Friday, July 18, 2008

Colour Schemes: Split Complementaries, Triads and Tetrads

The Pocket Colour Wheel
copyright The Colour Wheel Company

Colour schemes are not just for interior designers, they also help visual artists to achieve unity, harmony as well as contrast and impact in the design and composition of paintings. I've already highlighted the characteristics of complementary colours and analogous colours and in this post I'll be highlighting three other colour schemes which are often used by professional artists:
  • Split Complementary - a colour plus the two colours either side of its complementary colour (the isosceles triangle shape on the Color Wheel above
  • Triad - any three colours which are equidistant on the colour wheel
  • Tetrad - any four colours which are equidistant on the colour wheel
What makes a colour scheme pleasing?

Many words have been written about what makes different arrangements of colours pleasing to the eye. One conclusion is entirely subjective - that what is pleasing depends on an individual's particular perspective.
Colours whose effect is pleasing are harmonious
Wilhelm Ostwald
Others prefer to be more objective and suggest that anything which has an inherent order and regularity are likely to be or have the potential to be harmonious.
We can make the general statement that all complementary pairs, all triads, whose colours form equilateral or isosceles triangles in the twelve-member colour circle and all tetrads forming squares or rectangles are harmonious.
Johannes Itten, The Art of Colour (preview available on Google Books)
You can see what he's referring to in the shapes in the centre of the colour wheel at the top of this post

Colour shapes and
colour chords (lines joining colours)

The idea and the book - Johannes Itten
Colour wheel -
The Colour Wheel Company

Ordered arrangements of colours belonging to the colour wheel

Itten identified the name 'colour chords' for the lines which link the triangles and quadrilateral shapes within the colour wheel. I rather like Charles Le Clair's chapter title for his section on colour harmonies - Basic Color Harmonies - Striking the right Chord.

American Artist has an article by artist David C. Gallup: Making Color Sing who refers to 'his color chord theory'. He notes how working for another artist he had noticed the similarity of colour progression to chord progression in music and how harmonies remain when colours change just so long as there's shift in all the notes. He may be surprised to find out others had also discovered this before him. (Note: We all do it! I'm speaking as somebody who, as a child aged 10, proudly announced to my teacher that I'd noticed, after some exercises in class, that the area of the square on the hypotenuse of a triangle was double the area of the squares on the other two sides. He informed me that funnily enough Pythagoras had also noticed this - see Phytharorean Theorem!)

One of the benefits of defined colour schemes is that having determined to use one, you know which colours you will use and you know that colour is intended to be part of the overall design and you therefore know that you'd better sit down and do some preparatory work beforehand to work out how they might be used! Once you've dumped the concept of painting something a colour "because that's what it looks like" then you can play around with shape, placement and relative dominance and contrast of colours - very exciting!

For those unfamiliar with coloured pencils can I also recommend them as a cheaper way of working out designs for colour harmonies than expensive oil or watercolour paints!

In order to work out the colour samples for the different types of colour scheme I used a colour wheel - more about both of these at the end of this post. As with complementary colours and analogous colours, the book I can't recommend too highly to readers of this post is Color Choices: Making Color Sense Out of Color Theory by Stephen Quiller. He has chunky sections of this book devoted to split complementaries and triad colour schemes. This post merely skates across the top of the surface of the content he covers. I've also referenced a number of other books, all of which are listed at the end.

I find that working systematically through colour theory helps to make me understand some artists better. A lot of people don't 'get' Wolf Kahn so I thought I'd try and include some references to paintings by Wolf Kahn by way of examples - but unfortunately his website doesn't allow links to specific paintings. However I suggest if people are interested and would like to be interactive about this you pick a painting (and refer to it medium and title) and describe the colour scheme and we can all take a peek and check it out. These are
OK - on with the colour schemes.

Split Complementary

A Colour (top row) and its split complements (middle and bottom rows)
coloured pencils (see below for brand/colour

In principle, in the Split Complementary colour scheme a hue combines with the two hues either side of its complement. Another definition is that an analogous colour scheme combines with a complementary analogous scheme - based around the middle hue of the analogous colours.

The chart above is based on the first definition. Quiller favours the second definition. It can also include all the neutrals and semi-neutrals which can be mixed.

The impact is:
  • it combines the properties of working with opposites with those associated with a sequence around the edge of the wheel
  • the intensity of the level of contrast found in complementary schemes is reduced
  • the opposing hue now plays a more dominant role and provides explicit balance for the analogous hues and also adds the contrast which can be sometimes be lacking in analogous schemes.
The main challenge when using this scheme is deciding which of the colour is going to be dominant and which subordinate. Thinking about this always seems to trigger Greg Albert's one simple idea of "mostly, some and a bit' in my brain. (see Greg Albert - The Simple Secret to Better Painting).


A triad is the Pythagorean symbol for the number three. You may think you've never heard of a triad colour scheme before - but if you know just a little bit about colour chances are that you know about one.

For example, the following are all triad colour schemes:
  • red, blue and yellow - pigments
  • red, green and blue - light (RGB)
  • cyan, magenta, and yellow - ink (CMY)
coloured pencils (see below for brand/colour)

It's the most basic colour scheme - but it's not limited to these sets of colours. Triad colors are any set of three colors that are equidistant on the color wheel. I've done a chart of the triad schemes using a '12 colour' colour wheel

The particular colours involved in a triad scheme will always vary according to which type of colour wheel is involved - pigment, process or light.

