What is the Color Wheel?

the color wheel

The color wheel is a circular diagram that organizes colors and their relationships. A color wheel can be used to create favorable color combinations that work harmoniously with each other and interact in expected ways. Understanding how the colors interact when mixing paint leads to more favorable outcomes, and lets you do more with less paint.

Colors are classified into categories: primary, secondary, and tertiary.

What are primary colors?

the primary colors (red, yellow, and blue) on a color wheel

The primary colors are red, blue, and yellow. These are the main colors that, when mixed in different combinations, can make all other colors. The primary colors themselves must begin with pure pigment and cannot be made by mixing anything else together. Of course, you can mix different tones, for example a violet-ish blue, or a green-ish-yellow, but the pure red, blue, and yellow come from pigment, not from mixing.

Side story: In art school, I had a painting professor that only let us paint with a limited palette, and it consisted of two types of red, two types of blue, and two types of yellow. (We could also use black and white, but sparingly, we were warned). We had to mix to create our own palette and to get every other color. At first, I didn’t see how it would be possible to achieve the desired results, but in the end I was grateful to have had the experience to develop a unique palette for my paintings that in no way looked “out of the tube.”

What are secondary colors?

the secondary colors (orange, green, and violet) on a color wheel

Secondary colors (orange, green, and violet), are created by mixing the primary colors together.

orange = red and yellow
green = yellow + blue
violet = blue + red

What are tertiary colors?

You’ll see a lot of different definitions of “tertiary colors” on the web, as well as IRL. Actually, tertiary colors are the colors that are made when mixing two secondary colors together.
orange + green = olive
green + violet = blue grey
violet + orange = burnt sienna

Color schemes

The relationships between colors are classified in categories such as complementary, analogous, and monochromatic.

Complementary colors

Pairs that are found across from each other on the color wheel are called complementary colors.

three examples of complementary color pairs on the twelve color color wheel
complementary color pairs on the color wheel

For example:
yellow and violet are complementary to each other
green and red are complementary to each other
and blue and orange are complementary to each other.

This is my favorite color relationship to exploit as they make each other pop when used next to each other. Complementary colors grey each other out when combined. So, if a color is too saturated, add a touch of it’s complementary color to calm it down. Use complementary colors to create more depth in shadows, mix grays, and electrify graphics.

*color mixing tip: If a color is too bold, add a touch of its complementary color to de-saturate it.

Split complementary

color wheel split complementary vs complementary color schemes
example of complementary vs split complementary color schemes on the color wheel

Split complementary color combinations consist of the main color and the color to either side of it’s complementary color. So, instead of matching blue with orange, a match of blue with red-orange, or yellow-orange would be a split complementary color pairing. In the example above, green-yellow has a complementary color of violet-red, but its split complementary colors are violet and red. This creates a nice contrast that is not as drastic as a complementary color pair.


example of analogous colors (orange, yellow-orange, and red-orange) on the color wheel
example of analogous colors (orange, yellow-orange, and red-orange) on the color wheel

Neighbors on the color wheel are analogous. For example, orange, red-orange, and yellow-orange are analogous with each other.


Monochromatic, or “one color”, colors refers to the use of one dominant color in different shades or tones plus black and/or white. So, if you only use shades of blue and black or white for a painting, it is monochromatic.

Triadic and Tetradic

example of triad and tertiary color relationships on the color wheel
example of triad and tertiary color relationships on the color wheel

Triadic describes the relationship of three colors at equal distances from each other on the color wheel. The easy way to figure this out is to pick a color, then use it as one corner of an equilateral triangle. The colors that land on the other two points complete the “triad” with the initial color.

Tetradic is similar to triadic, but instead of a three pointed triangle, four points make up a square shape on the color wheel. Each of the four (equidistant) points indicate one of the four colors in a tetradic color scheme.

Cool Tones and Warm Tones

cool tones and warm tones on the color wheel
diagram of cool tones and warm tones on the color wheel

The color wheel split into to 2 semi-circles indicates cool tones and warm tones. The cut-off line is between violet/red-violet, and yellow-green/yellow. Cool tones start with violet and continue to yellow-green. Warm tones are from yellow to red-violet.

What’s Your Favorite Color?

You may be wondering how to put all of this technical knowledge to use. Simple. Find your favorite color on the wheel, and consider the palettes you could make using the categories above. You may start to recognize these patterns in palettes that catch your attention.

The color wheel used in this article is simple in order to demonstrate the concepts. But a color wheel can contain a full spectrum of color, so find or make a color wheel to suit your needs.

Buy yourself a color wheel from this link to Amazon.com (and I’ll earn a small percentage), Thanks!

The color wheel is a valuable tool. Understand it, how colors work with or against each other, and you’ll have more control with mixing paint.