What is the Color Wheel? – Color Theory Definition & Basics

Most artists know about this term – color theory – and what it means or they couldn’t very effectively create a

successful piece of art.

However, if you’re just starting out or only draw in graphite but want to branch out into the world of color, you may have wondered – what is the color wheel? – and you may just want to get started with a color theory definition and the basics.

Well you’ve come to the right place.

This article will break down and explain the color wheel and give you easy to understand concepts and terms that will increase your understanding in working with color to get you started.

Color Theory Defined

Color Theory is just a fancy way of saying there are concepts and principles that will help you mix colors, create interesting visual effects using certain colors or color combinations.

That’s it. Easy so far, right?  Good.

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It All Begins With The Color Wheel (or really the color spectrum connected end to end)

So what is The Color Wheel?   The color wheel is really just a tool – an important tool – for you to use in understanding aspects of color theory. It would be difficult to explain color theory without looking at one.

I recommend that all artists who wish to create art in color have one. You can purchase one here:

click here to check price, at any art store or you can simply make one easily yourself.  

(Here’s my color wheel to the right.  A little worn from use and notice the nice teeth marks my dog put on it? – rescued just in time! lol)

The color wheel has 12 colors in total. And by the way, another word for the word color is hue.

Remember how we learned what the colors of the rainbow are? We were taught the mnemonic roy g biv – red orange yellow green blue indigo violet.

And that’s the order of the primary and secondary colors making up the wheel (minus the indigo which is a tertiary color, explained in the next section).

[An aside: in 1666, Sir Isaac Newton discovered that white sunlight falling on a prism reflected a spectrum of colors which he named, you guessed it, red orange yellow green blue indigo and violet.

There were actually 6 colors but he added the seventh color (indigo or blue violet) because he wanted it to correspond with the seven notes of a musical scale.

He also made the color wheel by joining the ends of the spectrum to form a circle – or the color wheel. Coo, huh? (I know you didn’t really need to know that but I threw it in for those super inquiring minds. 🙂 ]

Check out this excellent resource:

“Special Subjects: Basic Color Theory: An introduction to color for beginning artists”

Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Colors

If you ever took an art class in school you probably learned the info in this section but it’s worth repeating.

Let’s begin with the primary colors. They are red, yellow and blue.

These three colors are the colors from which all other colors are made. You cannot make red, yellow or blue by mixing any colors together. The primaries rock!!

Secondary colors, of which there are three, are made by mixing equal parts of two primary colors.

For example red and yellow make…you’re right, orange! Yellow and blue make green. And blue and red make purple (or violet – my favorite color lol).

And then there are tertiary colors, six in all. They are made from one primary and one secondary color.

These are very easy to remember because their names are the names that make up the color. Red-orange is made of …yep – red and orange. Combining yellow and orange makes yellow-orange. Yellow and green make yellow-green. Mixing blue and green make blue-green. Blue combined with violet makes blue-violet. And finally, red and violet make red-violet – Whew!

Love, love the tertiaries – use them A lot!!

Cool and Warm Colors Defined

The wheel can be separated into two groups of colors that make up so-called warm and cool colors. The warm colors are

red, red-orange, orange, yellow-orange, yellow and yellow-green.

The cool colors consist of green, blue-green, blue, blue-violet, violet and red-violet

If you would like to communicate cheerfulness and energy, the warm colors would work for that.

Also, warm colors tend to come forward in space, so they would be better choices for foregrounds in landscapes.

Cool colors tend to recede in space and are good choices for elements in the distance. They also convey and calm tranquility feeling as well. Ahhhh…

The photo above is a good example of warmer tones feeling close and cooler blues looking far away. See how that works so well??

Tint, Tone and Shade

Tint is when you add white to a color which will of course make the color lighter.

Tone is using gray to tone down or to “dull” a color, making it less vibrant

Shade is using black to darken a color.

Totally makes sense, am I right??

Harmonious Color Schemes

Color schemes are a grouping of at least 2 colors chosen specifically to work in harmony together, to be appealing or evoke a certain emotion or mood.

Complementary Color Scheme

Complementary colors are colors that are directly across from each other on the color wheel.