Triads involve using colours which:
  • in their pure forms, intensify contrast rather than promote balance and harmony.
  • vary according to the type of colour wheel (pigment, process or light)
  • can be pure colour - but don't have to be. They can be secondary colours or semi-neutral/neutral colours which are nearer the centre of the colour wheel - ie the essence of the triad is that the three colours must remain equidistant on the wheel
  • do not have anything in common with one another
  • promote variety and versatility in the colour range used, and
  • always promote a dominance of either warm or cool colours.
The value of triads as with other schemes discussed so far comes in the potential for the developments of coloured greys and neutrals which then allow purer colours to shine out.


Square Triad (aka 'Double Complementary')
coloured pencils (see below for brand/colour)

A Tetrad represents the number four. There are two potential Tetrads of Colours on an a 12 colour wheel - the square and the rectangle.

I've got one version of the possible Tetrad on the right. This square tetrad is also called the Double Complementary Colours Scheme - as it pairs complements. I have to say I've noticed myself developing a double complementary colour scheme for aesthetic reasons on occasions when I haven't actually planned the colour scheme in advance.

The impact of this sort of scheme is that it:
  • doubles the intensity of the colour contrast found in a complementary scheme
  • requires a lot of judgement about best to balance the areas of colour - in terms of quantity and placement, to best effect. This is the sort of thing that a colourist artist excels at.
There's another version which can also be extracted where the tetrad is a rectangle. This version reminds me of seasonal colour ways - and apparently Itten generated the idea that certain colours are associated with specific seasons! So if you actually choose to paint paint for decorative effect you can actually boast it's all about colour theory really!

Ranking colour schemes for impact

Feisner has an interesting summary of how all the different colour schemes rank in terms of impact - by reason of the fact that some have more contrast than others. Her designated order of contrast is:
  • complementary colours
  • triad
  • split complementary
  • double complementary
  • analogous
  • monochromatic.
I think I'd personally have been inclined to rank the 'double complementary' tetrad higher - what do others think? There's something geometric about that progression as well in terms of number of colour chords and angle of colour chords which needs working out.........

Please feel free to comment on your own experience of using different colour schemes of the sort outlined in this post.

Technical Notes:

1. The Color Wheel Company - Color Wheels and more

I highly recommend the
Pocket Color Wheel produced by The Colour Wheel Company. I bought mine in Cass Arts in the Charing Cross Road. It has a Daler Rowney logo on it - but judging by Dick Blick's "Artist's Color Wheel" page, it would appear that's it produced in diffent languages and different sizes too.

The Colour Wheel Company produces all sorts of useful products including CMY Wheels for those working with inks and a colour wheel designed for Gardeners too and the GreyScale and Value finder - which I also have! You can also find world-wide retailers for their colour wheels.

2. Colours used in the sample colour schemes

As you'd expect, I've used coloured pencils for my sample colour schemes. It took a little bit of working out but these are the colours I used. Below I'm using the colour names from the colour wheel first and then the pencil brand and pencil colour name.
  • Red-Violet: Lyra Rembrandt - Wine Red (600-33)
  • Red: Derwent Colorusoft - Red (C120)
  • Red-Orange: Talens Van Gogh - Vermilion (311)
  • Orange: Caran d'Ache - Orange (666030)
  • Yellow-Orange: Faber Castell - Dark Cadmium Yellow (9201-108)
  • Yellow: Sanford Prismacolor Lightfast - Canary yellow (LF116)
  • Yellow-Green: Derwent Coloursoft - Lime Green (C460) /
  • Green: Faber Castell - Leaf Green (9210-112)
  • Blue-Green: Lyra Rembrandt - Viridian (600-61)
  • Blue: Faber Castell - Phtalo Blue (9201-110)
  • Blue-Violet: Faber Castel - Delft Blue (9201-141)
  • Violet: Caran d'Ache - Violet (6660-120)
Links: The Making A Mark Project on Colour - previous posts
Resources for Artists information sites created by makingamark


Jo Castillo said...

Ah, Katherine. I have been away for a few weeks and you have written a book! I will try to catch up. Thanks for the wonderful information.

We are in NM for the summer so will have time to read, ha.

Cath Sheard said...

I have always found colour theory pretty hard going, despite study. Your posts are making a lot of sense - thank you. I especially appreciate knowing what pencils, colour and brand, you have used; it makes the whole exercise seem more real to me.

Katherine Tyrrell said...

Thanks Jo - these are actually my notes - the book will be the revised version!

Cath - glad to hear you're finding the theory accessible as that's what I've been aiming at. I find many books take a very selective approach to covering colour theory so that people never realise how much there is to know. Yet at the same time I know how much I'm leaving out - which is why I keep recommending the books of people who have covered the topic in much more depth.

I sometimes think what I'm doing is producing a kind of road map as an introduction to colour! It also helps me to make sense of all that there is - it's incredibly confusing until you begin to understand there is a sort of underlying structure to it all - and that it's not all about art!

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