The genetic basis of traits that are under sexual selection and that are involved in recognizing conspecific mates is poorly known, even in systems in which the phenotypic basis of these traits has been well studied. In the present study, we investigate genetic and environmental influences on nuptial colour, which plays important roles in sexual selection and sexual isolation in species pairs of limnetic and benthic threespine sticklebacks (Gasterosteus aculeatus species complex). Previous work demonstrated that colour differences among species correlate to differences in the ambient light prevalent in their mating habitat. Red fish are found in clear water and black fish in red-shifted habitats. We used a paternal half-sib split-clutch design to investigate the genetic and environmental basis of nuptial colour. We found genetic differences between a red and a black stickleback population in the expression of both red and black nuptial colour. In addition, the light environment influenced colour expression, and genotype by environment interactions were also present. We found evidence for both phenotypic and genetic correlations between our colour traits; some of these correlations are in opposite directions for our red and black populations. These results suggest that both genetic change and phenotypic plasticity underlie the correlation of male colour with light environment. © 2008 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2008, 94, 663–673.