How To Use Color Theory In Your Own T-Shirt Designs

When approaching any design project, one of the most important considerations is your color pallet. T-shirt designing is no different and knowing a bit of color theory can make even amateurs look like seasoned professionals. We’ll go over the basics of color theory and give you some advise for when you’re designing your own custom t-shirts. Stick around for some t-shirt color palette inspiration and helpful tips to get you started.

A color wheel made of t-shirts.

Color theory basics

Color theory is the study of the relationships and effects of color. It’s the application of art and science to determine what colors look good together and how those colors control the style of your design. To give you the full picture of how to apply the ideas of color theory to your own t-shirt designs, we’ll introduce the basic color wheel, the concept of color harmony, and examine how to use colors together to create your style.

Outline

The color wheel

Sir Isaac Newton developed the first circular color diagram in 1666. Since then, the color wheel has been the basis of color theory and used to visualize the relationship between colors. Using their position on the color wheel, we can define color combinations and create pairings that work well together. The basic anatomy of the color wheel is divided into primary, secondary, and tertiary colors as shown below.

The color wheel demonstrating primary, secondary, and tertiary colors.

Primary Colors (used in painting) are Red, Yellow and Blue. These colors are combined to create all other colors.

Secondary Colors are Green, Orange and Purple and are created from combining primary colors.

Tertiary Colors are Yellow-Orange, Red-Orange, Red-Purple, Blue-Purple, Blue-Green & Yellow-Green and are created from combining primary and secondary colors.

Color families

The first and most basic way we can define color relationships is by their color family, often referred to as color temperature. If you draw a line through the center of the color wheel, you’ll separate the warm colors from the cool colors. Warm colors consist of reds, oranges and yellows while cool colors are blues, greens and purples.

Warm colors

Warm colors — as you can probably guess — get their name from their association with heat or shine. But warm colors are also used to evoke thoughts of excitement, playfulness, or even anger. All are stronger and more forward emotions that you can tweak depending on which warm tone you use.

Example set of warm colors.
Example of Warm Colors

Cool colors

Cool colors are usually associated with the opposite emotions and are calming, relaxing, or even somber. These colors are often used to create more subdued color pallets, but not always. The way these color families affect the style of your t-shirt design ultimately comes down how you pair them with the rest of your color pallet.

Example set of cool colors.
Example of Cool Colors

For now, just make note of this information because we’ll come back to how to actually use these color families to create your own color pallets for thoughtful designs.

Hue, shade, tint and tone

You might be looking at the color wheel and thinking, well, that’s not every color. And that’s because the color wheel is used to display the most basic colors called hues.

Hue refers to the most fundamental version of a color — e.g. blue, orange, purple, etc. And we can modify these basic hues to create additional variations called shades, tints, and tones for even greater variety and control in our color schemes.

Adding black or darkening a color creates shades while adding white or lightening it creates tints. And, we can modify the intensity of a color by adding grey, creating additional tones.

Example of color shades.
Example of Shades
Example of color tints.
Example of Tints
Example of color tones.
Example of Tones

Creating contrast

These variations are important because they allow us to play with contrast in different and unique ways. Contrast is just how different two colors look next to each other, and using shades, tints, and tones, we can make colors look more or less different. And ultimately, it will be the way that we use contrast in combination with our color pallet that will let us create the best t-shirt designs.

For example, a very dark shade against a very light tint will have higher contrast while two colors of the same shade or tint will have lower contrast.

Example of using tints and shades to create high contrast.
Example of higher contrast using shades and tints
Example of two colors with similar tint to show low contrast.
Example of lower contrast between two colors of similar tint

You can create contrast in a similar way by using different tones. Very bright tones against very muted tones will have high contrast while two colors of about the same tone will have lower contrast.

Example of creating high contrast with different tones.
Example of higher contrast using different tones
Example of low contrast using two colors of similar tone.
Example of lower contrast between two colors of similar tone

And possibly the most useful way to create contrast is by using different color families. Two colors of the same family will have lower contrast, while two colors of opposite families will have higher contrast.

Example of low contrast using analogous colors.
Example of lower contrast between two colors of the same family
Example of high contrast using complementary colors.
Example of higher contrast between two colors of opposite families

Just think about these different variations as on a range from one extreme to the other. First, on a range from warm to cool, then a range from tint to shade, and finally a range from bright to muted tone. The further away from each other two colors are, the greater contrast they’ll have between them, and the closer together they are, the lower the contrast will be between them.

