Beginner Artists Guide to the Color Wheel and Paint Colors

Handmade Color Wheel

One of the confusing things for many artists is how to mix colors. Some people say that mixing colors is easy once you understand the basics of how to mix colors. But in my opinion, properly mix colors and understanding color is one of those skills that can take a lot of time and experience.

It is important for beginning artists to have some knowledge of the color wheel. There are primary, secondary, and tertiary colors, plus warm and cool colors and tints, shades, and tones for each color. The color wheel has different complementary and other color combination schemes that through your combining of the colors will give different artistic and design effects.

Art is about colors and shades, tints and tones of colors. So knowing how to properly mix color is very important for any artist, especially if you are mixing colors right on the canvas.

Color mixing and matching colors can actually be very complicated. I have done it a lot and can tell you first hand to have to match a color exactly time and time again is not very easy. It can really take a lot of skill.

So for any artists to know about color mixing and matching is a very important part of your art education and learning. One of the first places to start is to understand the basics of the color wheel.

It was Sir Issac Newton in 1666 who was the first person to place the colors on a color wheel.

The Color Wheel
A Basic Color Wheel.

Color Basics

There are three kinds of basic colors listed as primary colors. secondary colors and tertiary colors. Each one is a little different and has different color qualities.

Primary Colors

There are three colors that cannot be made by mixing any other colors together. These three colors are called primary colors.

These primary colors are:

  • Yellow
  • Blue
  • Red

You cannot mix any other colors together to make these colors but you use them to combine together to make other colors. Think of them as the ingredients in a recipe that cannot be changed but you can mix them with other ingredients to make the recipe. Like the vanilla, butter, and eggs in a chocolate chip cookie recipe.

Many artists may only use these colors plus white and black to mix all the colors on their palette You can try to do a painting this way and see how you do with mixing colors. It is a very good exercise to learn how to mix colors.

Secondary Colors

The secondary colors are colors that are mixed together by combining two primary colors together.

Here are some basic combinations:

  • Red (primary colors) + Blue (primary color) = Violet (Purple
  • Blue (primary color) + Yellow (primary color) = Green
  • Yellow (primary color) + Red (primary color) = Orange

So, therefore, the secondary colors which could be made by mixing two primary colors together would be:

  • Violet or as some people call it Purple
  • Green
  • Orange

Tertiary Colors

Tertiary colors are made by mixing secondary colors with a primary color to make the color. The recipe would be one part of primary color and one part secondary color.

Here are some color combinations and how the colors are mixed:

  • Yellow (Primary Color + Orange (Secondary Color) = Yellow Orange
  • Red (Primary Color) + Orange (Secondary Color) = Red Orange
  • Red (Primary Color) + Violet (Secondary Color) = Red Violet
  • Blue (Primary Color) + Violet (Secondary Color) = Blue Violet
  • Blue (Primary Color) + Green (Secondary Color) = Blue Green
  • Yellow (Primary Color) + Green (Secondary Color) = Yellow Green

So the Tertiary Colors are:

  • Yellow Orange
  • Red Orange
  • Red Violet
  • Blue Violet
  • Blue Green
  • Yellow Green

This is what we call the basic, secondary and tertiary colors. But it does not stop there, as there are still more things that you need to know and discover about colors to fully understand the science of color.

Warm and Cool Colors

The color wheel can be divided into warm and cool colors. Here is some basic information on warm and cool colors:

  • Warm Color – These colors are considered to be vivid, and energetic. Color like red, orange, yellow and some greens will fall into this range.
  • Cool Colors – These colors give a soothing impression of calmness. The colors that fall into cool colors are more than blue tones, violets, some pink tones, and some green color tones.

Tint, Shades, and Tones

Tints, shades, and tones are where things can get a bit more confusing as many people may feel this is the same thing. But in reality, it is not.

Here are the definitions of each:

  • Tint – A tint is when a color is made lighter by adding white to the color.
  • Shade – If black is added to make a color darker, then that is considered a shade color.
  • Tone – If grey is added to make the color different then that is considered to be a tone color.
Color Wheel Combinations
Color Wheel Combinations with hue tint shades wheels for primary secondary and supplementary combinations schemes.

Understanding Color Wheel Color Schemes.

Reading a color wheel can actually take some time to fully understand the color wheel. Many artists may wonder why this is important but once you understand the color wheel it can help you to know how to better mix colors and what colors work well together.

Even if you feel that you have a great eye and do not need to know about the color wheel, it helps for any artist to have this basic information and knowledge.

Complementary Color Scheme

Colors that are completely opposite of each other are considered to be complementary colors. By using complementary colors you can also create high contrasts in your work and give it a vibrant look. This is especially true if you use the colors at full saturation.

Complementary colors can be harder to use in large doses but many artists work well with using a lot of complementary colors in their artwork.

Here are some examples of complementary colors:

ColorComplementary Color
RedGreen
Red VioletYellow Green
VioletYellow
Blue VioletYellow Orange
BlueOrange
Blue Green Red Orange

Analogous Color Scheme

Analogous colors are colors that are next to each other on the color wheel. They usually match together well and can be very easy to use in your design and color palettes work.

Many analogous colors are found in nature are usually very pleasing to the eye to look at. But if you are using this color scheme you need to be sure to have enough of a contrast in the colors so it does not look like the same color.

