How to Not Suck at Color – 5 color theory tips every designer should know

How do great artists and designers pick colors for their work? How do you pair colors together? Why do my colors look so bad? In this video, creative director and illustrator Greg Gunn will share 5 important color theory tips that you can apply to your graphic design and digital art.

Learn how to pair colors using color harmonies. Make sure your color palettes are accessible and have enough visual contrast. And brush up on the do’s and don’ts of color theory.

— Video Chapters —
0:00 – Overview
0:45 – What are color harmonies?
1:51 – How to use neutral colors
2:33 – Why using less color is better
3:30 – How to check your color contrast
4:00 – Color contrast and accessible design
4:42 – How many colors should you use?
5:39 – What is the 60-30-10 color rule?
6:01 – How to make your own color rules
6:44 – Finding balance in your colors
7:23 – Where to learn color theory (Color For Creatives)

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This Post Has 50 Comments

  1. You've revived my belief in tutorials on YouTube. There's so much noise out there, and your tutorial is pure signal. Thanks for taking it easy, for the production quality, the music, and your relaxing demeanor.

  2. My colour tips – We love swatching new paint sets (traditional medium like gouache, oil etc.). This is how I swatch mine – 5 columns and rows of all the colours. Start by painting the middle box straight from the tube, add a touch of white for the first box to the right. Then another touch of white for the next one. Repeat the same with black for boxes to the left, then switch to the next colour in the next row. While painting, you can take notes on the paint properties like pigment contents, transparency, coverage etc. At the end, you'll get this beautiful swatch where you can refer from the darkest to the lightest values for each of the paints.

  3. I casually do some pixel art, two things I've learned that always help me when creating palettes:

    1: keep the saturation values somewhat consistent across the palette. This way you can mix even very contrasting colors and they still feel "in the same family".
    2: avoid using pure black, instead pick a color and take away almost all values so it looks black compared to the rest of the art, but there's still enough color to keep the theme going. For an example, If you're working on a warm setting, make your "black" slightly red to keep the warm theme. This is especially useful when doing character/object outlines!

  4. I have a tip from personal experience, for anyone coming from a technical, mathematical or programming background (or similar): eyeball it more often.

    When I first started working on a color palette for a small game I was working on, I tried to perfectly balance the hues, make each bright/dark set have exactly the same contrast, the colors perfectly spread out among the color wheel, etc. This resulted in a palette that had great contrast, lots of variety while still looking consistent, very pleasing mathematical relations between all the numbers involved… but looked like garbage when actually used. I tried experimenting with different ratios, different (perceptual) color spaces, looking up all sorts of scientific backgrounds on light and perception, and it all helped, but not nearly enough.

    Then I realized what I was doing. I was trying to find a formula that would give me results that looked good. Whenever something looked off, I would try to adjust the formula to give me better results. What I should have been doing, is adjusting the colors directly. If my tints are too close together and my shades too far apart, I should not look into adding gamma correction into my calculations, I should just move the lightness (and probably saturation) sliders around a bit. And do use the visual tools, not just direct numerical input. Otherwise, it'll be too tempting to be too precise.

    TL;DR: forget the numbers and focus on what feels right when you look at the result.

  5. I have actual factual 0 experience with color, or whatever this fascinating kind work is called, and this video has truly inspired me to learn some of the fundamentals of color and apply them to my own life, however I can. I couldn't thank you more for making this, and helping me know what is out there that I don't know.

  6. This is a terrific video. Every other video with this same title just go through the colour wheel again, but every time I use just the colour wheel and its various relationships, my colours still dont look right. I may not even be picking the right colour relationship for the peice in the first place. Balance and contrast are what I'm actually missing, and I had never heard of the 60-30-10 rule before but I'll give it a go

    Also the music and cooking metaphors were super helpful, and I've never heard them before. Thanks for those

  7. For those who never heard and for those who wanna share it.

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  8. One thing I love about digital art is that I can focus on black & white first, then when the values look amazing I add color on top with blend modes.
    Didn't know about the color harmony on Procreate but I'll have to give it a shot now.

  9. On my art journey, I took a trip into the study of floral arguing and learned that, surprisingly enough, green is an excellent neutral.
    You won't think of it initially from just an art perspective; it's tough to make any flower arranging without green in it.
    So most plant greens are good natural to use in arts too.

  10. Ho-lee hell, I never realized the relationship between music and color! I've made music as a hobby for years, and lately, I've finally started to learn how to create good mixes. When you were talking about checking your work in grayscale, it immediately reminded me of checking your mix in mono. If you can hear the elements of your music separately and clearly in mono, you'll have a solid stereo mix. Just like if you can see your colors separately and clearly in grayscale, you'll have solid contrast in color. In other words, if it works in mono, it'll work in stereo. Then you dove straight in with even more musical parallels, and…I just love this stuff haha. Also, great editing!

  11. idk if its helpful but this is what i do to most of my base colors 😛

    – make it a slightly warmer hue (red gets more orange, blue gets more turqoise, green gets more spring green, etc)
    – make it a small bit lighter
    – make it a tiny bit more greyish (i do this less or not atall with yellow and orange tones)

    i do this with whites and blacks too. It tends to look nice

  12. My fav tip (and you can do this in Procreate, PS, AI, etc) to check contrast, put a layer overtop of all of your work and fill it with black. Then change the blending mode to saturation or color. Boom, everything underneath is now grayscale, and you can check your contrast (and easily toggle that top layer off or on to check as you work). You can also do this while changing colours while working, like if you're not sure if a colour is going to have enough contrast, chuck the black fill layer over top first, and then play with your hue/saturation etc sliders. You won't know exactly what colour you're getting until you turn that fill layer off again, but at least you know you'll be happy with the contrast, and can adjust the actual hue from there.

  13. I’m not a designer but I do nails and sometimes I find it hard to come up with designs on my own because the colors I choose never look as well together as I thought they would in my head. This really helped me out a lot thanks.

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