What Is A Color Wheel & How To Use It

The Color Wheel In Art

What Is A Color Wheel?

Think of a color wheel as a round pie cut into twelve equal pieces. Each section or piece of the pie represents a color of the rainbow.

The colors in a color wheel are organized in the same order that they would appear in a rainbow. They are in the same order as the light that has been split through a prism. A prism splits light into the visible light spectrum of colors.

What Are The Colors In A Color Wheel?

The colors in a color wheel are placed around the pie in the same order that they appear in a rainbow. Three primary colors form a triangle within the color wheel.

The primary colors are red, yellow, and blue.

Secondary colors lie between red, yellow, and blue on the color wheel. Secondary colors are created by mixing two primaries. Secondary colors consist of orange, green, and purple.

Tertiary colors are created by mixing a primary and a secondary color. Tertiary colors on a color wheel include yellow-orange, yellow-green, blue-green, blue-violet, red-violet, and red-orange.

The complementary color pairs may be the most important thing to remember about a color wheel. The complementary colors are useful when mixing oil paint colors and directing the viewer's attention. This is used often in art and design.

Color Wheel Complementary Colors

Here's how to find complementary colors on color wheel. Colors opposite of each other on the color wheel are known as complementary colors.

If you remember one thing about color theory and the color wheel, remember the complementary color pairs. Complementary color wheel pairs are very useful in painting and design.

  • The Complementary Color To Blue Is Orange
  • The Complementary Color Of Green Is Red
  • The Complementary Color Of Purple Is Yellow

Colors next to each other on the color wheel are known as analogous colors. Most of the time, an analogous color palette is a set of 3 or more colors that are next to each other on the color wheel.

An example of an analogous color theme would be yellow-orange, yellow, and yellow-green.

Purpose Of A Color Wheel

What Is The Purpose Of A Color Wheel?

The color wheel offers a simple way to understand color and paint mixing.

A Simple Art Color Wheel Illustrates Color Relationships Between:

  1. Primary Colors
  2. Secondary Colors
  3. Tertiary Colors
  4. Complementary Colors
  5. Analogous Colors

As children, many of us were taught that we can make virtually any color if we have the three primary colors of paint. The primary colors are red, blue, and yellow.

Mix red and yellow paint to make orange. Mix blue and yellow paint to make green. Mix red and blue paint to make purple.

The color wheel illustrates one step further, showing how you can mix a warm green by adding a higher ratio of yellow paint than blue paint. Mix a cooler green by adding a higher ratio of blue paint than yellow paint.

How Many Colors Are In A Color Wheel?

How many colors depends on the type of color wheel. A simple color wheel in art has 12 colors. The colors are red, red-orange, orange, orange-yellow, yellow, yellow-green, green, blue-green, blue, blue-violet, violet, and red-violet.

Color Temperature

The color wheel can offer a better understanding of color temperature. The ability to recognize color temperature is very useful when painting.

Color Temperature In Art

What Is Color Temperature?

Color temperature refers to how we perceive colors to be either warm or cool. When painting, the color temperature of a color is referring to a tertiary color mixture.

To know whether a color is warm or cool, identify the two primaries that made that color, then determine which primary is the most dominant.

Blues and violets are cool colors. A color mixture that is dominated by blue or violet will create a cool color. A color mixture that is dominated by yellow will create a warm color.

Color temperature in lighting has a much more technical meaning. Color temperature in lighting is measured using the Kelvin temperature scale.

Warm Light, Cool Light

What's An Example Of Warm Light vs Cool Light?

The golden light we see at the end of the day would be thought of as warm light. Warm colors tend to have more yellow in them.

Bluish light is thought of as cooler light. An object that is lit by an overcast sky might appear to be cooler in color.

In painting, you can purchase paint colors that are warm or cool, or you can mix colors together to make them appear more warm or cool.

Use Of Color Wheel

How To Use A Color Wheel?

Here are a few practical ways to use a color wheel. Use it to identify complementary colors, when mixing paint colors, or when designing a color theme.

Painters should memorize the complementary color pairs. Knowledge of complementary color pairs can be useful when mixing paint colors. Use a color's complementary to reduce a bright color's saturation or chroma.

Color Saturation Or Chroma

Color chroma and color saturation can loosely be defined as the same thing. Highly saturated paint color is one that is totally saturated with a specific pigment or color. A bright, intense pink could be referred to as a saturated pink.

Color Wheel For Paint Mixing

There are several ways you can use knowledge of the color wheel when mixing oil paint.

