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Master the Basics of Color Theory for Harmonious Pours

Color theory. I’ll be honest, when I first heard this term a few years ago, I felt a little overwhelmed. I’d been sketching, painting, and “arting” (as my family called it), for about 20 years and had never thought much about the logic behind what I was doing.

Supplies I Used

Color wheel
Artist’s palette
Palette knives

The thing about color theory is that, no matter whether you’re an experienced, self-taught artist or a beginner who is formally educated, it applies. You might already be using many aspects of color theory and not even realize it!

In this article, we’ll cover the very basics of color theory and how it applies specifically to acrylic pouring.

What Is Color Theory?

Color theory is a set of guidelines that provides practical information regarding the combination and mixing of colors. If you have ever taken an art class, even an elementary art class, you have likely studied different aspects of color theory.

A useful concept in color theory is the separation of primary, secondary, and tertiary colors. By understanding the colors that comprise each category and how they work together, you can avoid muddy pours (which we’ll cover in a bit).


The primary colors are red, yellow, and blue. These colors are primary because they cannot be created using a combination of any other colors. This means that you cannot make these colors—but if you have them, you’ll be able to make other colors.

The secondary colors are green, orange, and purple. These colors are secondary because they can be created directly using a combination of two primary colors:


The best thing about secondary colors is that if you have all three primary colors, you’ll always have secondary colors! Mixing primaries in varying amounts will yield different secondary shades, for the ultimate customization.

The tertiary colors are red-orange (vermillion), red-purple (magenta), yellow-orange (amber), blue-green (teal), blue-purple (violet), and yellow-green (chartreuse).


Tertiary colors are created by taking a combination of primary colors, such as red and yellow, to make a secondary color (in this case, orange). Then, the orange would be combined with a primary color, such as red, to create a tertiary color that retains a primarily red hue with undertones of yellow, which appear orange.

This might sound confusing, especially when you start to consider tertiary (and if you’d like to go even further, quaternary colors). But once you have a grasp on these three categories, you will be able to predict the outcome of your pour.

The Color Wheel

color wheel

A common tool in the art community is the color wheel. Created by Sir Isaac Newton in 1666, the most basic color wheel can help you determine complementary colors in a variety of ways.

A complementary color is the color on the opposite side of the color wheel from whichever color you choose. In essence, you would select a color, and then draw a straight line from that color to a color directly across from it. Using the color wheel this way will give you two completely different colors that connect harmoniously.

An analogous color scheme uses three neighboring colors on the color wheel to form a harmonious combination. For example, if you chose yellow, you might then choose green and blue to complement it.

A monochromatic color scheme uses two or more different shades of the same color. You might think of black when you think of monochromatic color schemes, but it really applies to any color combination that stays within the same color value. Monochromatic blue, red, and green pours are some of my favorites!

A triadic color scheme uses three different colors that are spaced in the shape of a triangle on the color wheel. Personally, this is one of my favorites because I find color combinations that I never would have thought of myself.

A tetradic scheme uses two adjacent colors and their complementary colors to create a four-color harmony. Using this method, you will get a combination of four colors that complement each other nicely.

Applying Color Theory to Pours

Using the concepts discussed above, you can very effectively plan your pour and predict the results. By understanding the way that primary colors interact with each other, you can avoid the dreaded muddy pour.

muddy pour

A muddy pour is a color combination that accidentally turns out brown, gray, or some other color that you were not expecting (and might not really like). There are a few reasons why your pour might end up muddy:

  • Too many colors. Just because you’re using complementary colors doesn’t mean that using a lot of them at once will be successful. Especially if you’re using secondary or tertiary colors, you run the risk of muddied results if you are using more than four colors (excluding white and black).If you’re first starting out, or if you’re getting muddy colors at all, consider scaling back your palette to one or two primary colors and a secondary color to keep things clean.
  • Over-swiping, tilting, or manipulating. Excessive paint manipulation can also cause muddiness in a pour, since you are basically mixing the paint together. A good way to avoid this is to remember that you can always add more paint to brighten up particularly dull areas.

By understanding the basics of color theory, you can also predict the outcome of your pour. For example, I love to combine blue, red, and yellow just to watch the rainbow colors that emerge from their mixing; in fact, some of my most successful rainbow pours have come from this combination.


If you plan ahead with your colors both when you’re choosing them and when you’re layering them on the canvas or in your cup, you’ll find that sometimes you can avoid using secondary colors altogether, thus retaining crisp colors and less mud.

Color Theory Rocks!

Understanding color theory is essential for any artist! We want to see what you do with your color theory knowledge. Show us your primary pours, your complementary color pours, and more on the Acrylic Pouring Facebook group.

Master the Basics of Color Theory for Harmonious Pours

6 thoughts on “Master the Basics of Color Theory for Harmonious Pours”

  1. A very interesting article about color theory, thank you. This is really important for alle pourers to get good color combinations and not a muddy artwork.

    1. I agree, Thomas. Having a good grasp of color theory is very helpful in deciding color schemes. Glad you liked the article!

  2. A brilliant explanation of the science behind colour… Thank you very much, you have explained to my friend what I could not… Blessed Be

  3. A very clear and concise way of explaining the theory.
    This website is informative and easy to understand.
    Thank you

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