How to Use the Color Wheel to Plan Color Schemes and Color Mixing
The Color Wheel: A Visual Tool
The color wheel is a visual representation of the colors found in a prism, arranged in a circle, with the primary colors (yellow, red, and blue) spaced evenly around.
Artists of all kinds—painters, quilt makers, web designers, graphic designers, interior designers, etc—use it as a basis for working with hues, shades, and colors.
It's a great tool to plan color schemes and color mixes.
Why Do I Need a Color Wheel?
What’s the point for an artist of keeping one handy?
The color wheel is a great start for getting inspiration on what color combinations and hues to use. It simplifies the processes of creating harmony or contrast by helping to choose the right color schemes.
Consulting this handy tool, artists can decide what color scheme they want to use by applying some geometrical methods, which means taking into consideration the distance between colors on the wheel.
More on the different schemes below.
One color and its tints, tones and shades
Colors that are close to one another on the color wheel
Colors that are directly opposite to each other on the wheel
A color and then the two colors on each side of its complement
Three colors that are equally spaced around the color wheel
Four colors that are two sets of complements
The Two Sides of the Color Wheel
On the front of the color wheel (top photo), all around the edge, you find the primary and secondary colors.
In the center, there is an inside wheel has small “windows” that let you see what color you would obtain adding either red, yellow, blue, white, or black to the colors on the color wheel.
The inner wheel shows the results of color mixing. Rotating the inner wheel you can find a color that is the closest to what you are trying to mix, and learn how to mix it.
The wheel has also a gray scale that let's you verify the value of each hue, for example in the top photo red compares pretty well to a value 6.
On the back of the color wheel (bottom photo) you can see the scale of pure color, tint, tone, and shade, for each hue.
Also, in the center there is a diagram showing all the color schemes, and turning the dial you can see combinations of colors that would work together for each color scheme.
Color Temperature: Warm and Cool Hues
Each hue has a specific temperature. Temperature is the relative warmth or coolness of a color.
On the wheel, yellow or any color with yellow as a predominant component is considered warm.
Any blue or color predominantly blue is considered cool.
Red it’s kind of in the middle of the temperature scale, and its temperature is relative to the colors next to it. It’s cooler than yellow, but warmer than blue.
In general, you can determine if a color is warm or cool by asking yourself if it's closer to yellow or closer to blue on the wheel.
The warm colors, that cover one half of the wheel, are yellow/green, yellow, yellow-orange, orange, red-orange, and red.
On the other half are the cooler colors: green, blue/green, blue, violet/blue, violet, and red-violet.
When used on a painting, the warm colors tend to advance from the surface, and the cool colors tend to recede. This factor is useful in portraying depth.
The use of cooler colors for trees and objects in the distance, by making them more blue-green than those in the foreground, creates an effect of atmospheric perspective and suggests depth.
Hue is another word for color.
Different hues can be used to represent things realistically or dramatically, yielding totally different effects and feelings, depending on the colors combination used.
The primary colors on the wheel are yellow, red, and blue. From these three hues all other colors can be created.
In between each pair of primary colors are the ones obtain by mixing them, the secondary colors.
Tertiary colors are in between mixing primary and secondary hues.
If you purchase a 12-color set of paints, it will include all of the primary, secondary, and tertiary colors. Some artists purchase only the primary and secondary colors, and mix the tertiary colors themselves.
Hues opposite to each other on the wheel are complementary; the ones next to each other are harmonious.
There are only three true hues: red, yellow, and blue. They are called primary because nothing can be mixed to produce them: they must be made or bought. With them we can make any other color, except white which is not an actual color.
Depending on the three primaries you choose from the large range of reds, blues and yellows you will get different secondary and tertiary colors.
The three primaries that the artists most use are: naphtol red, ultramarine blue, and cadmium yellow medium.
Mixing pairs of primary hues, we get orange, green, and violet, which are called secondary colors.
Mixing different secondary colors, you get chromatic neutrals, which is what you get when you mix all the primary colors in different proportions. While this effect is sometimes achieved unwilling, and takes the nick-name of "mud", it actually a great way to create low intensity, supporting hues.
The tertiary colors are made by mixing one primary and one secondary color. There are six tertiary colors: yellow-orange, red-orange, red-violet, blue-violet, blue-green, and yellow-green.
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Having a good understanding of complementaries can help you achieve satisfactory results in your paintings.
On the color wheel, each primary color is always opposite the color obtained mixing the other two primary colors. So red is always opposite to green, yellow to violet, and blue to orange.
The hues that are direct opposites on the color wheel are called complementary colors. These colors are contrasting, or conflicting, and they produce two different effects, depending on how they are used.
If we lay complementary colors next to each other, they will strengthen each other, and appear brighter than when separate, producing a vibrant effect. The hues don’t need to be used at their full intensity; muted versions will produce subtle but effective complementary contrast.
If we mix a complement into a color, it will tone it down. When a hue is too intense or bright, adding a bit of the complementary is a good way to make it duller.
Complementary colors can be used on the dark side of objects to produce a shadow.
Also, by mixing any two complementary together you can obtain a large array of chromatic grays and neutral colors.
Orange and green will create a brown, orange and blue a gray, and so on; varying the amounts of each color used in the mix, will result in different tones and values of color.
Hues that are side by side on the color wheel are considered harmonious.
Examples are red, red-orange, and orange; yellow, yellow-green, and green; green, blue-green, and blue.
Harmonious colors create a pleasing combination, with low temperature contrast.
The tetradic color scheme uses four colors arranged into two complementary pairs.
This rich color scheme offers plenty of possibilities for variation, and works best if you let one color be dominant.
To find the colors that work well together, rotate the inner wheel, ans look at the corners of the square or the rectangle drawn on it, they'll point to the tetradic options.
A triadic color scheme uses colors that are evenly spaced around the color wheel, and creates vibrant color combinations, even when you use pale or unsaturated versions of your hues.
Try to balance the colors carefully, letting one dominate and use the other two for accents.
Simple Color Mixing Demonstration - Video
Questions & Answers
When you say, “In general, you can determine if a color is warm or cool by asking yourself if it has more yellow or more blue in it," did you mean if a color has more “red” in it? A color cannot have more “yellow” in it.
I realize now how I didn't do a good job at expressing what I meant by that. I'm going to edit the article and re-word that statement.
The concept that I was trying to express is the following: the temperature of a color is a relative value, and it can be truly assessed only comparing it to the temperature of other colors.
The color wheel is a great tool to help compare colors because temperature naturally orders their placement around the wheel.
I look at yellow as the warmest color on the wheel.
The closest a color is to yellow, on either side, the warmest. The further away it is from yellow, the coolest that color is.
The warmest colors all have some yellow in them, while the coolest colors all have some blue in them. Other than pure red, pure red has neither blue or yellow, but it's considered in the warm family.
© 2012 Robie Benve