What is color theory? A simple explanation

Color theory can set the tone and mood for the viewer using color manipulation in pre-production, shooting and post. But what exactly is color theory?

Color theory is an explainable phenomenon that came about during the Renaissance period with painters. While basic color attributes were assigned, it would be several centuries before Albert H. Munsell would create a three dimensional color system that focused on hue, lightness and chroma. This system, developed in the early 1900’s, would go on to become highly precise and scientific. By looking at his work and how it has evolved, as well as its applications, you’ll easily be able to grasp the basic fundamentals of color theory.

It may be hard to imagine, but no two people see color exactly the same. This is because not all humans are built inherently the same. According to scientific study, 11 percent of the world’s population is partially color blind and 0.5 percent is near or completely color blind. Subtle differences in color are often hard for people to see. As a result, not all color combinations or even colors will be visually appealing to everyone.

In traditional color theory, the color system used by Munsell before the invention of color television and digital printing, the primary colors are red, yellow and blue (RYB). With the advent of colored television, engineers developed a new system using red, green, and blue (RGB). In printing, it is cyan, yellow, magenta and key (CYMK) where key, usually black, is technically not a color but a neutral. Artists and designers use Munsell’s RYB system widely. RGB has never adapted a formal system for color theory. However, below we” use several several RGB examples.

Basic Color Theory

In most color systems used today, there are three primary colors, three secondary colors and six tertiary colors. The idea behind the primary colors is you can mix these three colors to make all other colors. A great and fluid way to see this is by playing around with the RGB sliders in Adobe’s Photoshop.

Here’s a quick breakdown:

Traditional (Munsell) Color System, RGB Color System and CYMK Print Color Space
Traditional (Munsell) Color System, RGB Color System and CYMK Print Color Space

Traditional (Munsell) Color System

Primary Colors: red, yellow, blue
Secondary Colors: green, orange, purple
Tertiary Colors: yellow-orange, red-orange, red-purple, blue-purple, blue-green, yellow-green

RGB Color System

Primary Colors: red, green, blue
Secondary Colors: cyan, yellow, magenta
Tertiary Colors: red-yellow, green-yellow, green-cyan, blue-cyan, blue-magenta, red-magenta

CYMK Print Color Space

Primary Colors: cyan, yellow, magenta, black
Secondary Colors: red, green, blue
Tertiary Colors: red-yellow, green-yellow, green-cyan, blue-cyan, blue-magenta, red-magenta

It is worth noting that no one really uses the CYMK color space for design purposes. The printing process uses CMYK, while designers use Munsell’s traditional color theory.

Colors can be split into warm and cool colors. Cooler colors often retreat into the background and we usually interpret them as mellow or calm. Warm colors pop and tend to jump into the foreground and we often interpret them as loud or frantic. When used in lighting, they can amplify spacial relationships and bring attention to specific areas. When combined strategically with value, the lightness of a color, you can create an image that really pops.

Complementary Color

Complementary colors are sets of colors that, when combined, can be used to make a gray. White, black and gray are actually the lack of both hue and saturation. Hue is the color and saturation is the intensity of the color. Complementary colors are important because they are extremely visually appealing. You can identify which colors are complementary by drawing a straight line on a color wheel from one color across to another. Despite that, there are three pairs of colors in Munsell’s system that compliment each other the best: red-green, orange–blue, yellow–purple. In the RGB system, you have red–cyan, green–magenta and blue–yellow.

While complementary colors are the most visually appealing, there are other color options. Triadic colors are colors that are evenly spaced on the color wheel. They can be used as a pair like yellow-red or as a group like yellow-red-blue. These colors work well together. Analogous colors are three colors that lie next to each other on the color wheel. For instance yellow, orange and red are color combinations we often find visually appealing.

Use of Color Theory in Film

Before the advent of color film stock, filmmakers would tint the film to give a whole section a certain feel. Blue became synonymous with night. Even today night is often shot with deep blue fills giving shadows a dark blue hue instead of being black.


"Hugo" color theory example
“Hugo” uses blue hues to let the audience know that a scene is taking place at night. Here, the subtle shifts between shades of blue are offset by the rusty reddish-brown of the gears in the foreground.

Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo” is a good example of a modern film that uses blue for night. When DW Griffith made “Birth of a Nation,” he used a number of tints on the exposed film stock. This process was laborious and expensive and it would take the invention and improvements of color film stock before filmmakers would actively employ color theory to create more artistic work.

Rio Bravo

"Rio Bravo" color theory example
In “Rio Bravo,” John Wayne dresses in the primary colors red, yellow, and blue. The wardrobe choice draws our eye toward his character and away from the more monochromatic background.

If you look at John Wayne in the film “Rio Bravo,” you will notice he wears a blue shirt with a reddish-brown vest. His hat, a dusty yellow, compliments the other two colors in his ensemble. He is the only character in the film to wear all three primary colors. This makes him stand out more and give us, the viewer, a natural and subconscious gravitation toward him while he is on screen.


