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

Updated on October 10, 2017
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.

Why Do I Need a Color Wheel?

What’s the point for an artist of keeping a color wheel handy?

The color wheel is a great start for getting inspiration on what color combinations and hues to use.

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. More on the different schemes below.

The color wheel makes it easier to create color harmony by choosing the right color schemes.

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

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 the color wheel as basis for working with hues, shades, and colors.

The color wheel is a great tool to plan color schemes and color mixes.

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 for each color the scale of pure color, tint, tone, and shade.

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

Hue Terminology in the Color Wheel

Color can be used to represent things realistically or dramatically, yielding totally different effects and feelings, depending on the colors combination used.Another word for color is Hue.

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.

Colors opposite to each other on the wheel are complementary; colors next to each other are harmonious.

Color Temperature: Warm and Cool Colors

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, orange, and red. On the other half are the cooler colors: blue/green, blue, violet/blue, and 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.

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: cadmium red, ultramarine blue, and lemon yellow.

Secondary Colors

Mixing pairs of primary colors we get orange, green, and violet, which are called secondary colors.

If you go as far as getting tertiary colors, mixing secondary colors, you would most likely get muddy colors, because that’s what you get when you ix all the primary colors in different proportions

Complementary Colors
Complementary Colors | 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.

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Complementary Colors

Having a good understanding of complementaries can help you achieve satisfaction in your painting. In any color wheel spectrum, 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 Colors don’t need to be used at their full intensity; muted versions will produce subtle but effective complementary contrast.

If we mix a color with its complement, it will tone down. When a color is too intense or bright, adding a bit of the complementary is a good way to tone it down.
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 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

Colors that are side by side on the color wheel are considered harmonious.

Examples are red and orange, yellow and green, green and blue; these colors for a pleasing color combination, with low contrast.

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 4 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.