Colour patches are complex traits, the components of which may evolve independently through a variety of mechanisms. Although usually treated as simple, two-dimensional characters and classified as either structural or pigmentary, in reality colour patches are complicated, three-dimensional structures that often contain multiple pigment types and structural features. The basic dermal chromatophore unit of fishes, reptiles and amphibians consists of three contiguous cell layers. Xanthophores and erythrophores in the outermost layer contain carotenoid and pteridine pigments that absorb short-wave light; iridophores in the middle layer contain crystalline platelets that reflect light back through the xanthophores; and melanophores in the basal layer contain melanins that absorb light across the spectrum. Changes in any one component of a chromatophore unit can drastically alter the reflectance spectrum produced, and for any given adaptive outcome (e.g. an increase in visibility), there may be multiple biochemical or cellular routes that evolution could take, allowing for divergent responses by different populations or species to similar selection regimes. All of the mechanisms of signal evolution that previously have been applied to single ornaments (including whole colour patches) could potentially be applied to the individual components of colour patches. To reach a complete understanding of colour patch evolution, however, it may be necessary to take an explicitly multi-trait approach. Here, we review multiple trait evolution theory and the basic mechanisms of colour production in fishes, reptiles and amphibians, and use a combination of computer simulations and empirical examples to show how multiple trait evolution theory can be applied to the components of single colour patches. This integrative perspective on animal colouration opens up a host of new questions and hypotheses. We offer specific, testable functional hypotheses for the most common pigmentary (carotenoid, pteridine and melanin) and structural components of vertebrate colour patches.