Course on Cartographic Techniques | Cartography Working Group | The Virtual Geography Department 

Color Theory

This module is part of the Virtual Geography Department and has been prepared for the Cartography Working Group. These materials may be used for study, research, and education, but please credit the author and source: Laurie A. B.Garo, of the Department of Geography & Earth Sciences, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, (working in conjunction with  The Virtual Geography Department, The University of Texas at Austin).

All commercial rights reserved. Copyright 1998 by Laurie A. B. Garo.

This module has been classroom tested. To make suggestions and corrections please contact Laurie Garo at

Facts of Publication

Abstract: This module contains a series of exercises in which students are asked to identify and create basic colors, demonstrate understanding of perceptual aspects of color, create a variety of flat and process colors to specification within several color systems, and apply color to map symbol design. The module presents background information on the basic principles of color theory and demonstrates how these principles can be practically applied to cartographic design and symbolization. Because color theory is a vast topic, the module is divided into four sections, each with it's own exercise. This module is intended for upper division university cartography or mapping courses, but can be adapted to introductory courses in GIS and Remote Sensing as well (see Module Overview and Instructor's Notes)

Because color is a very visual topic, many graphics are linked throughout the module. Users should take note that upload times will be longer on slower processors and home modems. Also, the multitude of colors within the graphics are only visible on 256 bit or better color monitors. The exercises which require color mixing may not be possible on monitors with limited color capabilities. Likewise, color on monitors will be different than those on printed products. The student is therefore continually required to identify the numeric combinations of color when creating colors (e.g., percentages of cyan, magenta and yellow or red, green and blue).

Table of Contents:

Module Overview

Color Theory Lessons

Lesson 1: Introduction to Color Theory

I. What is Color?
    A. Color and the Electromagnetic Spectrum
    B. The Rainbow
    C. How do we See Color?
        1. Color as Light (Spectral Color)
        2. Color as Pigment (Reflected Color)

II. The Primary Colors
    A. Additive Primaries
    B. Subtractive Primaries

III.  Exercise 1

Lesson 2: Perceptual Aspects of Color

I. Color and Visual Perception

II.  Color Dimensions
    A. Hue
    B. Value
    C. Chroma

III. Perceptual Aspects
    A. Visual Perception
        1. Visual Acuity
        2. Color and Size of Area
        3. Color and Light Source

    B. Color Interaction
        1. Color Contrast
           a. Simultaneous Contrast
           b. Successive Contrast
           c. Contrast and Figure Ground
           d. Color Constancy

    C. Subjective Reactions to Color
        1. Color Preferences/User Preferred Hues
        2. Color Combinations/Object-Background
        3. Connotative Meaning/Mood Hues
        4. Advance/Retreat Colors
        5. Color Conventions

IV.  Exercise 2

Lesson 3: Color Mixing;  Production & Printing of Color

I. Review: Color Dimensions
    A. Hue
    B. Value
    C. Chroma

II.  Color Mixing
    A. Munsell
    B. CIE
    C. Pantone
    D. RGB Color System
    E. Color Chart Systems (Process or  CMYK Color)

III. Production & Printing of Color
    A. Color Mixing
        1. Flat Color
        2. Process Color
    B. Graded Series

IV. Exercise 3

Lesson 4: Color in Symbol Design

I.  Color as a Map Symbol
    A. Examples

II. Qualitative Color Symbolization
    A. Methods to Represent Qualitative Data using Color
    B. Perceptual Considerations

III. Quantitative Color Symbolization
    A. Methods to Represent Ranked or Quantitative Data using Color
        1. Single Hue Series
        2. Hue Progression
        3. Double-Ended Hue Progression
        4. Full-Spectral Progression
        5. Two Variable Hue Progression

IV. Exercise 4

Go to: Table of Contents above

Supporting Materials Evaluation and Comments

About the Virtual Geography Department

Created 2/20/98 by Laurie A. B. Garo. Last updated 6/21/99 by lg.
The URL for this page is