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Color Theory for Motion Design


Great motion design relies heavily on color. The colors used in a project create an emotional response in viewers. Having a basic understanding of color theory can help you set the mood of a project.

Top image via Shutterstock

Before breaking things down by section, check out A Brief Lesson on Color Theory from Rhea Lelina Manglapus.

The Color Wheel

Color Theory for Motion Design: The Color Wheel

The color wheel (or color circle) organizes colors on a round map to show the relationship between primary colors, secondary colors, and tertiary colors. Based on a colors position on the color wheel, you can immediately determine complementary colors.

A color’s position on the RGB color wheel is based on wavelengths of light, as wonderfully imagined in this GIF. Red has the longest wavelength, and blue has one of the shortest.

Color Theory for Motion Design: Color Wave Length
GIF via Daniel Savage


Color Theory for Motion Design: RGB, RYB, CMYK

There are three main types of color wheels, each named after their primary colors. Digital artists, photographers, videographers, and web designers will use the RGB color wheel, which uses the primary colors red, green, and blue. These are the primary colors when it comes to working with light, which is why it’s the standard of video and photo — the process of capturing light.

Painters will often use an RYB color wheel, which is made up of the primary colors red, yellow, and blue. Printers and magazines use the CMYK color wheel, which has the primary colors cyan, magenta, and yellow — the K stands for ‘key’ in this case, black. This is why you need to buy cyan, magenta, and yellow cartridges for your color printer.

Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Colors

Color Theory for Motion Design: RGB Color Wheel Triangle

As just explained, primary colors are the three main colors that make up the foundation of the color wheel. As we are talking about motion design for animation and video projects, we will focus on the RGB color wheel from here on out.

If you look at an RGB color wheel, you will see that the colors red, green, and blue are all equidistant from each other — or triadic. Between those colors, you can set an equilateral triangle. The secondary colors are the combination of two primary colors. Red and green make yellow, green and blue make cyan, red and blue make magenta. The secondary colors are also triadic.

Tertiary colors are made when a primary and secondary color are combined. They make up the rest of the colors on the wheel. For example, on the RGB color wheel, red and yellow make orange.

As a review, here is a breakdown of the RGB Color Wheel:

  1. Primary: Red, Green, Blue
  2. Secondary: Magenta, Yellow, Cyan
  3. Tertiary: Red-Yellow, Green-Yellow, Green-Cyan, Blue-Cyan, Blue-Magenta, Red-Magenta

Complementary Colors

Color Theory for Motion Design: Complimentary Colors

Colors opposite each other on the color wheel are complementary colors. These colors work together nicely in design work and motion graphics. They are very visually appealing. Above, you can see the complementary colors blue and yellow.

Split complementary colors are made of a base color and the two colors next to its complementary color. For example, blue and yellow are complementary. To know the split complementary colors of blue, you will take the two colors next to yellow. Therefore, the split complementary colors of blue are red-yellow (orange) and green-yellow (light green).

Double complementary is made up of two complementary colors’ adjacent pairs. In the same example, blue and yellow are the base complementary colors. You will then take the two colors next to blue and the two colors next to yellow to determine the double complementary colors. The four complementary colors are blue-cyan(light blue), blue-magenta (violet), red-yellow (orange), and green-yellow (light green).


Color Theory for Motion Design: Hue

Hue is essentially a color; it defines the actual color or shade. It is the attribute that’s based on the color’s light wavelength. The primary, secondary, and tertiary colors make up twelve defined hues — including red, green, blue, yellow, orange, and violet. By mixing any of the twelve colors, you are able to create every other color.


Color Theory for Motion Design: Saturation

Saturation defines the intensity of a color, its brightness or dullness. The official definition is expressed as “the degree to which a color differs from white.”


Value measures the lightness or darkness of a color. It takes into account the tint, shade, and tone of a hue.


Color Theory for Motion Design: Tint

Tint increases the lightness. It is the equivalent of adjusting a hue by adding more white. In the paint world, you may hear the term pastels. Tints add a soft and soothing feel. In the marketing and advertising world, you will see a lot of tint in products aimed towards women.


Color Theory for Motion Design: Shade

Shade is the opposite of tint; it reduces lightness. Shade is the equivalent of adjusting a hue by adding more black. Shade offers a deep or powerful mood. It can also be mysterious. They are often used to accent products or used in campaigns targeting men.


Color Theory for Motion Design: Tone

Tone adjusts a color’s value by adding more grey to a hue. Tone is often preferred over shade because it still keeps more color properties than the black shading adds.


Color Theory for Motion Design: Monochromatic

Monochromatic refers to the full spectrum of one hue. It takes into account all the combinations of a single color with various tints, shades, and/or tones.

This was a very basic breakdown of color theory. For some more advanced theory, check out this great short —The Effect of Color from PBS. The piece touches on psychological responses to color and color preferences throughout history. Interviewed are Thomas Bosket of Parsons School of Design, Leslie Harrington of the Color Association, Doty Horn of the Fashion Institute of Technology, and GIF makers Mr GIF.

Hopefully this breakdown of color theory helps clear up some questions you may have when it comes to all those color sliders you have to adjust.