Basic Principles of Colour


colour star - version of colour wheel

Colour is an essential component of a creative’s toolkit, including a knitter’s toolbox. Colour theory is both a science and an art. The psychology of colour is important for branding or marketing, or those wishing to influence what we buy. In this post I’m addressing the basic principles of colour, that when understood will help you select colours that complement and work to enhance your projects.

What is colour?

Our eyes perceive colour. When we see something, this information is sent from your eyes to the brain, and tells us it’s a certain colour or hue. Objects reflect or emit light in different combinations of wavelengths, that result in different sensations to the eye to produce colour.

As a knitter, we have a huge selection of coloured yarns to choose from, including multi-coloured yarns that produce different effects. Multi-coloured sock yarns can be dyed to create effects such as self-striping without having to knit with a number of solid coloured yarns. When designing Fair Isle projects, it’s important to create the right balance of colour, with the necessary complements and contrasts to knit a successful design. Intarsia knitting uses coloured yarn to form abstract and pictorial works. Designer collections incorporate the colour trends for a season to meet the expectations of retailers and customers. We all have favourite colours, but it’s fun to explore and experiment with colours to find new alternatives, and this can be achieved with some basic principles under our hat.

The Colour Wheel

The above Colour Star was made by me during my early design years. It’s a version of the classic Colour Wheel. In elementary school, we learned that the primary colours, red, yellow and blue are all capable of mixing all hues. These primaries are still used today by artists and designers.

The arrangement of colours in the colour wheel may be presented in different ways, like my Colour Star, but the basics are always the same. The wheel is composed of 12 standard colours:

Primary Colours: Red, Yellow and Blue

Secondary Colours: Orange, Green, Purple are made by mixing the primaries together. Orange is made by mixing red and yellow.

Tertiary Colours: Red Violet, Red Orange, Yellow Orange, Yellow Green, Blue Green, and Blue Violet are made by mixing the primaries and secondaries. The primaries red and yellow make secondary orange. Orange mixed with red forms tertiary red orange; orange mixed with yellow forms yellow orange.

My Colour Star goes further than the standard Colour Wheel, by showing the shades of each colour in the tips of the star, and tints shown moving towards the center of the star. Tints, shades and tones are variations of each colour or hue on the wheel. A tint is made by adding white to the hue creating a lighter version of the hue. An example is pink, formed by mixing red and white together. A shade adds black to the hue to form a dark version of the original colour. An example is burgundy, in which red and black are mixed together. A tone is the addition of black and white (grey) to a hue.

The wheel can also be divided in half to separate the warm colours (reds, oranges, yellows) from the cool colours (blues, greens, purples).

Colour Schemes

  • Colour Families – a family of colours consists of all the tints, shades, and tones of a single hue. Monochromatic colour groupings are colours from a single colour family. Just picking a number of reds for a design may not give the most pleasing result. You have to put some thought when choosing a family of colours; the right mix of tints, tones and shades will give the most pleasing effect.
  • Analogous Colours – are 3 colours that sit side-by-side on the colour wheel; blue, blue-green, and green. One colour usually dominates, one supports, and one accents. This scheme is pleasing to the eye.
  • Complementary Colours – sit opposite each other on the colour wheel, creating a sharp contrast; yellow and purple, red violet and yellow green. Complementary colours make designs pop; the classic contrast of black and white mosaic knitting. 

    Mosaic Knit Jacket (Vogue Knitting, Winter 2014/15, Design #7)
  • Triadic Colours – are 3 colours that are equally spaced around the wheel. They are typically bright and dynamic. A classic example is using the primaries – red, yellow and blue.


Pantone began in New York City in the 1950s as a commercial printing company. Today, one of its main products is the Pantone Guide of colour swatches used by designers. Months in advance, the company declares a “colour of the year” and palettes twice a year. The results of which are published to fashion designers and other consumer oriented companies for planning future projects.

Take a look at the colour trend report for Spring/Summer 2019. It’s a vibrant colour palette with classic warm neutrals. Some interesting combinations in fashion right now include: mustard and pink; purple, cobalt blue and camel; green, red and grey; navy, white and red. If you love fashion, choosing a colour trend for your knits will spice up a lack lustre wardrobe.

I also want to mention the website Color Collective, an online resource for designers. The posts are simply colour palettes based on the works of artists, designers and photographers, and helpful when trying to find colour combinations that work well together.

The above information is basic and only a guideline to choosing colour. As colour is personal, these principles are not rules. However, understanding colour basics will go a long way to making informed colour choices for your projects. So have some fun with colour!