How To Mix Paint - Color Wheel

Use the color wheel in painting to illustrate how to mix paint colors, making colors appear to be warmer or cooler.

Mix equal parts of 2 primary colors to make a secondary color. Mix a warm version of this color by adding more of the warm primary, usually, this would be yellow. Mix a cool version of this color by adding more of the cool primary, usually, this would be blue.

Focal Point

Draw attention to a painting's focal area by placing two complementary colors next to each other. When painting with complementary colors, consider placing them side by side in the focal area of the painting.

Complementary colors placed next to one another seem to vibrate in the eye. The contrast between the two colors attracts attention.

Use this to guide the viewer's attention through a painting. This simple technique can be used to make the focal point stand out. My personal favorite complementary color pair is blue accented by orange.

Complementary Color Painting Gray

Here's how to mix paint color gray. Mix a variety of grays by mixing equal parts of 2 complementary colors. Make a warm gray by adding more of a warm complementary.

Tone down a bright color by adding a very small amount of its complementary color. This will decrease the saturation of the paint color. This is very useful when creating depth in a painting. Objects that recede in space should become less saturated the farther away they are from the viewer. This visual distance can be achieved, in part, by mixing complementary paint colors.

Paint colors are often lightened with white. It is possible to lighten a color using another color. For example, use light blue to lighten a color and create a cool tint of that color. Adding light yellow will not only lighten the color but creates a warmer tint of the color.

Can You Mix Paint To Make It Darker?

You can mix paint to make it darker. For example, I often make Ultramarine Blue darker by mixing it with a dark brown.

Browns often contain a bit of orange, therefore the brown acts as a complementary color. The result is a dark, neutral blue that works well for painting shadows.

In order to make a pink darker, add more red or magenta to your paint mixture. This will saturate your color mixture resulting in a darker, more intense paint color.

Knowledge of the color wheel can help you understand which paint colors to mix to get the desired results.

What Color Is Made By Mixing All Colors

Mixing all colors will essentially give you a muddy color. Aim to mix the desired color from 3 or fewer paint colors.

Color Mixing

Be selective about the paint colors you choose for your paint mix. To make cool colors, start with tubes of cool oil paint colors. Mix to get the desired result.

It is much more difficult to mix warm colors together and then attempt to make them cool. Warm and cool versions of oil paint color are available for virtually every color straight from the paint tube.

Natural Color

When mixing paint, a highly saturated pink that is mixed with a touch of green will become more neutral. The green will reduce the saturation or chroma of the pink. On a color wheel, the complement of pink (or red) is green.

A highly saturated paint color could be said to have a high level of intensity, strength, color, vividness, or loudness.

Colors in nature are often subtle. Painting realistic often requires neutralizing bright paint colors to make them appear more natural.

A bright intense green, for instance, would likely need a spot of red added to it prior to painting grass. Otherwise, bright green paint straight from the tube would seem loud, cartoonish, and unnatural.

Background Colors

The background in a painting is often painted with neutral, less saturated oil paint colors. Neutral colors visually recede into the distance.

A bright blue could be mixed with a bit of orange to create a distant sky or horizon. Green grass off in the distance would be toned down with red or pink. Yellows may be toned down with the smallest touch of violet.

Objects in the distance are usually less saturated which makes them appear to be off in the distance. Colors used to paint a background should lessen in value or intensity, as objects gradually disappear from view.

Sharp details and strong saturated colors should be reserved for a painting's foreground or focal point. Use complementary colors in your paint mixing to lessen the intensity of colors.

Adjust Color Often

When painting realistic, the paint color should be adjusted often as you move around the form. An object that is painted a single color will look flat. Modifying the color slightly as you paint the form will create depth.

Using A Color Wheel In Design

A simple way to use a color wheel in design is to create a color theme. Use a color wheel when trying to think about the best colors for a new painting or project.

Color wheel and color theory.

In college, much of my color theory class was spent learning the color wheel and how to use it.


A color wheel is used to teach color theory. An art color wheel illustrates the relationship between colors. It helps an artist understand how to better mix oil paint colors.

Knowledge of complementary colors and analogous color themes can be very useful in art composition. Complementary colors placed next to one another will attract the viewer's attention.

Mixing one oil paint color with its complementary color will neutralize or desaturate a paint color. Mix oil paint to create tertiary colors as warm or cool versions of a color. Knowledge of the color wheel can help you paint better.

Author: Sonia Reeder-Jones