

And there are:

Neutrals: You can add black, white, or gray to any of the above color schemes because they’re neutrals, they have no color so they won’t affect the impact of the color on the eye. You do have to be careful with neutrals because most of them have some slight color to them; that is there are yellow-ish whites and pinkish whites and bluish whites, and they can have a serious impact on your color scheme.

Where people usually run off the rails on color is that there are a hundred variations for each of the colors on the classic color wheel. Not only can you mix hundreds of colors between them (orange-orange-red), but you can bring each of those hundreds of colors up and down in value by adding white or black, and you can dilute the saturation of the color by mixing with gray. So when you’re looking at yarn or fabric color, half the trick is figuring out where that weird-ass color belongs on the color wheel in relationship to the other colors you want to put with it.

Which is why some color wheels are more elaborate than others:

Color Wheel 2

This color wheel comes from Hypermedic, and the page does a great job of going into more detail on color schemes if you want to get technical.

The other thing to watch for on color schemes is mood. Making colors darker can make them richer or just gloomy, depending on the variations you choose. Making colors lighter can make them friendlier and lighter-in-feeling, or it can make them look washed out and wimpy.

The side of the color wheel that’s red-orange-yellow is considered warm, while the side that that’s green-blue-violet is considered cool, so that can have an effect, too, although a greyed-out red can be less warm than a throbbing purple.

The best advice for choosing color is to choose what makes you happy or fits whatever it is your doing/making, and then if somehow it’s not working out, come back here and analyze the colors you’ve chosen to see what doesn’t fit according to color theory. Putting one wrong color into a scheme can destroy the whole thing, so the color wheel analysis can be your best friend when it all goes south and looks wrong.

Cheating for Color Choice:
Find a patterned fabric or wallpaper or a painting or illustration that has colors you love in it, and match those.  There are blogs that do only that with marvelous color schemes for you to borrow, like Design Seeds.

In the end, there’s only one criteria for a great color scheme: you like it.