When it comes to color rules, there are no rules. It’s true that some color combinations are more difficult to work with than others, and some look so great together that they seem to be made for each other. But if you develop a sensitivity to the properties of colors, you’ll find that your options are limitless.
The twelve primary, secondary, and tertiary hues of the color wheel form the backbone of any combination; other colors are created by adding uneven proportions of pigment, or by mixing in black and white. Green, blue, and purple are known as cool colors, and red, orange, and yellow are warm colors.
For a tried and true color palette, you can always look to three simple combinations:
Use the same basic color, with different amounts of white or black in each hue.
Use a few colors that occupy the same portion of the color wheel, like blue-purple, purple, and red-purple.
Use two colors that are across from each other on the color wheel. Because you are using both warm and cool colors, there is more versatility in this type of combination.
Remember that color perception varies quite a bit depending on how muted or vibrant your colors are, the proportions of one color to the next, and the placement of your colors. For example, a square of orange placed against of field of red will read very differently when placed on a field of yellow.
Now that you’ve had a refresher on the building blocks of color theory, it’s time to get some inspiration for finding more diverse, unique, and meaningful color palettes.
1. The Grocery Store
Don’t just look at the food (although the produce section is a great resource); also look at the product packaging! Liquor labels and higher-end products are especially full of inspiration.
2. The Great Outdoors
Nature could be called the world’s first designer, so it’s fitting that her color combinations are always worth imitating. Take photographs to capture each moment of color. Then open up Photoshop, select five or six of the hues you see in a photo, and rearrange them into a swatch. You’ll be amazed by the endless variations you can find.
3. The Internet
To stay on the cutting edge of color trends, it’s usually best to turn to the web. Color inspiration can be found in so many different places. You’ll also find interactive color-choosing tools, or even trend reports on the next big color craze.
4. Posters and Magazines
The colors in ads are carefully chosen for their emotional content; use the results of other designers to enhance your own work! A flashy combination of red and yellows that you liked in action movie poster might be just the thing to reapply to the glitzy sports car illustration you’re working on.
5. Paint Chips
If you’re a fan of the hands-on approach, grab an armful of paint chips. This is an especially good idea if you find it easier to consider pure color combinations, without any of the distractions of proportion, shape, and other design elements.
Whatever method you use, the most important part of finding great color combinations is always being on the lookout. These resources are universally applicable, but if you keep an open mind and open eyes, you’ll be able to find inspiration anywhere you look.