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Color Theory Basics: The Color Wheel

By: DecoArt
July 10, 2024

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Color Theory Basics: The Color Wheel
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Color theory may seem complicated, but it doesn't have to be! Even a basic understanding of color theory can help you take your art to the next level. Whether you're new to art or are looking to refresh your knowledge, we'll go through the color theory basics to help you paint with confidence.

A painting of a color wheel on a desk covered in paint and other art supplies
What is Color Theory?

Color theory as a practice can be dated all the way back to Aristotle. Despite its ancient roots, color theory is really quite simple. It is practical guidance for visual artists and designers that helps them come up with color schemes, mix colors, and define colors as we see them. 

What is the Color Wheel?

Through the study of color theory, we've devised the color wheel. There are different color wheels used for different purposes, such as painting or printing, but the basic painter's color wheel is a collection of 12 colors. The painter's color wheel groups color into 3 basic groups: primary, secondary, and tertiary colors.

Primary

PRIMARY COLORS: Red, Yellow, and Blue
These three primary colors are the foundation of the color wheel. They are called the primary colors because their true color pigments cannot be created by mixing any other combination of colors and all other colors in the color wheel are derived from these three hues. When painting it is important to have a true red, blue, and yellow to help you mix a variety of other colors.

Secondary
SECONDARY COLORS: Violet, Orange, and Green
Secondary colors are created by mixing equal parts of two primary colors together.

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

Tertiary

TERTIARY COLORS: Blue-Violet, Red-Violet, Red-Orange, Yellow-Orange, Yellow-Green, and Blue-Green
In total, there are six tertiary colors. Tertiary colors are created by mixing equal parts of a primary and secondary color together.

Blue (primary) + Violet (secondary) = Blue-Violet
Red (primary) + Violet (secondary) = Red-Violet
Red (primary) + Orange (secondary) = Red-Orange
Yellow (primary) + Orange (secondary) = Yellow-Orange
Yellow (primary) + Green (secondary) = Yellow-Green
Blue (primary) + Green (secondary) = Blue-Green

Shades, Tints, and Tones

If you have a favorite color that isn't represented in the color wheel, there may be a reason for that! Various tints, shades, and tones can all be derived from these 12 basic colors. A tint is when an artist adds white to make a lighter color. For example, pink is actually a tint of the color red.

Dresser drawers painted in a pink ombre
A shade is created when an artist adds black to darken a color. A little goes a long way with black paint, so try adding just a touch to see what deep and dramatic shades you can make out of your favorite colors. Similarly, a tone is made when gray is added to a color. Try this when you want an even subtler version.

hues, tints, and shades
When painting, mixing the colors you're using with a small amount of white or black is an easy way to create natural-looking highlight and shadow colors. Try this technique yourself and see what you can mix up! Some artists will create entire paintings using shades and tints of just one color for a monochromatic look.

A painter holds a paintbrush and is painting in yellow on a color wheel
How else are colors categorized?

One of the great things about the color wheel is it helps us design color schemes. By looking at the placement of colors on the color wheel, we can come up with groupings of different colors that work well with one another. Below are some of the most common ways to group colors according to the color wheel.

Basic Color Schemes


Color theoryCOMPLEMENTARY COLORS:
Complementary colors are those that are directly across from one another on the color wheel. These colors naturally complement one another and are commonly used together. (Green and red for Christmas, anyone?) Using these color combinations gives your projects a high contrast look.



Analogous
ANALOGOUS COLORS:
An analogous color scheme consists of three neighboring colors on the color wheel. Pick one color to be the primary color, and the two colors adjacent to it on either side to make your own analogous color scheme. Their proximity on the color wheel makes analogous color schemes harmonious and subtle.

Triadic color schemes
TRIADIC COLORS:
A triadic color scheme consists of three colors that are equally spaced apart on the color wheel, so a triangular shape. Triadic color schemes are bolder than an analogous color scheme and create some wonderful contrast and vibrant looks.

Split-complementary color schemes.
SPLIT-COMPLEMENTARY COLORS:
A split-complementary color scheme is similar to a complementary color scheme, but instead of using two colors directly across from one another on the color wheel, it uses three colors: one primary color and then the two colors adjacent to its complement. Split-complementary color schemes work best with one color acting as the dominant color and the other two used as accent colors, to avoid looking too busy.
Tetradic color schemes.
TETRADIC COLORS:
Also called a rectangular color scheme, a tetradic color scheme features 4 colors spaced apart in a rectangular shape. This will help you choose two complementary color pairings that work well together, allowing for colorful yet harmonious combinations.
Square color schemes.
SQUARE COLORS:
Similar to a tetradic color scheme, a square color scheme is 4 colors equal distance apart from one another. Square color schemes are bold, vibrant, and well-balanced. Choose a square over a rectangular color scheme if you're going for a higher contrast look.

Color Wheel Projects

Create your own color wheel art you can reference back to while you paint, or use to decorate your creative space! Here are some color wheel ideas from the DecoArt Project Gallery.


Color wheel
This colorful piece will be a lovely point of reference in your craft room or home studio. BONUS: the template needed to complete is free to download!

