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10 Colour Schemes to Level Up Your Art

Colour schemes are a great way to make an artwork feel unified and evoke certain moods and emotions. Each one serves a purpose, some being more complex, while others are easier to understand. Studying colour schemes helps you understand which colours work best together and is an important step when planning an artwork. Here are 10 colour schemes to learn, from the most basic to most complex.

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Basic Colour Schemes for Artists

These colour schemes are easier to use and memorize and are usually taught first in art school. They are the most commonly used by artists, especially beginners, and are likely ones that you’ve heard of already. 


Achromatic quite literally means “without colour” which is an easy way to understand it. An achromatic colour scheme does not have any hue, but instead it features the value scale ranging from white to black. Sometimes this can be confused for monochromatic, but it is in fact achromatic.


Similar to the last example, this translation is quite literal, meaning “one colour.” A monochromatic colour scheme uses one hue and the tints and shades (lightness and darkness) of that same colour. To create a monochromatic colour scheme, you can choose any colour and add white or black to it. 


An analogous colour scheme uses multiple colours (around three, though it can be more) that are next to each other on a colour wheel, such as red, red-purple and purple like in the example above. Other Analogous colour schemes could be blue, teal, green, or yellow, yellow-orange, orange, and red. An Analogous colour scheme will contain a primary, secondary and tertiary colour that are all related. This unites the colours through similar undertones, temperatures, and hues.


Complementary Colour Examples

Complementary colour schemes are very popular and seen in pop culture more than we notice. They refer to colours (their tints and shades) that are opposite each other on the colour wheel: red and green, yellow and purple, blue and orange, red-orange and blue-green, and so on. These colours have the most colour contrast when used together, helping to create balance. When mixed together, complementary colours will cancel each other out and create a brown or grey tone. 


Triadic colour schemes use three colours that are equally spaced apart on the colour wheel. An easy way to figure out which colours this includes is to make an equilateral triangle on a colour wheel. Each point will match with one of the three colours. It can include the three primaries, three secondaries, or three tertiaries. Triadic colour palettes may be tricky to use at full saturation, so balancing the saturation, value and proportions of each colour will help achieve a visually appealing aesthetic.

Advanced Colour Schemes for Artists 

These colour schemes use more colours than the ones above, which make them more complex and take some practice to apply. Begin with the basic ones to get comfortable with limited palettes before moving to the advanced schemes. Keep in mind there are different types of colour wheels and the colour combinations will appear different in each one.

Wait, there is more than one colour wheel?

Yes, in fact there are three types of colour wheels: RYB, RGB, and CMYK. The examples below use a CMY (cyan-magenta-yellow) colour wheel, which has a larger gamut (or greater colour range) than the classic RYB (red-yellow-blue) colour wheel. The CMY colour wheel does not produce a rich black, which is why in printing, K (Key, or black) is also added. You may have heard of the CYMK printing process used to produce a full spectrum of colour. The differences between RGB vs CMYK colour wheels are also worth learning, as they are especially relevant for digital artists. Digital art, or any image that is displayed on a screen uses RGB (the colours of light).

Split Complementary

The Split Complementary colour scheme is similar to the complementary colour scheme but you end up with three colours, rather than two. For split complementary colour schemes, you will choose a hue (such as red/pink in the illustration above) and the colours on either side of its complementary (here blue-green and yellow-green), making a Y shape.

Double Split Complementary

The Double-Split Complementary colour scheme sounds confusing but is actually very similar to a regular complementary scheme. It includes two side-by-side colours and both of their complementary colours, so you’ll have a total of four colours. If you draw a line between each complementary, you should get a narrow X. This colour palette adds more depth and range.


A polychromatic colour scheme is definitely one of the most complex to work with and takes a lot of practice to use it right. This scheme uses six colours: the three primaries and three secondaries. It is a very colourful and vibrant palette and may take some time to feel comfortable using and balancing. To avoid full blast rainbow colours, try playing with the saturation of some of these colours so that some are more dominant than others.


Tetradic colour schemes are derived by selecting two sets of complementary colors and combining them to form a wide "X" on the colour wheel. Similar to double split complementary, you will make an X if you draw a line between the colours, but it will be a broader. The key to successfully implementing a Tetradic Color Scheme lies in finding the right balance and proportion among the chosen hues to achieve a visually pleasing result.


A discordant colour scheme is the hardest to understand with words alone, so if this scheme sounds confusing, take a look at the photo for a visual explanation. This scheme is more of an additive that can be applied to any other scheme and is used to change the visual weight of colours by changing their values. For example, with a complementary colour scheme using yellow and purple, the purple naturally has a heavier visual weight than the yellow, so instead, you can darken the yellow and lighten the purple to change the visual weight so that the yellow (darkened yellow is a brown) weighs more. 

Why Artists Use Limited Colour Palettes

Whether you want to stick to the basics or try something more advanced, colour schemes are one of the most important tools for artists to build their style and create unity and harmony within a work of art! Certain colour schemes evoke specific moods or atmospheres. Artists may use a limited palette to convey a particular emotional tone or to establish a specific ambiance in their artwork. Some artists develop a distinctive personal style that involves consistently using a limited palette. This signature style becomes a recognizable element of their work and contributes to their artistic identity.

Don’t feel like you have to memorize these colour schemes all at once! Bookmark this article so you can refer to it whenever you're stuck. Try the easy ones first and work your way up to the more advanced palettes. When you stumble upon a harmonious artwork, observe the colour schemes used in it, and see if you recognize the palette!


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