As a rule of thumb, you can use one color to dominate, and then another color to support the first color by adding white, black or grey to the color, You can then use another color as the accent to the first two colors.

I tent to use this a lot as I normally tint my colors a lot on my canvas. I may start with a darker color and then add white to highlight the darker color I find this kind of technique works well for me and the kind of painting I do.

Here are some examples of the analogous color scheme on the color wheel:

DominateSupport Color3rd Color
GreenYellow GreenYellow
Red OrangeOrangeYellow Orange
RedRed VioletRed Orange
VioletBlue VioletRed Violet

This list above is just some basic examples as the list of combinations for this can really be endless.

Triadic or Secondary Color Scheme

The triadic or secondary color scheme uses colors that are evenly spaced around the color wheel. The use of secondary or triadic colors tends to be vibrant even if you are using some pale versions of the same hue.

To use Triadic colors successfully you should allow one color to dominate and the other two to be used as accent colors.

Here are some example of some triadic color scheme combinations

Dominate ColorSupport ColorSupport Color
VioletOrangeGreen
BlueYellowRed
Blue VioletYellow GreenRed Orange
Green Violet Orange
Red BlueYellow

There are endless combinations of colors you can use for the dominate and the colors you can use for the support colors. But the main thing about the triadic color scheme is that they are colors that are evenly spaced around the color wheel.

Split-Complementary Color Scheme

The split-complementary color scheme is a variation of the complementary color scheme. It has a base color and then two colors as a complementary color. This kind of scheme is usually easier for beginners as it is harder to mess up.

The good thing about this split-complementary color scheme is that it has the same strong visual contrast as the complementary color scheme but has less overall tension to it.

Here are some split-complementary combinations:

Base ColorComplementary ColorComplementary Color
YellowRed VioletBlue Violet
GreenRed VioletRed Orange
OrangeBlue VioletBlue Green
BlueYellow Orange Red Orange
VioletYellow GreenYellow Orange
RedBlue Green Yellow Green

Again there are many combinations for the split-complementary scheme. The main thing with this is that there is the base color and then two support colors.

Rectangle (Tetradic) Color Scheme

The rectangle or tetradic color scheme is four colors that are arranged as two complementary pairs. This rich kind of color scheme has endless combinations of variations.

This kind of scheme also works best if you can allow one color to be the dominant color. But like in most things in art, many rules are made to be broken when you break them for a reason. No matter what you decide you should pay attention to the balance between the warm and cool color combinations.

Here is some example of Rectangular or the tetradic color scheme:

Color 1 AColor 1 BColor 2 A Color 2 B
Yellow GreenYellow OrangeRed VioletBlue Violet
YellowOrangeVioletBlue Violet
OrangeRedBlueGreen
RedVioletGreenYellow
Yellow OrangeRed OrangeBlueGreen
Blue GreenYellow GreenRed OrangeRed Violet

This rectangular combination, like many of the other color schemes, has a lot of possibilities.

Square Color Scheme

The square color scheme is similar to the rectangle color scheme but all four colors are placed evenly around the color wheel. Like most of the color schemes, it works best if you allow one color to be the dominant color and you pay close attention to the balance between the cool and warm colors in your artwork.

Here are some square color scheme combinations:

Color 1 AColor 1 BColor 2 AColor 2 B
Yellow GreenYellow OrangeRed VioletBlue Violet
YellowOrangeVioletBlue
Yellow OrangeRed OrangeBlue VioletBlue Green
Orange RedBlueGreen

Best Locations to Match or Check Colors

According to your lighting colors can change and it can make matching or checking your true color difficult. This is especially true with many of the artificial lights and light bulbs that are used today.

Here is some information on matching colors:

  • Natural Light – By far the best place or way to check a color and the matching of the color is in the natural daylight. If you are able to bring the color outside to check the color, this is always a very good choice. If you can’t go outside try to go near a window that has good natural light.
  • Halogen Bulbs – Halogen bulbs give the closest light to the natural light than other bulbs. They are called white light. They can also get hot, be expensive and not last very long. But they do give a true light like natural light.
  • Compact Fluorescent bulbs (CFL) – Compact Fluorescent bulbs can also be a good choice as they come in a large range of colors and are energy efficient.

Try to avoid light bulbs that are too yellow as incandescent bulbs or other light bulbs which have a lot of yellow tones. This will make matching the color very difficult.

Using the right color and color combinations can make all the difference in your art and artwork. Colors and the combination of colors can be a powerful design element if used correctly and properly, so this is why it is important for every artist to have some basic knowledge of color, the color wheel, and color combinations schemes.

Related Questions

What Is The Definition Of The Color Wheel?

The color wheel is defined as a circle with different colored sectors used to show the relationship between colors. The color wheel and color wheel theory are useful for artists, designers and anyone who needs to work with and understand color.

What is Color Therapy?

Color therapy is based on the idea and belief that light and colors and how we view colors can cause electrical impulses in our brains that will help to stimulate hormonal and biochemical processes in our body. These hormonal or biochemical processes can either clam or stimulate us, therefore causing us to have different reactions or feelings.

Anita Louise Hummel

Hi, I am Anita Louise Hummel. I am an artist and a blogger. I paint mainly oil paints. I love to paint women, animals (mainly dogs and cats), and abstracts. I use a lot of gold and silver leaf in my paintings. I also love to blog about anything to do with art, business, Procreate, and all the wonderful artists that inspire me.

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