A Beginner's Guide to Harmonizing Colors

Analogous color schemes contain harmonizing colors

Hands with earth-style paint on them

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Color wheels have been around for hundreds of years, and they are just as useful to graphic artists today as they were to the painters of the 19th century. A color wheel is a useful tool for designers as they select colors for their projects. Adjacent colors on the color wheel, especially a trio of adjacent colors, are said to be harmonizing colors. They work well together in print projects and website designs — usually.

How to Select a Harmonizing Color Scheme for Your Design

Looking at a color wheel, any three adjacent colors are harmonious. They look good together when used in print or on the web and they are comfortable together, not jarring. Any color scheme that uses adjacent colors is called an analogous color scheme. For example, yellow, yellow-green and green are harmonious colors and an analogous color scheme. So are blue, blue-violet and violet. Any three adjacent colors on the wheel represent an analogous color scheme. When you choose a three-color harmonizing scheme for your design, use one color as the dominant color, the second to support it and the third as an accent. The colors don't all have to be used at full strength; tints are fine. In fact, tints may be necessary to provide the necessary contrast. Black, gray and white can be used successfully with any harmonizing color scheme.

You don't have to choose three colors for harmony in your design. Any two adjacent colors on the color wheel are also harmonious. Orange and yellow-orange or yellow and yellow-orange are both harmonizing color combinations that work well together — and with black, gray and white.

Considerations When Choosing a Color Scheme

The term "harmonizing" sounds pleasant, and analogous color schemes are pleasing to the eye, but some two-color harmonizing schemes may appear washed out, as in yellow and yellow-green, or too dark as in blue and blue-violet to work well together unless a third harmonizing or contrasting color is added to the mix. Using a tint or shade of one of a pair or trio of harmonizing colors improves the way they work together.

Perhaps your design would benefit from a less pleasant color scheme. Using a contrasting color scheme is more likely to attract attention, and it may be a better choice. Although "harmonizing" and "complementary" sound like they refer to similar colors, they do not. Complementary colors have a greater degree of separation from one another on the color wheel than harmonizing colors. Complementary colors are located on opposite sides of the color wheel, rather than next to one another, such as yellow and blue or red and green. Consider how other color schemes from the color wheel work:

  • Triadic color schemes — formed from three equally distant colors on the color wheel, such as green, orange, and violet. 
  • Rectangle (or tetradic) colors schemes — contain four colors that are two complementary pairs, such as yellow, violet, red and green.
  • Split complementary color schemes — have three colors, one color and then two colors that are on either side of the first color's complement, such as green, red-orange and red-violet.
  • Square color schemes — formed from four equally distant colors on the color wheel, such as blue, orange, red and green.