Basic Color Theory For Fashion Designers

MakersValley Blog | Basic Color Theory For Fashion Designers
Anna Spaugh

Anna Spaugh

Color theory is very important to any type of design you do. Color can bring your designs to life or bring them down which leaves you with unsold products. When designing fashion you will be working with color a lot, so it’s important to know which colors go well together, how to create those colors yourself, and the proper color terminology used to communicate with others in the fashion industry.

Fashion Color Theory – Differences on Primary Colors

Primary Colors

We’ll start with the basics of color theory and its related verbiage. The color wheel is a vital tool for fashion designers and is something that you will reference to a lot when picking and deciding the color palette for your designs. The color wheel, which is a wheel, or a circle, shows the spectrum of colors and their relationship to each other. The standard number of colors on the wheel are 12, though some use up to 24 hues.

Primary colors are something that you may or may not be familiar with. The traditional primary colors taught are Red, Yellow, and Blue. There is some disagreement and argument as to why red, blue, and yellow are actually not the primary colors. Some people favor CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black, also known as Key), or CMY, as the primary colors. You might have noticed that your printer test prints and uses CMYK ink cartridges. Others still argue for RGB – Red, Green, and Blue – as the primary trio.

The discussion and argument for which colors are the true primary colors is not a new one. You can read Aristotle's works about color and while there is not a definite answer as to which primary color set is correct, as a designer you should know that different perspectives exist on color, and understand what the terms mean. You might work with or for someone who prefers one primary set over another. RGB for example is a good primary when working with light, such as projections and websites/screens. CMYK is a good primary for tangible items such as prints/photos.

What Makes Up the Color Wheel?

Mixing Colors

In addition to the primary colors RYB (red, yellow, and blue), secondary and tertiary colors also appear on the color wheel. The secondary colors include violet (or purple), green, and orange; these are made by mixing the primary colors with each other. Mixing the primary and secondary colors together gets you blue-green, yellow-green, yellow-orange, red-orange, red-violet, and blue-violet – the tertiary colors. These 12 hues make up the color wheel.

Color VST – Value, Saturation and Temperature

Have you heard of cool and warm colors? If you split the color wheel in half, you have cool and warm colors. Greens, blues, and purples are the cools; yellows, reds, and oranges are the warms. Temperature is the term used, so if someone asks you what temperature a color is, you would respond with either cool or warm. Blue is the coolest color and orange is the warmest color in the circle.

Value is the light or darkness of a color. If you hear someone say that a color has a high value, they mean that the color has a light value and if someone says a color has a low value, they mean that the color has a dark value.

Saturation is how intense, or pure, a color is. A pure blue is a blue with no other colors added.

Color Tints, Shades, Tones, and Mutes

Designers can desaturate and make new colors using tints, shades, tones, and mutes. These can make a color softer, lighter, darker, duller, or muted.

  • Tints = color + white
  • Shades = color + black
  • Tones = color + gray
  • Mutes = color + its complement color

The undertone for the tints, shades, tones, and mutes can vary depending on the coolness or warmness of the white, black, gray, and complement color. If you are creating a warm orange, it will look better to use a warm undertone.

An Introduction to Color Schemes

There are six common color schemes:

  1. Complementary
    Complementary Colors on the Color Wheel | MakersValleyA complementary is a color’s opposite color on the color wheel. For example, green's complementary color is red.
  2. Split Complementary
    Split Complementary Colors on the Color Wheel | MakersValleyThis scheme takes a color and instead of using the complementary color, you use the colors next to it. We know that red is green’s complement, so a split complementary scheme would be green, red-orange, and red-violet.
  3. Triadic
    Triadic Colors on the Color Wheel | MakersValleyA triadic color scheme are three colors evenly spaced apart from each other on the wheel. Blue, red, and yellow are a triadic color scheme.
  4. Tetradic
    Tetradic Colors on the Color Wheel | MakersValleyAlso known as Square, this scheme uses four colors evenly spaced on the color wheel.
  5. Analogous 
    Analogous Colors on the Color Wheel | MakersValleyThis scheme includes colors, typically three but there can be more, that are like colors. Green, blue/green, and blue is an analogous color scheme.
  6. Monochromatic
    Monochromatic Colors on the Color Wheel | MakersValleyThis scheme is where one hue is used with variations of any number of tints, tones, shades, and mutes.

These schemes are helpful to know when you are choosing colors for your designs and communicating with others what you want.

By understanding a little about color theory, you will be able to critique your work better and know if or why something is off. The above information is a good color theory foundation for you to start with in your designs, especially if you’re working with a fashion illustrator software. One of the best ways to learn more about color theory is to practice mixing colors, experiment, and have fun creating colors.

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