What every digital artist needs to know about color

Colors are a big deal. They’re the first thing your viewers see and play a huge factor in keeping your scene interesting. Here are the ground rules of color every aspiring artist should know.

What looks good?

color wheel

Before you decide what colors you want in your scene, you need to know what combinations are possible. All you need for this is a color wheel like this and some general rules. These are the ways you can choose your colors:


This means you pick one color and use that for most of your scene. This can be used if you want your scene to display one emotion.


With a complementary color scheme, you pick two color opposite or almost opposite of each other, like red and green. To get a good color scheme, use one color more than the other. If you don’t do this, your scene might look unbalanced.

Split Complementary

Almost the same as complementary, only this time you substitute one of the colors for its neighbors. This way you get three colors instead of two, creating a richer color scheme. To make sure your color scheme still looks balanced, keep the 60-30-10 rule in mind. Use one color 60%, one color 30% and one color 10%. These rules aren’t exact measurements you have to follow to the letter, every scene is unique and asks for its own rules. In most cases, however, your color distribution should be somewhere around here.


Analogous means alike, what the colors in this kind of color scheme are. You pick one color and its neighbors for your color scheme. Analogous color schemes are found a lot in nature, so if you want o make your scene look familiar, this one’s a good choice.


With a triad color scheme, you draw an equilateral triangle onto your color scheme. The easiest example of this is using red, blue and yellow. Any other color combination with a triad color scheme works fine too. Again, keep the 60-30-10 rule in mind.


Tetradic is a fancy word for “a group of four”, and that’s exactly what this is. An easy way to see if your tetradic color scheme will look good is draw lines between the neighboring colors. If the figure you get resembles a rectangle or a square, you’re probably good. If not, your color scheme might be a bit off.


What means what?

There’s more than just harmony to making a good color scheme. Colors add emotions to your scenes, as I briefly explained in the article about storytelling. Every color has its own emotions attached to it.

Before getting into every color, there’s something you should be aware of. It’s called Plutchick‘s wheel of emotions. Made by Robert Plutchik in 1980, this sort-of specialized color wheel gives you a nice general overview of what color gives of what emotion.Color emotion reference

Of course, these rules don’t always apply. Depending on your composition, lighting, and other variables in your scene these colors can mean other things. Besides, you can’t describe a color with just one word. Here’s a quick summary of most colors you’ll use in your scenes.


On the color wheel


The color of action, anger, and even passion. If you use red in your scene, it’s sure to grab the attention of your viewers. Depending on the shade of red you use, its emotions can go from energizing to aggravating and angry. Another important quality of red is that it stands for passion, think of a rose and you know why. Some special cultural meanings of red include luck in China and purity in India.



If you want to cheer up your scene, yellow is the color for you. Because it gives a sense of happiness, optimism, and enthusiasm you’ll typically find this color in scenes with an uplifting feeling. When using yellow in your scenes, don’t use too much. Like with most things, moderation is key. An overwhelming amount of yellow comes over as irritating because there’s too much energy in your scene.



Blue can be relaxing and calm, or cold and sad. If you want to make sure you stay on the calm side, don’t use the darker shades and pair blue with some warmer colors. If you do want some sadness, ignore that and use the dark shades as much as you want.



Sunset with orange colorsWhile not used much, orange has its qualities too. Like yellow, it adds a bunch of energy to your scenes. If used right, orange can be very warm and inviting, like in a sunset. Don’t go over the top with your use of orange, it’s a very stimulating color and can be hard on the eyes.



Green can have two effects, depending on the shade you use. First, there are the lighter shades like the ones we find a lot in nature. These give a feeling of balance and calm.

On the other side, you have darker greens. They have an almost opposite effect, creating a sense of fear, paranoia, and unease. If you use green in your scenes, be careful to use the right shade!



Purple gemstonesLike with green, you have dark purple and you have light purple. Dark purple is usually associated with luxury, as it used to be a very expensive color. Dark purple is also great for expressing creativity. Finally, dark purple can stand for honor. Think of the purple cross, a highly regarded medal in the US army.

Lighter purple, or violet, has the same calm appearance as blue, without running the risk of making your scene look cold or uninviting. Violet is less intense than purple, making it a better choice when you already have another stimulating color in your scene.



Pink is a romantic color, like red, but more in an “until death does thou part” kind of way. Besides this, pink is also a pretty calm color. Go a bit darker and you get magenta, which has the added benefit of giving off a sense of balance.


If you’re looking for video tutorials on colors, here are some good ones:


Off the color wheel

Brown cat
While mostly consisting of neutral colors, this cat still looks nice

Better known as neutral colors, these off-the-color-wheel shades are handy to know. Neutral colors are, as the name suggests, neutral when it comes to a lot of things. They match with almost any color scheme you can think of, are easy on the eyes and add some extra balance to your scenes. There are two kinds of neutral colors, warm and cool. Whether you can really call all of these real colors or not is a discussion for later, their usefulness is something you can use now.


Warm neutrals

Warm neutrals include:

  • Brown
  • Gold
  • Black

They’re best used to make your room a bit cozier, as they give off a, well, warm feeling. Mind that you only use these colors as an accent to your primary color scheme, unless you’re going all neutral (more on this later). Colors like black and brown can be great for adding some depth into your scene, really bringing out a 3D look.


Cool neutrals

Cool neutrals include:

  • Gray
  • Silver
  • White

If a relaxed look is what you’re after, these are perfect for you. While being a neutral color, pure white can be a bit stimulating for the eyes. Always consider using a shade of white instead of the real thing, like eggshell or ivory. Not only will this make your scene more balanced, it’ll be more realistic as perfect white is something you rarely see.


Neutral color schemes

Sometimes, you want to make a scene that has mostly neutral colors. Whether it’s only black, white and greys or a mix of browns and golds, there are some things you need to know.

First off, most neutral colors are a mix of true neutral colors and a color from the color wheel, making them a biased neutral. Because of this, you can apply the same logic to them as with normal color schemes. Whether you’re going monochromatic, split-complementary or anything else is up to you, just make sure you do it right.


Black and white owl with colored eyes
The owl is more interesting because of it’s colored eyes

Making a truly neutral color scheme in your scene isn’t advisable. By their nature, neutral colors are a bit boring. This can be a good thing, as they’re easy to look at. There is, however, a certain need to make your scene look interesting enough to keep looking at. To make sure you get this right, choose one or two colors from the color wheel and add these into your scene. Don’t use it too much, as that wouldn’t make your color scheme neutral anymore, but a few points of interest make your scene much more visually appealing.


Lastly, make sure you use the right neutrals for your scenes. With the undertone off biased neutrals comes a bit of that color’s feeling, so keep this in mind. If you also pay attention to whether a neutral is warm or cool your scenes will look even better. There’s nothing wrong with mixing them together, just be careful they don’t clash too much.


That’s it for colors. While it’s important to keep all the underlying theory in mind, there’s something even more crucial. That’s to always keep on experimenting. If you try something here or there, anything can happen. Sure, some color schemes will look horrible, but who knows what kind of crazy color schemes you’ll find from time to time.

Keep on learning,

Jesse Davis


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