Essential Colour Definitions

Working with colour goes wayyyyyy beyond simply picking a colour you like and rolling with it. Understanding colour theory begins with understanding some essential colour definitions. This includes how colours are created (see here) and the Additive and Subtractive colour systems.

The following terms will be handy to use as you embark on your own colourful adventures. Let’s get going!


Swatches Palettes and Tones, oh my!


A swatch is a sample of colour. You have most likely seen them before when trying to pick a colour of paint and are painstakingly comparing pearl egg with ivory silk, or some other obnoxious sounding names for shades of magnolia. Saving your swatches as you work with a design speeds up your work flow and helps keep consistency.


A palette is a collection of swatches used in your designs. Having a simplified palette can really help create a strong, consistent brand. Many designers and artists like to work with palettes created from set images. You can do this with sites such as Adobe.Color and


Duotones are super useful when thinking about printing.

You can create Duotones by discarding all colour information in an image (creating a Greyscale), before adding colour information back in with two contrasting tones.

The second image below is a preset Duotone example found in Adobe Photoshop. The third image is an example of a Gradient.

essential colour definitions examples

Gradient and Gradient Maps

You can use gradients to create a blend of colours or patterns. As a result, some really cool designs will be created.



Adding a gradient map to an image inputs more colour information and allows you to choose how the darker and lighter tones are represented. When you use a Gradient map that blends many colours, your designs may become more psychedelic. Using a Gradient map with contrasting colours creates something more striking.


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