Color Theory Basics: The Color Wheel

Color Theory Basics: The Color Wheel

Posted by DecoArt on Oct 12th 2021

At first glance, color theory may seem complicated, but an understanding of the basic principles is all you need to start applying it in your own creative life. Whether you're a painter, a home renovator, or looking to put together a stunning outfit; understanding color theory is the key to making harmonious color schemes and creating with confidence. 

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

The study of color theory has a long and storied history dating all the way back to Aristotle. Back then, philosophers discussed the mixing of colors and how they could be used to produce new ones. Later on, scientists studied the influence of light and how it impacts what colors we can see and why.

A more modern approach to the study of color can be seen around the 18th century when we began to define terms we still use today, such as primary colors. From there the artistic tradition of color theory split away from the scientific. While science focused on our vision in relation to color, artists focused on how colors could be created, combined, and used.

In the artistic world today, color theory is defined as practical guidance for visual artists and designers that helps them come up with color schemes, mix colors, and define colors as we see them. And the main tool used to help artists understand these relationships is the color wheel.

What is the Color Wheel?

A color wheel is an illustrative tool used to help us define colors and their relationships to one another, the first one was invented in 1666 by Sir Issac Newton and several variations have been used since then. You're probably familiar with the color wheel taught in most art classes, but did you know it's not the only one?

There are two main methods of producing color, subtractive or additive. But why? It all comes back to light and the way our eyes interpret it to see color. An additive color wheel reflects how different wavelengths of lights can create visible color. The subtractive color wheel shows us how a color looks to us when white light, such as sunlight, reflects off of an object.

If you're confused, try to think of it this way. Have you ever looked up close at a computer or TV screen? If you do you can see it starts out black and then the pixels, or pinpoints of light, that make up the screen light up and show you images. Digital screens like this use an additive color method, by beginning as black and then mixing different amounts of colored light they can create all the colors in the visible light spectrum. On this color wheel, the primary colors are red, green, and blue.

A subtractive color wheel is what we commonly think of as the painter's color wheel. Subtractive colors start from white, and then colorants are used to cause the surface to reflect a different color back to our eyes. This can be paint, dye, pigment, or anything else. On a subtractive color wheel, the primary colors are red, yellow, and blue.

For the purposes of painting, you really only need to know about this color wheel. Still, isn't it interesting how light impacts what our eyes see? On the painter's color wheel colors are divided into 3 main groups: primary, secondary, and tertiary colors.

The Painter's Color Wheel


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 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 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. Americana Acrylics has a great variety of all colors including pinks!

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 from 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 main uses of the color wheel is to help us recognize the visual relationships between colors. 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 for a variety of purposes. Below are some basic color schemes you can refer back to when choosing colors for your palette.

Basic Color Schemes

Complementary colors are two colors that are directly across from one another on the color wheel. These pairings are usually high-contrast and bold. While these complete opposites may not seem like they work well, together they brighten and strengthen one another for a high-impact look. 

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
A triadic color scheme consists of three colors that are equally spaced apart on the color wheel in 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.
A split-complementary color scheme is similar to a complementary color scheme. 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.
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.
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

Having your own color wheel to refer back to can be useful in any artistic space. Below are some color wheel canvas ideas from the DecoArt project Gallery you can paint yourself and use to decorate your studio.  

Color wheel

A minimalist color wheel canvas art made using equally spaced dots of acrylic paint in a circle shape.

A color wheel made of a rainbow of daisy flowers.

A color wheel canvas painted into a heart shape
Looking for more?

Practice mixing your own colors! We recommend starting off with our Americana Acrylics. Start with Primary Red, Primary Yellow, and Primary Blue

Want to work with a different paint? Check out our artist acrylics, Traditions Canvas Art Paint. These premium acrylic paints blend easily and are perfect for mixing your own creative color palettes!

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, 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!