A color wheel drawing with rainbow leafs in a wheel pattern.
Try a fun spin on the classic color wheel by using leaves, flowers, or any other shape you like. The only limit is your imagination!

A color wheel made of a rainbow of daisy flowers.
Looking for more?

Are you looking for more artistic inspiration? DecoArt has plenty of resources and projects for artists of all ages and skill levels. Check out our Art For Everyone Learning Center for free tutorials and lessons added monthly, or go over to the DecoArt Blog to read up on the latest trends. The DecoArt Project Gallery is full of fun ideas to help inspire you to get creative. Thanks for reading and happy making!

Comments

I love the DecoArt color wheel!!! I've been stuck choosing the Munsell wheel (with its limited hues) or a RGB/CMY split primry wheel (which can't be put together in a sensaible way). DecoArt nailed it with the Americana premium color wheel as each of the 12 colors is dead on and has enough pure hues to make constant quaternary colors not having to guess if you got each succession of color right. Most other paints I've used missed along the spectrum leaving me mixing and matching brands.

Gino Fernandez

June 11, 2019

Quisiera saber si tienen oleos, trementina sin olor y aceite de linaza estoy ubicada en Colombia, me podrías dar una guía y como se piden en línea y que costos . Muchas gracias.

Angélica

June 14, 2019

Hola - Desafortunadamente, no llevamos esos productos. Tenemos un distribuidor en Colombia aunque: INDUSTRIAS PICCOLO SAS CARRERA 17 # 63-84 BOGOTA, CO +575713475521

DecoArt

June 17, 2019

This is great! Is it available for download or purchase?

Jennifer L Walling

August 27, 2019

Hi Jennifer - We don't have a download and you don't have to purchase it, but we do have an easy print feature at the top of the article that would allow you to print or save as a PDF for later reference.

DecoArt

August 28, 2019

I love your colors. Would you classify Deco Art acrylic paints at least medium grade? Thank you

Eveline

October 8, 2019

Hi Eveline - The grade of DecoArt paints depends on what paint line you are referring to; for instance, our DecoArt Media Fluid Acrylics and DecoArt Traditions Artist Acrylics are artist-grade, our Americana Premium Acrylics are medium-grade, and Americana Acrylics are craft quality.

DecoArt

October 9, 2019

Nice explanation! Just one small correction... In the opening sentence you say: "The basic color wheel is a collection of 12 colors which include: three primary, three secondary, and three tertiary colors." Actually, there are six tertiary colors (3 +3 + 6 = 12).

James

October 18, 2019

I'd love to see the color wheel painted using Traditions colors to create the 12 color families.

Debbie Williams

October 21, 2019

I loved the project

Nathaniel

March 30, 2020

I love the color wheel

Spencer Neale

March 30, 2020

hi

Kiara Martinez

April 1, 2020

the color wheel is fantastic

giselle gonzalez

April 3, 2020

the color wheel is fantastic

giselle gonzalez

April 3, 2020

The color wheels are nice.

Lawrence kanneh

April 7, 2020

The color wheel is cool.

JOHN JONES

April 8, 2020

I love colors and with just some colors you cane make alot of clors

Peyton Busby

April 22, 2020

Nice Post. It explains very well. Thanks www.Chandigarhkesari.com

Varinder

May 14, 2020

i love it thanks for letting me see it

claire

September 23, 2020

i love it thanks for letting me see it

claire

September 23, 2020

Art is so cool

Kim

October 27, 2020

Omg i totally let my daughter use this for her art at school and thanks i would totally rate 5 stars god bless you but my daughter copied the colors so i could by em thanks god bless DecoArt.

Samina Mathis

November 10, 2020

what does the color wheel meens

luxolo dikela

November 24, 2020

Hi how do I make the weel

Molly

December 4, 2020

It's well explanatory. How can I apply it, in Event Decoration?

Orenusi tunde

February 8, 2021

tats cool

brenden

August 21, 2021

Oh Yes

Ivy

September 8, 2021

I learned about analogous colors

Aron Kagin

September 8, 2021

You can add two colors to make another I love art.????

Juliana Prothro

September 8, 2021

I think all the products are great

Layla

September 8, 2021

Cool

Felicity

September 8, 2021

I think it is cool that you can bled colors and get different tiles of colors.

Taylee Edmonds

September 8, 2021

I that the color’s and the pictures were Reilly kool. And I would try one of these at home.

Layla Heard

September 24, 2021

Thanks Taylee! That is one of the coolest parts of color theory.

DecoArt

September 24, 2021

Thanks Layla! We hope you have fun creating one of the color wheel projects.

DecoArt

September 24, 2021

Very cool Aron! Thank you for the comment!

DecoArt

September 27, 2021

Yes, Juliana! Isn't it so exciting?

DecoArt

September 27, 2021

Hello Molly! We have an entire project explaining how to make the color wheel! if you click on the picture of the color wheel where it says "Color Wheel Projects" it will take you directly to the project! Thank you for your comment!

DecoArt

September 27, 2021

Hi Luxolo! The color wheel and color theory explain how colors relate to one another! Thanks for your comment!

DecoArt

September 27, 2021

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