Colour Wheel Basics

colour wheel basics header image

A colour wheel shows the relationship between primary, secondary and tertiary colours. It helps us pick colours that work well together and it can guide us when mixing paint. Whether you are preparing for a presentation or trying to compose an artwork, a colour wheel will be able to help you pick colours that will make them look good.

In this post, I will be talking about the properties of the colour wheel and what you can do with a colour wheel.

colour wheel image

primary colours

Primary colours

Red, blue and yellow are the primary colours. They are pure colours that cannot be created by mixing other colours.

They are equally spaced on the colour wheel.



secondary colours

Secondary colours

Secondary colours are produced by mixing 2 of the primary colours together in equal amounts. They are green, orange and violet.

Green = Blue + Yellow
Orange = Red + Yellow
Violet = Blue + Red


tertiary colours

Tertiary colours

Tertiary colours are produced by mixing a primary colour with a secondary colour next to it, with the ratio of 2 to 1, 2 being the primary colour.

There are 6 tertiary colours on the colour wheel:

Yellow – Orange
Yellow – Green
Blue – Green
Blue – Violet
Red – Violet
Red – Orange

warm colours

Warm colours

One half of the colours on the wheel are called warm colours. They can convey emotions such as happiness, anger, energy, enthusiasm etc. They can also be used to represent things like sun, fire, blood, autumn etc. Warm colours may make things look closer. They can make a room appear smaller.



cool colours

Cool colours

The other half of the colours on the wheel are called cool colours. They can convey emotions such as peacefulness, calmness, coldness etc. They can also be used to represent things like water, ice, shadows, lake etc, They may make things look further away. They can be used to make a room appear larger.



Colour schemes

A colour scheme contains a number of colours on the colour wheel that works well with each other and create a harmonious feel to it. It is said that they have good colour harmonies.


complementary colours


Complementary colours are any two colours that are opposite to one another on the colour wheel. One colour will be a warm colour and the other colour will be a cool colour.

They are used to make something standout or appear brighter due to the high contrast between the two colours. When placed next to each other, they can make each other seem brighter.

When painting, if you wish to desaturate a colour, mixing it with its complementary colour will do the job.


analogous colours


Analogous colours are any three colours that are next to each other on the colour wheel.

Analogous colours are comfortable to look at as they match one another very well. These colours are also often found in nature.



triadic colourrs


Triadic colours are any three colours that are equally spaced apart on the colour wheel.

When using this colour scheme, getting the right colour balance is important. One way to use this colour scheme is to use one colour as the main colour and use the 2 other colours for accent.



split complementary

Split Complementary

Split complementary colours contain 3 colours. It is similar to the complementary colour scheme. First, choose one colour, then find the 2 colours next to the complementary colour of that colour.

This is an easy to use scheme for beginners as it is difficult to mess up.



tetradic colours


Tetradic colours contain 2 sets of complementary colours. Colour balance is important here as well.

It works well when one colour dominates.



After choosing your colours from the colour wheel, you can then vary the properties of the chosen colours by varying the saturation, brightness, etc. If you are not sure what those properties are, I have written a blog explaining the properties of colours. You can check it out by clicking here.

It may be hard to use the colour wheel effectively for a beginner, but fear not, there are many ready-made colour schemes/ palettes that can be easily accessed by a simple google search. I have a book called “The Colour Scheme Bible” which I look at when I have trouble picking colours.

At the end of the day, the colour wheel is only there to guide you. You can always be creative, break the rules a little and come up with something on your own that works!


I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this post and learnt something new.


You may also be interested in:


4 Responses

  1. Hi Mary,

    I thought I knew what a color wheel was…. I didn’t realize that each color in between the primary colors had its own specific name. I think this will be very helpful when trying to find matching colors.

    Would the Colour Scheme Book be helpful to me when painting scenes in nature?

    Thank you for this information.

    1. Hi! Thanks for the comment 🙂 the Colour Scheme Book I linked to on the post is mainly for interior designs in homes. So it may not all apply for painting scenes in nature. 

      Here are some pins on pPnterest that have colour schemes inspired by nature. Hope this helps. 

Social Media

Recent Posts

Clip Studio Paint

30 Days Free Trial! The digital painting app for illustration, comics and animation!

Top online courses in Graphic Design & Illustration

Related Posts

Translate »