Understanding the Color Wheel.

Most of us have a reasonable color sense.  Some of us are born with an eye for color, and then there are those of us who can’t match a pair of socks.  The good news is that we can learn and train our eyes to see color through observation and color theory.  Yeah, yeah red and yellow make orange… you say, but there is so much more!

Before I get all “Bob Ross” on this topic, let’s take a look at the color wheel.  There is a reason is it set up the way it is.  It is a tool and when used correctly will help you understand color and how to use color. Just ask Sir Isaac Newton.  He used prisms to separate the visible spectrum of light into its colors (ROY G BIV) and then he organized them into the color wheel. 

Here are the basics… Primary Colors are Red, Yellow and Blue. Secondary Colors are Orange, Green, and Violet.  These six colors are connected to each other using triangles. (Ok, so now what…we know this.)  Here is a list of “Color Wheel” terms so we can better understand what we are looking at.

  • Tertiary or Intermediate colors:  red-orange, red-violet, yellow-green, yellow-orange, blue-violet, blue-green. The colors in between the primary and secondary colors.
  • Complimentary– colors opposite the color wheel. 
  • Analogous– Three colors next to each other on the color wheel
  • Monochromatic– Using one color and all of its tints, shade, and tones
  • Triad– 3 colors evenly spaced around the color wheel.
  • Split-Complimentary– Using complimentary color, use the colors on either side of the compliment.  Orange/Blue the split is Blue-Violet and Blue-Green
  • Hue– the pure color.  (like right out of the tube)
  • Tints– Color mixed with White
  • Shades– Color mixed with Black
  • Tones– Color mixed with Gray
  • Warm Colors– Red, Red-Orange, Orange, Yellow-Orange, Yellow, Yellow-Green
  • Cool colors–  Red-Violet, Violet, Blue-Violet, Blue, Blue-Green, Green 

Colors schemes are what we are talking about.  What colors look good together?  Complimentary colors are colors opposite each other on the color wheel.  Take a look at many professional sports teams, their uniforms use complimentary colors.  For example, the Chicago Bears are Orange and Blue, The Lakers and the Ravens are Purple and Yellow.  Christmas colors in the United States are traditionally Red and Green.

The secondary colors are a great example of Halloween colors.  Moving the triangle shape within the circle will give you a color scheme called a Triad.  Any three colors next to each other are called Analogous.  You can add a fourth color to this scheme which is not uncommon.  Ok, but how do you use the color wheel?

Picking a pallet of color:  Weather your pallet is for a painting, graphic design, interior design, fashion the first question should be what is the mood of the project.  Why?  There have been many psychology studies on how color affects our mood.  So it’s no wonder that artists intentionally try to evoke a response from their audience?  Red is a strong color, anger is often attached to it. Blue is calming, but when used with other cool colors can have a sadness to them.  Green is lively and fresh like plant life.  By adding tints, shades or tones you change the vocabulary of color.  White plus a color is soft and pastel.  Black plus a color is dark and ominous.  Gray plus a color makes it dull and drab.  So what do you want to say?

Color theory is a whole subject unto its own.  There are so many artists and others who study color.  We’ll talk more about color in another post.  For now, let’s be purposeful and choose our colors wisely. Try using the color wheel to help make color decisions, it is a great tool and resource. (Thank you, Sir Isaac Newton.)  If you have any questions or thoughts on the amazing color wheel please feel free to leave a comment.  

Artfully yours,


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