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How To Use The Color Wheel To Create Outstanding Art

Updated on August 12, 2014

What Is The Color Wheel And Why Is It Important

How to use the colour wheel in art, in simple terms whilst still being of practical use. There are literally millions of colors as any computer user will tell you but we only need to understand a few of them, and how the colour wheel can help with this, to realise how they can be used together for real benefit to the artist, adding a creative dimension to paintings and other artworks.

The colour wheel only considers three primary colors, three secondary colors and six tertiary colors and we look at how the color wheel is arrived at and how it is used.

The accompanying image is for explanation only and does not represent the actual colours. I put this together in Photoplus and could not obtain the exact colours, the images throughout are taken from this diagram. This should not affect the explanation here.

This will give us a practical ability to select color schemes for our art. For an artist / designer, knowing how to make use of the color wheel makes choosing color schemes and why they work, easy.

This is a concept that beginners sometimes find difficult to grasp at first. However it is very easy and will pay dividends if you understand how to use it to select color schemes for your artwork.

First, A Word Of Warning - Subtractive Versus Additive Colour Mixing

This note is just to raise a note of caution, I am writing here about colour mixing for painters and artists, technically this gives rise to a system called subtractive colour mixing. I will not be discussing the physics here which I am sure you will be glad of, but suffice to know that there is a different system. Light from a screen such as your computer screen, when mixed acts in a different way and is called additive colour mixing.

I include links to articles on Wikipedia should you wish to read about this further.

What Now?

OK physics lesson over,

you can forget about this difference

and enjoy your art.

The Color Wheel 101

A Primer

The first thing to understand is that there are three colours from which all others can be mixed. These are called the PRIMARY COLOURS and there are specific names for them but all you really need to know is that they are red, yellow and blue. Please note: I have created the colour wheel images on this page for the purposes of this explanation of the concept, they do not accurately reflect the true primaries or mixes of these.

Mixing these in more or less equal proportion gives another three colours called SECONDARY COLOURS. They are green (blue and yellow), violet (red and blue) and orange (red and yellow).

TERTIARY COLOURS are obtained by mixing a secondary colour with an adjacent primary. E.g. red and orange gives red-orange, blue and violet gives blue-violet.

The real beauty of the colour wheel is not that it provides a colourful diagram, but that it helps to select colour schemes for your artwork and here's how it fits together

Now we shall consider how we might use this knowledge. But first of all, the colours on the screen do not seem to work too well especially in the red to blue sector. Why not use the paints / colours from your own palette to make a colour wheel? Use it for reference when needed, it will repay the effort many times over. Just start with the primaries and add the other sectors by mixing the colours in the respective proportions. In fact, if you use different primaries ( for example: alizarin crimson in one wheel and cadmium red in another) you will be able to see which colours when mixed give you vibrant greens or dazzling oranges, etc. Knowing how to use your colours is one sign of a good artist.

You can find out more about the primaries I use in my watercolour palette, and how I use them to mix secondaries, etc in my page on Painting The Seasons.

The Monochromatic Colour Scheme

Use Of The Colour Wheel (1)

We can identify five main colour schemes based on their relative positions in the colour wheel. The first and easiest of these is: -

THE MONOCHROMATIC COLOUR SCHEME; contrasts are achieved simply with shades and tints of any one colour.

Now we seem to have introduced the concept of shades and tints. Do not fret! A tint is a lighter version of the colour. It is made by a process which depends on the media being used. In oils or acrylics for instance, it would be a mixture of the pure colour pigment and white. In watercolour, it would be a more dilute mixture of the colour. A shade is a darker version of the colour, often made by mixing with black but could be achieved by mixing in a small amount of the complementary colour. More about this below.

The Complementary Colour Scheme

Use Of The Colour Wheel (2)

The next we shall consider is the complementary colour scheme. Here we make use of one main colour and its close neighbours on the colour wheel or their tints and shades, and add a little zing by also using its complementary colour. This is the colour found opposite on the colour wheel. So :-

for blue the complementary is orange

for red the complementary is green

for yellow the complementary is purple

The photo of the indian lady shows a collage which makes use of a complementary scheme to make the red sash stand out.

Another collage, I have recently completed shows the effect of using a blue colour scheme and adding a little orange in the form of images in a film strip. I think this shows how effective the complementary colour scheme can be.

The Harmonious Colour Scheme

Use Of The Colour Wheel (3)

Next we shall consider the Harmonious colour schem, also called the analogous colour scheme.

