NOTE: This article was updated and can be found here.

The four primary color harmonies

One of the basics of design is color harmony. This is how colors are combined in an image. Done correctly, the image will look good. Done incorrectly and the image will look amateur.

color harmony is determined using a color wheel. This is a wheel representing all colors in a circular fashion. As it is circular, each of the colors are next to their closest relatives—red is next to orange, green is next to aqua (blue-green) and so forth. Every designer should have a color wheel. You can get one hardcopy here. Otherwise, you can get the iPhone app Color Expert here.

The first thing to understanding color harmony is to understand what a “key color” is. This is the color in a scene or piece of art which cannot change (as in an outdoor scene where there may be predominantly green grass). It is either the biggest amount of color in the scene (a blue sky, for example) or what you are trying to concentrate your public’s attention on in the picture (an animal in the forest).

Using a color wheel, the key color determines the rest of the colors in your color harmony.

There are four primary types of color harmony: direct, split, triad and related. These can be seen above—and any of these can be used for an image.

Let’s take a closer look at each one.


Also called Complementary harmony or Complement. This is the color directly opposite the key color on the color wheel. In the direct harmony one has the equal or lesser amount of color in the scene as the complementary.

Here are some examples of direct harmony:


Also called Analogous harmony. The immediate adjacent areas to the key color are the analogous colors. When you go two spaces away from the key color on a color wheel, you are stretching color harmony.

Here are some examples of related (analogous) harmony:

I mentioned above that if you two spaces on the color wheel (away from the key color) you are stretching color harmony. And in case there is any question, this is a bad thing. The image will start to look “wrong”. Here’s an example, where the sky should have been more purple. Because it isn’t, the whole image looks like it has too many different colors.


Also called Splits. These refer to the colors immediately adjacent to the complement of the key color.

Here are some examples of images that use split complementary:


Also called Triadics or Triads. This refers to the color two spaces to either side of the key color’s complement. Triadic color harmony is best used with touches of colors.

This is my personal favourite of the four color harmonies. These are much more restrained in their color usage and give a touch of contrast with spots of other colors.

Here are some examples of the Triadic color harmony:


There is no “right” or “wrong” color harmony to use in your design. As you use them, however, you will find that certain harmonies work better for certain applications. For example, Direct Harmony, is more commonly used for children’s products whereas high-end products usually use Triadic or Related as these are more sophisticated (using a smaller color palette).

Not using any of the color harmonies is the only fault you can make. While it may not be obvious, it is irritating to look at an image that isn’t harmonious. A good example is the poster above for X-Men, which just looks like the designer couldn’t decide on a color to use and so used too many.