How to Read & Use a Color Wheel

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

A color wheel is one of the most basic tools that an artist has. In this lesson, we are going to explore this device and see how one is made and used.

A Color Wheel

Imagine designing a city. You've got a busy intersection where a series of roads come together. One very common way for city planners to keep these roads organized is to organize them into a roundabout. In this circular system, the relationship between the roads is easier to see. In fact, circles make a pretty good organizational system in general. Artists commonly organize colors into a circular pattern called a color wheel, which can help them understand the relationship between these colors. It's just like a colorful roundabout- you enter at one point, and exit at another, depending on where exactly you want your composition to go.

Color wheel
Color wheel

Making a Color Wheel

To understand the color wheel, let's see how they are made. There are several variations of the color wheel, so, for now we're just going to focus on the traditional color wheel, composed of twelve distinct color values.

Primary Colors

To make the color wheel, we start with the three primary colors of red, yellow, and blue. Primary colors are those which cannot be made by combining other colors together. To start making the wheel, we create spaces for red, yellow, and blue that are evenly spaced apart, forming an equilateral triangle.

Primary colors
Primary colors

Secondary Colors

The next set of colors on the color wheel are those that are made by combining equal amounts of primary colors, called secondary colors. Red and blue make violet, blue and yellow make green, and yellow and red create orange. So, now we place spots for these three colors on the wheel. Each one goes directly between the two primary colors used to create it.

Tertiary Colors

We're got six colors on our 12-color wheel, so we need six more. These last six are all tertiary colors, created by adding more primary color to a secondary color. For example, green is a secondary color. If we add more blue to it, we get bluish-green. If we add more yellow to it, we get yellowish-green. Those are tertiary colors. On the color wheel, tertiary colors fall in between the primary and secondary colors used to create them. With that, we have 12 related color values on our color wheel.

Using a Color Wheel

So, this is a neat configuration of colors, but what's the point? Color wheels organize colors so that artists can easily identify values that match, contrast, and harmonize. Half the wheel, ranging from yellowish-green to red, are the warm colors. Warm colors are bold and noticeable. They tend to be more visually prominent. In a painting, warm colors can create the illusion of being closer to the viewer than other colors.

However, warm colors can also be overwhelming and, so to balance them, artists may wish to use cool colors. Cool colors are calmer, subtle, and may seem to be receding from the viewer. On the color wheel, they are on the opposite half from the warm colors, ranging from reddish-violet to green. Already, the color wheel is helping us understand how colors relate and how to use them.

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