This utilises closely co-ordinating colours, i.e. close together on the colour wheel. This is often described as using either warm or cool colours. Warm colours are the reds, yellows, oranges and their mixtures. Cool colours are the blues and greens.

The "sixties" themed ATC shown here uses mainly reds, purples and oranges to give it a warm feel.

Another example is given which uses cool blues in various tints.

The Triadic Colour Scheme

Use Of The Colour Wheel (4)

The triadic colour scheme utilises colours equidistant from each other on the colour wheel. E.g. red-orange, blue-green and blue violet. An example of this is seen in this "african themed" ATC.

This second photo shows also shows a triadic colour scheme in use. The red background with the blue of the repeated advertisements and the yellow text and gold (yellow) colouring dragged across the background.

painting over collage
painting over collage

The Split Complementary Colour Scheme

Use Of The Colour Wheel (5)

The split complementary colour scheme uses one dominant colour balanced by two colours from either side of its complementary. This can be said to be very similar to the triadic scheme and only subtly different.

The example here shows a painting, as I have not been able to find one of my ATC's that have been created using this colour scheme.

The dominant blue has been off-set with a reddish orange and touches of a yellowish orange.

Useful Books on Amazon

I believe that I have given a good introduction to the use of the colour wheel for artists, but of course you would surprised if there wasn't a lot more, wouldn't you? I do intend to follow up this article but at the moment time is a commodity which I find in short supply. However, there are many books which help with mixing colours for artists: practical how-to advice as well as the more academic aspects. Here are a few suggestions for four different art media and one for crafters:-

I will be revising and adding to this lens in the near future, what have I missed out, do you disagree with anything I have said?

One last piece of useful information; if you do want to see a more accurate colour wheel, this is a good place to start.

Let me know if this was useful

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    • MariaMontgomery profile image

      MariaMontgomery 3 years ago from Central Florida, USA

      Great instructional lens. Thanks. I have pinned it for future reference.

    • LauraHofman profile image

      Laura Hofman 3 years ago from Naperville, IL

      Very interesting and helpful presentation! I look forward to exploring more of your art related lenses.

    • Lady Lorelei profile image

      Lorelei Cohen 5 years ago from Canada

      I agree completely with all that you have displayed on the color wheel. It is funny because my husband and I just had a little debate about the colors that comprise purple (I was right of course lol).

    • RadaFrancis LM profile image

      RadaFrancis LM 5 years ago

      great explanation of how to use colors. *blessed*

    • Scarlettohairy profile image

      Peggy Hazelwood 5 years ago from Desert Southwest, U.S.A.

      Thank you for this easy-to-understand color wheel tutorial. I love art but know next to nothing. This helps!

    • hysongdesigns profile image

      hysongdesigns 6 years ago

      Very nice lens; easily understood information: well written even for those of us like whose eyes roll up in our heads when there's a lesson about the color wheel!

    • KANEsUgAr profile image

      KANEsUgAr 6 years ago

      Never learned much about the color wheel outside of highschool. Great information, nice lens I really enjoyed it.

    • profile image

      ComedyFrog 6 years ago

      Just the information I was looking for. Thank you for putting so much together and for laying it out so clearly. Great lens!

    • thesuccess2 profile image

      thesuccess2 6 years ago

      This is a beautiful lens

    • AnnRadley profile image

      AnnRadley 6 years ago

      Great lens. I like the way you display all the color wheels. Also you describe the Triadic and Analogous color schemes (which I didn't in my Color Harmony lens) So it might be a good idea if I link to yours from there!

    • profile image

      anonymous 7 years ago

      This was great, and I enjoyed the variety of the "hotcha hotcha" examples! Beautiful. Despite what we learned in Jr. High, I go more by instinct and personal taste usually. Maybe this will help me branch out! I did copy the whole thing as reference--but will clearly mark it as your, and it will never go ANYWHERE except my 3-ring art binder. Let me know if that's ok or I will shred it.

    • Tr0y profile image

      Tr0y 7 years ago

      I didn't know much about colour wheels until I read this lens. Thank you very much for sharing.

    • OhMe profile image

      Nancy Tate Hellams 7 years ago from Pendleton, SC

      Wonderful descriptive of the Color Wheel. I do love color and have lensrolled to Who Is Roy G. Biv

    • John Dyhouse profile image

      John Dyhouse 7 years ago from UK

      @WildFacesGallery: Thanks for that, the lens itself is really designed to help familiarise people who may not appreciate the colour wheel and its uses in art.

    • WildFacesGallery profile image

      Mona 7 years ago from Iowa

      I am familiar with the color wheel but wanted to comment that your art is lovely. :)