How to Use the Color Wheel to Plan Color Schemes and Color Mixing

Updated on January 8, 2018
Robie Benve profile image

Robie is an artist who believes in the power of positive thinking. She loves sharing art tips and bringing people joy through her paintings.

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.

My Color Wheel (Front)
My Color Wheel (Front) | Source

Color Schemes

Colors Used
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
Split Complementary
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
Consulting the color wheel artists can decide what color scheme they want to use with geometrical mixing method, which means taking into consideration the distance between colors on the wheel. Keep reading for more details.

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.

My Color Wheel (Back)
My Color Wheel (Back) | Source

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 has more yellow or more blue in it.

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 depht.

Hue Terminology

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.

Primary Colors

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.

Secondary Colors

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.

Tertiary Colors

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.

Complementary Colors
Complementary Colors | Source

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Complementary Colors

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.

Harmonious Colors

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.

Tetradic Palette

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.

Triadic Palette

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

© 2012 Robie Benve


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    • Robie Benve profile image

      Robie Benve 2 years ago from Ohio

      Hi kbdressman, the more I lern about colors, the more I realize there is to learn. Isn't it amazing that at each stage in our life we can learn different concepts and at different dephts? As you said the color wheel can be an instructional tool for all ages. There is always something new that can be learned. :) Thanks for your comment!

    • kbdressman profile image

      kbdressman 2 years ago from Harlem, New York

      Thanks for this hub! I understood the basic idea of the color wheel, but the idea of a harmonious color and the different color schemes you described were new to me! I think it's fascinating how a concept like this can be used to teach preschool aged children and adults as well. You know you really have a neat model when it's effective for people of all ages!

    • Robie Benve profile image

      Robie Benve 4 years ago from Ohio

      Hi Blond Logic, what a brilliant idea to keep a color wheel handy by the closet! It might just do the trick, especially with the boys in my household! :)

      Thanks for your comment!

    • Blond Logic profile image

      Mary Wickison 4 years ago from Brazil

      I think I need to keep a color wheel near my closet. I often look like I got dressed in the dark! Before, I just couldn't understand what colors should go together. This has helped me. Thanks

    • Robie Benve profile image

      Robie Benve 4 years ago from Ohio

      Hi SaritaJBonita, phthalo blue is a beautiful color, and I love vermillion too. Sounds like you like lively and expressive colors, I'm the same way. :) Those two are good complementary, and can make a composition very energetic if used on the same painting.

      I usually work with a limited palette and mix my colors from a few, so I get my oranges starting from naphtol red medium, cadmium yellow medium, and hansa yellow light, toning them down with a blue if needed; I like to adapt to the subject and my mood.

      Thanks a lot for your kind comment, I'm happy you enjoy my hubs. :)

    • profile image

      SaritaJBonita 5 years ago

      Now I know why I get such weird color combinations while I'm painting... I never fully grasped the concept. This will save me much time, frustration, and wasted paint! One question.. My favorite color is phthalo blue because it seems to have so many rich dimensional hues. I've been trying to find a red hue (and maybe yellow) that act in similar ways to the phthalo blue... any suggestions? I just discovered vermillion and it's my new favorite too! Thanks again

    • Robie Benve profile image

      Robie Benve 5 years ago from Ohio

      Marcy, isn't it amazing how the color wheel can help in color choices on every aspect of our lives? I use it in art, you to pick wall colors, interior decorators for all kind of indoor color design, and it's useful to plan outfits and make-up too!

      Thanks for reading and good luck with your painting project, make a hub about it so we can see photos! :)

    • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image

      Marcy Goodfleisch 5 years ago from Planet Earth

      I'm ready to do some painting in a few rooms - I need to use this as a guide for avoiding an eye-burning mistake! Great information!

      Voted up!

    • Robie Benve profile image

      Robie Benve 5 years ago from Ohio

      Dbro, the color wheel has come to my rescue in so many color dilemmas, it's a great tool. The more I use it, the more I appreciate it. Thanks for your comment! :)

    • Dbro profile image

      Dbro 5 years ago from Texas, USA

      Fantastic information about color, it's effects and how to use it to create the response you hope for in one's art and design. I need refers like this when I'm faced with a color"dilemma." Thanks for this comprehensive overview!

    • Robie Benve profile image

      Robie Benve 5 years ago from Ohio

      Melovy and Carol, I found color theory most intriguing. The more I think I know, the more I find I'm learning. How colors work together and interact is fascinating. Thanks a lot for reading and your nice comments. :)

    • Melovy profile image

      Yvonne Spence 5 years ago from UK

      I used to teach this to 12 - 13 year olds, and it was amazing how many of them had no clue at all about how to mix colours. This would have been very useful then, and I am sure it will be equally useful for teachers and kids now!

    • carol7777 profile image

      carol stanley 5 years ago from Arizona

      Though I know most of this information it is great to have a comprehensive review. You did a great job on the hub with excellent explanations. I always enjoy your art hubs and bookmark them. Thanks for always sharing.