A Crash Course in Color Theory for Film (Part 1)



Color theory is one of the more confusing aspects of visual aesthetics and is sometimes grossly misunderstood. For example, do you know what the primary colors are?

If you answered “red, yellow and blue” then you’re remembering color theory from when you were a kid. If you answered “red, green and blue” or “cyan, magenta and yellow” you’re technically right.

If you answered the question with “which color system are we talking about here?” go straight to the head of the class! If you answered with “what’s a primary color?” then this guide is definitely for you!

The Color Wheel

This is one of the primary tools used in color theory. The color wheel is an abstract tool that describes all the colors of the visible spectrum and organizes them accordingly.

It’s a good time to note that even though the primary colors of the two basic color systems appear on the color wheel, they are still separate systems of color.

The 2 Color Systems

There are more than 2 color systems to be sure, but the two big ones are the additive and subtractive system. So called because one system adds brightness while the other subtracts.

The additive system also is also known as RGB for red, green and blue. By projecting and overlapping 2 different primary colored lights, the mixed colors will produce a new color. For example, if you mix equal amounts of red and green you’ll end up with yellow light. By mixing any 2 colors you flesh out the rest of the color wheel and by mixing all 3 primary colors evenly and you’ll get white light.


The subtractive system works in the same way but uses the colors cyan, magenta, yellow and black or CMYK (“K” in this case is a stands for “key” since all other colors are “keyed” with black, aligning all the colors). Used primarily for pigments like paint or ink and like the additive system when you mix 2 primary colors it produces a new color. Mix yellow and magenta, for example, and you get red. Again, mix any 2 primary colors and you flesh out the rest of the color wheel but when you mix all 3 primary colors evenly, you’ll get black. Because of the limits of printing technology, the black produced by mixing the 3 primary colors usually ends up a dark muddy grey/brown color so black is added to the process.


This is the basic foundation for the understanding of color. In the next part we’ll start seeing how to contrast colors together using complimentary and analogous colors.


  1. great stuff, thanks danny

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