how to create color palettes

You know the feeling when someone asks you how to ride a bike and wants you to explain it? Or how to write? It is something you inherently know how to do… something you can do without thinking. But when you try to explain it to someone else it seems impossible to put into words.

Well, that was the feeling I always got when people asked me how I create color palettes, or to explain why certain colors go together so well. I knew it in my bones and I knew it when I saw it but I was never able to put words to it. That all changed this past weekend when I attended Alt Summit’s Alt For Everyone. It was a fabulous series of classes focused on things bloggers and creatives care about – and it was all online!

Laurie Smithwick’s design courses simply blew me away. They were amazing! What she did for me was invaluable: she put a vocabulary to what I know and do here on a daily basis. So now I’m all pumped up and ready to explain how to create color palettes!

It turns out that creating a beautiful color palette is actually pretty simple – it’s color theory! And what color theory is is just a set of rules that explains how to combine colors to produce an emotional impact.

How to Create Color Palettes

These base colors of the color wheel can be divided into warm and cool colors. Basically your blues and greens on one side and your yellows and reds on the other. Colors right down the middle can go either way depending on what you pair them with. With regards to wedding styling and design, you want to avoid primary colors. I tried it here and it was mission (nearly) impossible to keep it from looking like a kindergarten class.

The basic color wheel can be broken down even further with tints, shades, and tones. These are key because when you are creating your palette, you want to use a family of colors, not just one.

How to Create Color Palettes / tints, shades, and tones

We learned about six ways to use the color wheel to create your palette: monochromatic, complimentary, analogous, split complimentary, triadic, and tetradic & we’re going to go over each of them (with examples!). Another thing to keep in mind when creating your color palette is that you always want to include a neutral. This is pretty easy to do with weddings – these are your ivories, whites, tans, browns, beiges, greys etc.

For a monochromatic wedding choose a color, break it down into its family (aka: tints/shades/tones), and add your neutrals. For the inspiration board below I chose green and then the neutral I used was white. Monochromatic weddings are my absolute favorite and they look ultra chic and sophisticated when done right!

How to Create Color Palettes / monochromatic

Complimentary color schemes are easy to come up with and look fabulous. Simply choose a color and go directly across from it on the color wheel to find its complimentary color. Pick one color to dominate and break it down into its family. Add your supporting color and then add a neutral. For the inspiration board below the purple family dominates and the yellow supports.

How to Create Color Palettes / complimentary colors

People like analogous color palettes because we see them everywhere. They are found in nature all over the place (for example: think of the different colors on the skin of a peach). To create an analogous look pick two, three, or four colors on the color wheel that are next to each other. You can either use them equally throughout the look you are creating or use one as a dominant color and the others to support it.

How to Create Color Palettes / analogous colors

Ok, that was all pretty easy, right? Now things get a little more complicated. For a split complimentary color palette choose one color, find its complimentary color directly across from it on the color wheel, and use the colors on either side of it.

If you’re finding complimentary color palettes too much of a contrast, this split complimentary is a great way to go because it softens the look while still remaining bold and visually interesting.For this inspiration board I used red and then blue-green and yellow-green with white for a neutral.

How to Create Color Palettes / split complimentary colors

For vibrant and diverse color combinations use a triadic color scheme. These are colors that are spaced equally around the color wheel. For instance – the yellow, blue, and red each have three other colors between them. And yep! These three also happen to be primary colors – and unless you want that kindergarten look I talked about earlier, you need to break each down into its family to find tints, shades, and tones among them that you love. Then combine with your neutral and enjoy!

How to Create Color Palettes / triadic colors

Tetradic color palettes come in either the rectangle (as shown below) or square varieties and work best when one color (and all its shades etc) is dominant and the others serve to support it. Choose one color to be a ‘pop’ color.

Tetradic colors might look complicated – but look again. It’s simply two sets of complimentary colors. For the inspiration board shown in this example the dominate color family is red, the yellow serves as the ‘pop,’ and the greens and purples are supporting colors.

