The term “color palette” is used often in visual art – but what is color palette? We’re going to answer that question with a color palette definition, then we’ll show you a bunch of types of color palettes. By the end, you’ll know what color palette means and how to use color palettes in your own work.

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How to Choose a Color Palette

First, let’s define color theory

Before we get too far into our examination of color palettes, let’s first lay the groundwork with color theory.

Color theory is two things: 

  1. A scientific principle that explains how color hues and saturations are created
  2. A creative discipline that examines how color is used to achieve emotional affect in visual art

Color theorists have proposed collections of palettes based on intended aesthetics; these are known as color schemes. The complementary and or juxtapositional nature of color has an enormous effect on people’s perception of visual media.


What is color palette?

Color palette is a term used to refer to the collection of colors addressed in a piece of visual media. Color palettes often utilize color theory to effectively communicate tone to audiences via color schemes. 

Types of Color Schemes:

  • Monochrome: varying tones of just one color like gray
  • Analogous: colors side by side on a color wheel
  • Complementary: opposite colors on a color wheel
  • Triadic: colors on a color wheel to form a triangle
  • Tetradic: colors on a color wheel to form a rectangle

Color Palette Meaning

Color palette vs. color scheme

What is the difference between a color palette and a color scheme? Well, a color palette is always part of a color scheme, but a color scheme is not always part of a color palette. Sounds confusing?

A color palette is simply a collection of colors in a piece of visual media; think all the colors in a movie shot for example. 

What is a Color Palette Basic Color Palettes in Film StudioBinder

What is a Color Palette? • Basic Color Palettes in Film via Digital Studio Middle East

Filmmakers may choose to utilize a color scheme, i.e., monochrome, analogous, etc. in their work, but they do not need to for their images to have a color palette. Color schemes can focus on a single color or many, but all have a determined relationship based on their positions in a color wheel.

Color Palette Meaning

What does color palette mean?

Color schemes are used in visual media for psychological effect. But not all color schemes are as effective as others. Before we break down some tips for how to use color schemes, let’s first address some fundamental ideas that define color theory.

Color Range

A color range is simply a range of colors… usually expressed in the form of a circle or line. The full range of colors expressed in a color circle or a color line is widely known as a “spectrum” of colors.

What is a Color Palette Color Space Example StudioBinder

What is a Color Palette?  •  Color Space Example, via Wikipedia

Color ranges are sometimes referred to as color spaces, especially in digital media. 

Color Theory

As we noted earlier, color theory is both how color saturations and hues are created and how color incites psychological affect.

What is a Color Palette Color Palette Examples StudioBinder

What is Color Palette? • Color Palette Examples, via Interaction-Design

Color theory suggests that certain color schemes, such as complementary and analogous, have specific psychological effects. Graphics designers, filmmakers, and visual artists can utilize such palettes to aid their work.

Guide to Using Color Palettes

How to use color palettes

It’s one thing to theorize how color schemes might work in a hypothetical sense… it's another to put theory into practice. This next video shows how graphic designers can use color theory to make clear, aesthetic webpages.

Basic Color Palettes  •   How to Use Color Palettes, By The Futur Academy

The video above does a great job of showing the systematic process of effective color scheme creation.

Let’s outline the steps: 

  1. Identify a color range (color palette)

What is a Color Palette Color Wheel Example StudioBinder

What is Color Palette? • Color Wheel Examples, via Wikipedia

2) Utilize a color scheme; for the purpose of this exercise, we will use a tetradic scheme with red, purple, lime green, and cyan.

What is a Color Palette Color Palette Example StudioBInder

What is Color Palette? • Color Palette Examples

3) Apply the chosen colors to your choice of visual medium. For digital media, this process can be as simple as highlighting text and assigning the relevant colors. For a medium like film, the process is much more complicated. 

For additional guidance, check out our articles on color rendering indexes, color temperature, and how to use color in film.

Up Next

Film Colorization Process Explained

There’s no doubt about it: color palettes are great tools for filmmakers to utilize. But should all films be “color?” Or is greyscale monochrome an effective technique on its own? Check out our next article where we break down the history of film colorization, with examples from Citizen Kane, They Shall Not Grow Old, and more. By the end, you’ll know how films are colorized, and hear about the debate over the process.

Up Next: The Debate Over Colorized Movies →
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  • Chris Heckmann is a Professor of Media & Communication at Roger Williams University and graduate of UCLA’s Cinema & Media Studies Master of Arts program. When he’s not writing or teaching, he’s probably playing video games (or thinking about the next great Boston sports trade).

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