"Spiderman" color theory example
“Spiderman” pairs red and blue against the third part of the triad, yellow, emphasizing contrast and making our superhero standout against a potentially distracting background of skyscrapers and city streets.

To reference a more recent movie, you can look at Sam Raimi’s first “Spiderman” film. Spiderman’s red and blue suit stands out dramatically against the amber buildings and warm yellow highlights. Even the clouds in the sky have a yellow sheen. This makes our already-vibrant hero appear to be the only thing on the screen.


Another great example of color theory in both production design and cinematography is James Cameron’s “Titanic.” The sinking takes place on a blue cast night. The ships golden lights draws your eyes to it and makes it stand out from the background. Of course the real magic of “Titanic” is that it uses both color theory models (RYB and RGB) at once. The romantic sequences use blue and orange, whereas the boat and it’s sinking uses blue and yellow.

Look at most iconic image from “Titanic,” with Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio on the bow of the ship. Kate Winslet wears a dark blue dress with a white camisole. This turns orange with the lighting, making her stand out even further from the washed-out blue background of the water. Kate Winslet is lit with an orange-red light that gets more intense throughout the film as her character falls more in love. The orange light is no accident — it is complementary to blue-green, Winslet’s natural eye color.

Kubrick and Color

Stanley Kubrick began making films in the 1950s; his early films were in black and white since, at the time, color film stock was very expensive and only used on big budget films with big stars. His first technicolor feature “Sparticus” (1960) was extensively storyboarded and was even put through the same rigorous color tests that Walt Disney used for all his feature films since Kubrick was obsessive about color. Due to struggles with actor Kirk Douglas, Kubrick refused to work with star actors which resulted in him not working in color for nearly eight years.

"2001: A Space Odyssey" color theory example
In this scene from “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Kubrick pits a deeply saturated red against a lighter aqua hue, showcasing Hal 9000’s overwhelming presence and authority within the spacecraft at this moment.

Kubrick returned to color film stock for his masterpiece “2001: A Space Odyssey.” In the Hal 9000 computer room scene, Kubrick stages actor Keir Dulea (Dr. Dave Bowman) in an ominously red room. Kubrick lit the actor’s face with a blue-green light. This draws your eye naturally to his face. Kubrick’s groundbreaking film would heavily influence the use of color theory in the science fiction genre.

Kubrick believed the most powerful color was red and used red as a way to highlight characters and actions. When Kubrick went to shoot “Barry Lyndon,” he studied renaissance color theory and heavily incorporated it into his art direction; however, his best and most overlooked use of color is in “The Shining.” Two girls dressed in blue stand in a yellow hallway. A second later they are smeared with red blood. The subconscious use of color made the image so compelling we didn’t want to look away. As a result the image is stuck forever in our heads, the way Kubrick wanted it to be.

Color Theory in Graphics

Color theory, as it applies to graphics, can become much more tricky. While color in film is often required to be subtle, graphics are not necessarily that way. Green and red are used in almost every Christmas ad in the United States. Actually green and red are used so often together that motion graphics artists are taught to specifically avoid using these two colors in design. However, other complementary colors and very saturated colors are widely used. A fun and often interesting challenge is to find a popular brand that doesn’t use red, yellow, green or blue in a maximum hue. 

The Meanings of Colors

Colors have no definitive international meaning. Instead colors are inherently assigned meanings by cultures. In the United States, we often associate red with evil or villains. The historical basis for this is surprising.

Most all of America’s enemies utilized red in their uniforms or flags. Examples of that include: British Red Coats, Germans WW1 (flag: red field with black iron cross), the Nazi’s (flag: swastika on a red field), the Japanese WW2 (flag: white field with red rising sun). Even in politics the influence is seen referring to communism in the U.S. as “The Red Scare.” It’s no surprise then that villains in American cinema often wear red. Dracula is often portrayed as wearing a black cape with red lining or a deep red suit. Darth Vader wields a red light saber. Hal 9000 watched you through a black circle with a red lens. In most eastern countries like China, red has a very different meaning. It is important when picking colors to keep in mind the culture or background of your intended audience.

Colors can also be given meaning. In the “Matrix Trilogy,”  lighting with two different colors helps illustrate the differences between the two worlds: green for the Matrix (the computer created world) and blue for the real world. Since green is not a natural color for light, it amplifies the un-naturalness of the Matrix subconsciously. With the use of the green computer-style graphics, the green tint becomes synonymous with the Matrix.

Applying Color Theory to Everyday Video and Photography

Often when shooting digitally, you don’t have the budget of a big Hollywood production. Trading dollars for control can still work in your favor as it allows you more artistic freedom. Think of each production as an opportunity to apply your color theory skills. In pre-production you can choose wardrobe and backgrounds that compliment each other. You can stage people in front of a background that compliments their skin tone or what they are wearing. In post you can alter the saturation of certain colors to amplify the complementary relationships of colors. You can use color theory in your motion graphics to create eye-catching visuals. By formulating a cohesive use of color on your projects, you can add meaning and so much more to your productions.

Wéland Bourne is an award-winning filmmaker as well as a VFX and motion graphic artist.

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.

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