Picking the colour scheme for an artwork or design is something that many of us do based largely on our creative instinct for the feel it gives a piece, the art and nature we see around us, and a healthy dose of trial and error. However, there is another way to develop palettes: based on colour theory and scientific principles that will help you use colour better in your work.

At the heart of colour theory is the colour wheel (above right), which shows all the shades visible to the human eye – and helps to pick out colours that work together. The wheel isn’t a new concept – it’s been around for a couple of hundred years – but science has given us understanding of how it works and technology has given us a way to use it directly as part of our creative process.

To create palettes using the colour wheel, pick a key base colour and then pick a set of rules (we’ve outlined the key ones below) to settle the rest. The set of rules you use depends on the effect you want to achieve, and it’s easy to combine them.

For example, one time-honoured approach is to use complementary colours to separate a character from its background – with a warm colour for the character and a cool one for the background.

Then use analogous colours on the warm colours to detail the character and monochromatic shades of the cooler colour to detail the background.

Meet Kuler: Adobe’s secret colour tool
Specialist software can take the work out of picking colour palettes. Applications such as Illustrator, Painter and ArtRage have the colour wheel directly built into their toolsets, and many of Adobe’s other tools can get a colour wheel through the free Kuler plug-in – which is based on a free online service of the same name.

Tools such as Kuler, Illustrator’s Live Paint system and the myPantone website and iPhone app go beyond providing just a colour wheel – they enable you to select base colours and assemble colour schemes that are based on the rules we’ve outlined below.

1) Visit kuler.adobe.com. You’ll need to create an Adobe account if you don’t already have one.

2) Select Create > From a Color. You can also create colour schemes from images, which is nifty, by uploading your chosen image and letting Kuler handle the rest.

3) Select a base colour by dragging the white circle on the colour wheel. Here we’ve chosen a red (M –100, Y – 100).

4) Select a rule. Here we’ve gone for Analogous for a harmonious scheme.

5) Drag the secondary circles to manipulate the scheme. Play around: trial and error is important.

6) When your palette is completed, save it. From Mykuler > Themes you can save out your scheme as an Adobe Swatch Exchange (ASE) file for use in Photoshop, Illustrator or InDesign.

Use different shades of a single colour to bring a clarity and cohesiveness that goes beyond what other systems of building colour schemes can achieve. But beware – clumsy use of this can seem dull and uninspired.

Analogous colours sit next to each other on the colour wheel, and look harmonious. These are the palettes of skin tones and hair, nature in autumn, glowing warmth or cool pastels.

Complementary colours sit on opposite sides of the colour wheel, producing a contrast of warm colours against cool that makes each stand out. Used on their own, they can be gaudy and overwhelming – but used next to each other alongside softer colours they will draw the eye.

Triad schemes use as their base three colours that sit at the points of an equilateral triangle on the colour wheel. They allow you to use a wide range of colours and can look very balanced, but there isn’t as much contrast as with complementary palettes.