Examples of these opposites would be red and green, blue and orange and yellow and violet.

The use of complements when placed together provide high contrast and lend high energy to the composition, making it stand out.

The use of complements should be done with one color being more prominent in the picture, though. If the two colors occupy equal parts of the picture, this can be overpowering, as they will be engaged in an argument! 🙁

Notice how my drawing above shows the complementary color scheme of red and green. But the focal point (the cardinal) stands out more than the delicate green needles so compositionally it works, and all is well.

Analogous Color Scheme.

Analogous colors are a group of 2-4 neighboring colors on the wheel. For example red, red-orange and orange are analogous as are yellow-orange, yellow and yellow-green.

When analogous colors are put together, it looks comfortable and harmonious, pleasing.

Be sure to have enough contrast, though. The yellow-orange, yellow and yellow-green would have more contrast than the red, red-orange and orange for example. (Look at the color wheel to see what I mean.)

This photo to the right shows a beautiful analogous color scheme – very pleasing to the eye and comfortable. Being that it has only cool colors makes it also communicate tranquility. So peaceful!

Triadic Color Scheme

This scheme uses 3 evenly-spaced colors (forming a triangle) around the wheel, such as red, blue and yellow. In this scheme, you’d either use all 3 primaries, all three secondaries or 2 different combos of the tertiary colors.

Again, you can see what I mean if you look on the color wheel.

Split Complementary Scheme

For this scheme, you start with one base color and add the 2 colors on both sides of the complement of the base color. Ex: red, yellow green and blue-green.

Tetradic Color Scheme

This scheme uses 4 colors consisting of 2 pairs of complements on the wheel either forming a rectangle – ex: red/green and blue/orange – or a square (the 4 colors must be evenly-spaced) – ex: blue/orange and red-violet and yellow-green).

You wouldn’t want to use all 4 colors equally, though or it would be too overwhelming.

I would suggest picking a color or two to feature and have the others less prominent.

My flower drawing to the left shows an example of tetradic color scheme with the use of red-violet (tinted with white) and yellow green along with yellow-orange and blue-violet.

This composition wouldn’t work well from a color scheme standpoint if the pink flowers were the same size as the rest of the flowers.

Monochromatic Scheme

When tranquility or serenity is what you are going for as a statement in your art, going monochromatic is another option for you.

Monochromatic schemes take one hue and mix various tints, tones and shades using white, gray and black. You’d be surprised how many variations you can get with one color! And if you have high contrast in the piece, your work will be stunning. And you can brag how you only used one color haha!

Check it out >>==>The New Color Mixing Companion – a great resource!<==

Just A Few More Terms (I promise!)

I cannot finish this article without also mentioning these very common terms that people often get confused.  OK, here we go…

Saturation (or chroma) – means how pure or intense the color (hue) is relative to how much gray there is. 100% saturation means there is no gray. 0% saturation would mean it’s totally gray.

When a color is fully saturated it is very bright and intense. As the saturation decreases, it becomes dull or eventually grayed out.

Value – is how light or dark a color is by mixing it with white or black. White will tint a color and make it appear lighter in value. Black will shade a color and make it appear darker.

Colors, relative to one another can be affected by value as well – i.e. a color can appear lighter by putting a darker color next to it. It’s true – try it!

Temperature – This refers to those warm and cool tones we talked about earlier. A warmer coloration would use your reds, oranges and yellows. A cooler temperature would show your greens, blues and violets.

That’s All Folks

So you now know the answer to the question – what is the color wheel? – and hopefully understand the basics of color theory.

This will greatly help you when it comes to color selection, mixing and schemes and producing colored art in general!

What is your favorite color scheme? Do you prefer the way complementary color schemes pop?? Or are you more of a serenity type?

Please let us know in the box below. Also, any questions or comments are always welcomed and appreciated.

I promise your email address will not be shared!

Thanks for reading. 🙂

Have a colorful day,










4 thoughts on “What is the Color Wheel? – Color Theory Definition & Basics”

  1. Thanks for a really good and informative article. I have never been sure about how the whole colour wheel works when it comes to art, but now it makes so much more sense.
    Can’t wait to play around with some colours.


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