How to Create Color Palettes / tertradic colors

I’m so thankful that I was able to take Laurie’s design classes at Alt Summit. It’s so nice to have the words to put to what I love to do! And I really want to know – which of these ways of combining colors is your favorite?


Inspiration boards in order: green // purple and yellow // sorbet colors // red, white & blue // poolside with burgers and beer // pantone’s vivacious.

About Sara Burnett

Editor of Burnett's Boards, which she founded to showcase global creativity in the wedding industry. Sara currently lives out of a suitcase while island hopping the Caribbean and beyond. Learn More // Follow on Instagram.


  1. Laurie’s classes were so great and you totally nailed it when applying her lessons to inspiration boards. Love!

  2. Beautiful post! Isn’t color theory the best?

  3. Cristina says

    Whoa, great post! Never knew that much about color theory beyond the primary, secondary and tertiary colors. Very cool peek into your brilliant mind. 🙂

  4. what a great post!

  5. So neat! I had some color theory in studio art , but didn’t realize all the workings beyond analogous. I will be referring to this post to be able to speak more clearly about why certain colors work, instead of my usual “these look great together” !

  6. Well done! Color is so fun to play with, isn’t it?!

  7. This is such a helpful post, Sara! Thank you for sharing such clear visual examples – you’ve made colour theory seem much more accessible.

  8. Anyone who knows what tertiary and complementary mean is a friend indeed. 😀

  9. This post was like a mini class on color theory! I think triadic and monochromatic color palettes are my favorites.

  10. My goodness – you’ve completely outdone yourself this time Sara. This post is amazing. Loving the color lesson and the corresponding inspiration boards. LOVE IT!!!!!

  11. Love this post. Passing on the word to our readers. Thanks Sara!

  12. Fantastic post!

  13. This is a great post, I’ve never understood how to match colors well but this really helped me put it all together, thanks!

  14. Amazing post. Not just great information, but great information design. Beautifully done.

  15. Beautiful! I love this post. I’m like you, I just usually pick colors instinctually, but it’s nice to know the theory behind it and maybe make more informed and intentional decisions.

  16. This is such an amazing post! Thank you for sharing it! I am definitely going to be referring back to this.

  17. What a terrific post! You make color theory easy to understand! I enjoy creating mood boards in my studio and I will definitely use this information. Thanks for sharing!

  18. Thanks so much for this helpful post! 😀

  19. Lovely post! Thanks for sharing 🙂 I’m sure it must have taken a while to put this all together.

  20. This is awesome!!

  21. Thank you for sharing this helpful and good looking post!

  22. loved this post! so informative! made me understand why some colours looks magnificent together. My favourites are complimentary and analogous. I think I’m leaning towards more complimentary for my wedding colour: Navy blue, peach/coral and gold 😀 Thanks a lot!

  23. Hi Sara,

    Awesome post! I wanted to ask you though what program do you use to actually create those inspiration boards especially the colour tones, sades and tints that are displayed in each inspiration board?

  24. Thanks Sara! I am able to create inspiration boards–no problem. The problem that I find is to display the colours (square boxes on your inspiration boards) that are being used in the pictures used to create the board. Is there a software that you use to pick the colours from the photographs automatically and display them perfectly in a square geometric shape on the boards?

  25. Thanks…got most of my basic doubts clear…:)

  26. Thank you! Very easy to comprehend the way you’ve explained color palette creation! I am taking an interior design course right now and needed to come up with color scheme boards for my rooms. I think I’ll be getting a great mark with your help! Thanks again!

  27. This article is awesome! But, it is specific to the color wheel you are using, not any color wheel. Thanks for sharing!


  1. […] you may want to use a family of hues not just one. I found an invaluable Blog Post by Sara of Burnett’s Boards which explains Colour Theory wonderfully and is a really useful resource when planning colour […]