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  • Nayda Cruz

How to Combine Colors?


A color nightmare.

Years ago, I worked at the Government Agency that didn’t allow me to use any political party color in the designs during election years. In Puerto Rico, traditionally that would be three parties. They each use one color: red, green, and blue. A little problem, right? The basic colors.

But in 2012, three non-traditional new parties registered to be part of the democratic process. Each party used one color: orange, purple, and turquoise.

Four years went by. In 2016, two of the three independent parties vanished. But two independent candidates for Governor registered. One of them used black and yellow prominently.

So, in summary, I could not use red, green, blue, orange, purple, turquoise, black or yellow in any design. It was a big challenge. Sometimes, a nightmare. Because even after pulling the “magic trick” of not using those colors, people still complained that they didn't like the selected color palette. It was a constant back and forth.

But this pushed me to approach color in a new way. To study it and learn how in the world I could make it work. Because I still had a message to represent in the designs. And sometimes color have a lot to do with the message.

The first step was to learn how to combine colors. I couldn’t just use the “leftover” colors I had. They still need to make sense and feel cohesive.

Color can make or break a design.

No matter if you have restrictions in your color palette options or full flexibility, color combination is a process that can take hours. Not to mention of you use Adobe Illustrator “Recolor Artwork” tool. You can go into an infinite loophole.

Sometimes the same design can look so stylish and unique in a color palette. But with the wrong color selection people just pass by and ignore it.

Color Fundamentals: Understanding RGB, CMYK + Pantone Skillshare Class

Color combination rules.

That’s why knowing the basics of color combination is important. Usually, when we combine colors, the starting point to do it is by the complementary color.


A complementary color is the color located directly across the color wheel. A cold and a warm color. Cool colors are from purple to green. Warm colors are from red to yellow. This way guaranties the best contrast possible between two colors. Red is the complimentary color of green. Blue is the complementary color of orange, and so on.


Monochromatic means to use only one color, but in a variety of tints, tones, or shades. For example, here we would use variations from this yellow orange. But only yellow orange.


Triadic means the use of three colors evenly spaced among the color wheel. In this case we are using red, jump over three colors, and select blue, jump over three more colors, and select yellow. That leaves us three other colors to arrive again to red. When we trace an imaginary line across the selected colors, we create a triangle.


Tetradic (or square) and rectangular, means the use of four colors that consist of two sets of complementary colors. In the upper color wheel, we are using red and its complementary color, green. Then we are using blue purple and its complementary color, yellow orange. In the color wheel below, we are using purple and its complementary color, yellow. Then we are using blue with orange. When tracing an imaginary line between them, you create squares or rectangles.


Analogous means the use of colors that are next to each other. In this case purple, blue purple, and blue.


Analogous complementary means the use of three colors that are next to each other (analogous colors), and one on the opposite side. For example, to use this orange red, red, red purple, and green.


Finally, split complementary, means to start with one color, find its complement and then use the two colors on either side of it. In this case, we are using red. Its complementary color is green. But instead of green, we are using the two colors by its side, blue green and yellow green.

Tints, tones, and shades.

Great! You now know how to move around the color wheel. But what if you don’t like those bright colors? How do you use the color wheel combination rules in less saturate colors? Here is where tints, tones, and shades come into play.­­­


When we add white to a hue it’s called a tint. When we add grey to a hue it’s called a tone. When we add black to a hue it’s called a shade.

Usually, hues are considered more childish colors. Because they are so bright. Tints are also called “pastels”. Tones are more sophisticated and pleasing to the eye. Shades are basically a pure hue, but darker, it can go to almost 100% black.

Color is a marvelous thing!

Color is a science. Literally. Once you begin to familiarize with it, your life changes. You even start to dress differently!

Learn your basics, master them, and move on to learn something new. I promise you, there is always something new to learn about color.


If you want to learn more about color, I invite you to watch my Skillshare class “Color Fundamentals: Understanding RGB, CMYK + Pantone”. Where I teach how to create color combinations, tint, tones, and shades inside Adobe Illustrator.

Skillshare is a paying platform with thousands of classes about design, business, creativity, and lifestyle. As a teacher, I can invite you to join a free trial for 1-month! If you are interested, click here.

This blog is a space to learn about design and how it intertwines with life; and also about technical aspects of design. I invite you to join my email list. This way you will receive a message every time I publish a new blog. I respect your privacy and will never share your personal information.


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