As we begin to talk about how to apply all this to your own t-shirt designs, these notes on contrast will be the key to understanding color harmony and using your color pallets effectively.

Color harmony

Color harmony is just the fancier way of saying that colors look good together. And there are many different ways to combine colors to create color harmony and we can easily define them by their location on the color wheel.

Complementary colors

Complementary colors are colors on opposite sides of the color wheel from one another. If you remember from when we talked about color families, also called color temperature, colors on opposite sides of the color wheel will always be in opposite color families.

Example of purple and yellow as complementary colors.

For this reason, complementary colors are known for their high contrast. They always pair a warm color with a cool color and therefore create a color scheme that’s often exciting with a lot of visual pop.

Example of blue and orange complementary colors.

You can use complementary colors when you really want to draw attention and create a lot of separation between two colors. However, this color combination can often be a little jarring, so it can be a good idea to dial back the contrast a bit by using colors of a lighter tint or of a more muted tone.

Example of green and red as complementary colors.

Analogous colors

Analogous colors are colors that are side by side on the color wheel. And because they’re side by side, they’re usually of the same color family, or at least bridge the gap across color families — e.g. green, yellow-green, and yellow.

Example of cool analogous colors.
Example of cool analogous colors

These color schemes are generally lower contrast than complementary color schemes making them a little more versatile and focused. For that reason, you can use more saturated colors without the color scheme becoming overwhelming. And If you need to introduce more contrast between colors, just vary their shade or tone to make similar hues stand out from one another.

Example of warm analogous colors.
Example of warm analogous colors

Monochromatic colors

Monochromatic colors are the shades, tints, and tones of a single hue. This color scheme is lowest in contrast but can often lead to a very pleasing design aesthetic. The low contrast gives the combination a more subdued feel that’s easier to work with if you’re new to t-shirt designing.

Example of monochromatic colors.
Monochromatic Color Example

Pairing the design with multiple t-shirt colors is often easier with a monochromatic color scheme because there’s fewer colors introduced into the pallet. And, if you need to make elements stand out, using white or black can give it greater contrast without over complicating the color scheme.

Triadic and tetradic colors

Triadic colors (from triad meaning three) are a combination of 3 colors evenly spaced out on the color wheel. This is another high contrast combination due to how varied the hues are, but might be perfect if you’re looking for a color scheme that’s extra vibrant and exciting.

Example of triadic colors.
Triadic Color Example

Very similar are tetradic colors (from tetra meaning four). They’re also high contrast and used for dynamic designs that need the color variation. For a bit of an advanced color theory lesson — evenly spaced tetradic colors are referred to as square color schemes and are a combination of two complementary pairs.

Example of tetradic colors.
Square Tetradic Color Example

Comparatively, rectangle color schemes are a combination of two analogous color pairs and are a bit easier to work with but are still some of the most dynamic color schemes you can use. In either case, it’s often a good idea to use more muted tones, like our examples here, so that you can control the color pallet and keep the colors in your design from clashing.

Example of a rectangle tetradic color pallet.
Rectangle Tetradic Color Example

How do you apply this to t-shirt design?

Now that you understand more about how to analyze color combinations and their basic characteristics, let’s expand to actual use-cases so that you can take this inspiration and us it for your own t-shirt designs.

Designing with a monochromatic color scheme

To start with the simplest example, we created a blue monochromatic t-shirt design that uses a whole range of tints and shades. And that really is the key to success here. Using a wide variety of tints and shades will let you still create enough contrast to allow elements to stand out, and the more colors you want to use, the wider you’ll need to vary them.

Inspiration for a custom monochromatic t-shirt design.

We used an ocean blue Jersey T-Shirt from Canvas to give the design a mid toned background. From there, we have room to add both lighter and darker blues to expand the color pallet and create contrast. For the parts of the design that need to stand out most, we’ve used white so that it’s bright without introducing other hues into our pallet. Similarly, a very light blue is used in areas where we need enough contrast for the text to be legible, but still want it to sit behind the white parts of the design.

A monochromatic color pallet created with multiple t-shirt colors.

