Color in Practice: Picking the Right Shade? Hue? Tone?

Color in Practice: Picking the Right Shade? Hue? Tone?

Color is a vital part of our daily life. It changes our mood, helps us stay organized, can draw our attention, or convey a message. And none of this happens by accident. If you’re curious about color or want to learn how to incorporate more of it into your creative work, I’m excited to share some of my knowledge in this short blog series, Color in Practice.

Color in Practice: Picking the Right Shade? Hue? Tone?

Today, I’ll start us off with a quick introduction to some basic color theory concepts and terminology, plus share my favorite tips for picking great color combinations.

Covered in This Post:
  1. What is Color Theory?
    • Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Colors
    • Hues, Tints, Tones, and Shades
  2. How Do I Choose the Right Color?
    • Using traditional colors
    • Using color to fulfill a design brief
    • Using color psychology and symbolism
    • Using color trends
  3. Homework

What is Color Theory?

Color theory is a tool that breaks down the universe of color into categories, terms, and concepts so we can recognize them in the real world and put them to use in our own work. While it isn’t an exact science, this basic set of guidelines is an excellent starting point when learning about color.

Graphic features a color wheel. Twelve dots highlight different colors of the spectrum. Text reads: "Color Wheel: This tool is used as a visual aid to understand the relationship of colors in the spectrum.". Designed by Elza Kinde. Learn more at
The color wheel is an important reference when learning about color theory and applying it in your art and design work. Understanding how colors relate to one another on the wheel will help you later on as we learn about creating schemes!


Primary colors are our starter set from kindergarten days: red, yellow, and blue. They have strong visual presence and never look out of place. Because these colors adapt well to almost any context, and are so well-liked, they’re go-to hues for company logos, book covers, product design, and fashion trends.


Mixing any two primary colors, gives us the secondary colors: purple, green, and orange. We often have stronger associations connected with secondary colors, so you might notice the tendency for them to be used in specific ways or places moreso than the primary colors. For example, green generally makes us think about nature, health, or wealth.


If Roy G. Biv isn’t interesting enough, you can always turn to the tertiary colors. These are the shades in between, like teal, magenta, or gold. Depending on how these colors are used, the tertiary colors can be an eye-catching surprise or add layers of subtlety and depth to your work.

Graphic features four palettes using the twelve colors from the wheel. The top palette contains all twelve colors of the SPECTRUM. The second highlights the PRIMARY colors (blue, yellow, and red). The third highlights SECONDARY colors (green, orange, and purple). The final palette highlights the TERTIARY colors (indigo, teal, chartreuse, gold, red-orange, and magenta).
Notice that the colors are equidistant, creating a pattern! Primary, Tertiary, Secondary, Tertiary, repeat! This trick might help you navigate the color wheel more quickly.


Words like shade or hue often get used interchangeably, but they aren’t actually synonyms! These terms are used to describe a specific type of color. Knowing your tints from your tones is going to help you not only understand our artsy-fartsy conversations better, but will allow you to make informed decisions when using these colors in your own designs and artwork.

  • Hue: pure color
  • Tint: a hue mixed with white
  • Tone: a hue mixed with gray
  • Shade: a hue mixed with black
Graphic features four palettes using the twelve colors from the wheel. The top palette represents HUES (pure color), the second TINTS (pure color + white), the third TONES (pure color + gray), and the bottom represents SHADES (pure color + black).
The only change made to these colors is the addition of white, gray, or black. As you can see, it drastically changes how the original hue appears, how the color makes you feel, and what colors you’d want to pair with it.

How Do I Choose the Right Color?

With a whole spectrum of options, it may seem that finding the perfect color is a matter of random luck. But there are methods and tricks for selecting colors that make sense and even strengthen your final product.


It’s hard to do wrong when you follow a proven pattern for success. Adding a dash of color to muted minimalist designs makes an instant impact. Power colors like rich reds or deep blues get used by schools, businesses, and professional spaces for good reason. Complementary colors never fail to catch your eye. You don’t need to reinvent the color wheel to make something memorable—just be smart about how you put these classics to use.


There’s a huge difference between how color is used in children’s book illustration or fine art vs. how you’d develop a scheme for web design or product packaging. Familiarizing yourself with the standards of the field and medium you’re working in helps you understand how color might be used to fulfill that specific task. A little research and communication (in the case of client work) will make the color selection process a lot easier, because you’ll have plenty of details to make an informed decision.


Looking into color psychology or symbolism can be handy for finding your starting point. Blue for that calm undersea illustration or bright red for expressing anger will always make sense. These are well-known and instantly-recognizable uses of those colors. Please note, however, that they’re not meant to be hard and fast rules. How does a calm seascape look in pink? Gorgeous! Can you express rage in moody blues? Absolutely. That’s why it’s called color theory, not color law.


Every era has its defining palette. Using of-the-moment colors is a low-pressure way to try something new, build confidence in your color-picking abilities, and educate your artistic eye. Look at Pantone’s color of the year lineup or pull a palette from your favorite red carpet looks. Research design trends or use palette generator sites to see what’s getting people’s creative juices flowing. And, bonus! You can also play with the palettes of trends past—they’re bound to come back around eventually.

Now You Try!

Download the worksheet and put your newfound knowledge to use! Feel free to share your results in the comments section.

Graphic features a gray box with text reading "For Example: Here's my attempt, using yellow from our color wheel as my starting point." To the right, three palettes using the worksheet above. The first features the hue with shades of green, red, orange, and brown. The second features bright, and pastel shades of yellow, pink, green, and blue. The final palette features warm grays, yellow-browns, slate blue, and sea green.

See you next week for the second installment of the Color in Practice blog series!

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