We’ve included a similar color pallet using multiple fabric colors from the same Jersey T-Shirt to show you how you can expand this idea beyond just the design color pallet. If you have an event or group order that calls for multiple t-shirt colors, it’s a good idea to keep your design to something very simple like this all-white design. It’ll ensure that it looks good on all the fabric colors and it’s even one of our money saving tips to design with fewer colors, especial for screen printed orders.

Designing with an analogous color scheme

Baby-stepping our way into more complicated color schemes, we made this t-shirt design using analogous colors. You can see how using colors that are next to each other on the color wheel gives this design a focused style but with a bit more variation than we saw in our monochromatic design. The secrets to success here are the variations in color temperature and shade.

Inspiration for a custom analogous t-shirt design.

The coral ink color is warmer and lighter, creating a nice contrast against the comparatively cooler raspberry ink color. All these are from our set of Design Studio colors and you can create this design yourself by starting with this family vacation t-shirt design template.

An analogous t-shirt design color pallet.

Each color, while also being different in hue, is also different in shade so that we can create more contrast in some areas and also have a bit more subtlety in others. This difference in shade is what allowed us to put the same design on both heather prism peach and heather cardinal shirt colors. One fabric color is the darkest shade in the color pallet while the other sits evenly between the pale pink and coral ink colors.

An analogous color pallet created with multiple t-shirt colors.

Again, we’ve created a similar pallet with fabric colors to express the same idea. If you’re looking to order multiple shirt colors for a group, use the same color theory concepts we’ve learned for designing on t-shirts to make sure that your multiple fabric colors match.

Designing with a complementary color scheme

A complementary color scheme is a good go-to, but when you start to introduce more than 2-colors, things can get a bit complicated. Two high contrast colors are often enough and introducing more is often where new designers go wrong. In this example, we show you how to use complementary colors without letting your color pallet get out of hand.

Inspiration for a custom complementary t-shirt design.

What we’ve done here is actually use what’s called an accented analogous color scheme. Our design uses the blue shirt color with navy and green ink — all analogous colors — and contrast them with a complementary orange. Because complementary color schemes are often jarring, it can be a good idea to introduce a few analogous colors to allow the complementary color to serve as the single bright accent.

A complementary t-shirt design color pallet.

When we swap out the blue shirt color for this heather sunset fabric color, you can see how the design still works because it’s analogous to the orange ink color. Across the board, we’ve chosen to use more muted tones to further tame the contrasting color temperatures and it’s those more subtle tones that allows the design to work even on the brighter shirt color.

A complementary color pallet created with multiple t-shirt colors.

Here, we have the color pallet created from various shirt colors, this time printed with black ink instead of the white we’ve seen in our previous examples. It’s a bit more natural-looking and if you’re designing t-shirts for an event, the complementary shirt color is a great opportunity to let staff or volunteers stand out from the rest of your participants.

Designing with a tetradic color scheme

We’ve saved the most difficult for last and tackled a tetratic color scheme in this final t-shirt design example. The four colors make for an ultra-vibrant color pallet that’s perfect for a design that you really want to stand out.

Inspiration for a custom tetradic t-shirt design.

The large amount of color variation gives this t-shirt design a ton of contrast and we’ve picked an example that can embrace it. That’s really the key to these more eccentric color pallets, save them for the times when your design really calls for it. More flamboyant t-shirt designs have their place and picking out a good set of tetratic colors just might be exactly what you need.

A tetradic t-shirt design color pallet.

You’ll notice that the color pallet feels youthful and exciting. It’s perfect for a kids event where the variety of bright colors will be appreciated and a rainbow of colors will feel at home. We’ve taken this t-shirt design all the way, opting for four colors of similar shade and tone, leaving only the darkest green for the details.

A tetradic color pallet creating with multiple t-shirt colors.

Conclusion

Whether you choose to keep it simple with a monochromatic t-shirt design, or you go with something more exotic, taking the time to consider your color combinations is worth the effort to get something that you’ll be proud to put on. Applying some basic color theory is often the line between amateur and professional-looking design, and with these simple tips, we’re confident you can take your own t-shirt designs to the next level. Keep up with us for more tips on making awesome custom t-shirts and let us know if learning a bit more about color theory helped you with your project.


A couple thousand words later, you might be a little overwhelmed. No worries, you can always get started with one of our t-shirt design templates or just contact us and we’d be happy to walk you through the process.

Leave a Reply