Color Theory 101 – The Color Wheel

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Color Theory 101 - yellow and blue dot dudes painting a green dot dude

Why Use a Color Wheel?

Learning how the color wheel works will help your students later when they want to use color purposefully to express themselves. Artists use color to set the mood, bring attention to a focal point, and create color harmonies. I want to demystify color theory a little for you so you can use color terms as you are teaching and show your students the value of learning about color.

The Color Wheel

The color wheel is a way to organize colors in a way that helps us understand the relationship of colors to each other. The color spectrum is what happens when a ray of light divides into different wavelengths with a prism. Sir Isacc Newton came up with a way to place those different colors (or hues) on a circle, and some pretty amazing things happen when we start looking at how they interact with each other. Let’s look at how the color wheel can help you mix colors, come up with a color scheme, and show space, all by the colors you choose and how you use them.

A color wheel

Primary and Secondary Colors

A color wheel showing primary colors
A color wheel showing secondary colors

We commonly use Primary and secondary colors for color mixing. The order they sit on the color wheel is ideal for this. The primary colors get their name because it is impossible to mix two other colors and get red, yellow, or blue, so we must start with two primary colors. Find two primary colors you want to mix on the color wheel and the secondary color you will get by mixing them sits between the two primary colors.

Color Mixing

You can see by this fun illustration using Dot Dudes that blue and yellow make green, red and yellow make orange, and red and blue make purple.

If you are wondering, you can get high-resolution versions of the diagrams in this blog post on my website that you can print out and display in your classroom. The collection of images also contains a coloring page of the Dot Dudes mixing and making the secondary colors.
See more information about the Color Wheels for Teaching Color Theory Posters here.

The primary colors aren’t the only colors used for mixing.
So what happens when you mix a primary color with a secondary color?

Intermediate Colors

When you mix two adjacent primary and secondary colors, you get an intermediate color. Using intermediate colors in your art gives it more variety and subtleties than only using primary and secondary colors.
Intermediate colors are also helpful when you are creating a limited palette or color scheme.

One example of limiting your palette is using only warm or cool colors. I’ll explain what warm and cool colors are next, along with showing you some other limited palettes such as analogous colors, color complements, split complementary colors, and color triads.

a color wheel showing Intermediate colors

Color Temperature

A color wheel showing warm colors
A color wheel showing cool colors

Warm and Cool Colors

Dividing colors between warm and cool colors can be tricky because it’s relative. There are situations when colors change their temperature based on the colors surrounding them. Likewise, it’s possible to have warm and cool versions of one color. But as a general rule, the colors with longer wavelengths such as red, orange, and yellow are considered warm colors. The colors with shorter wavelengths, such as green, blue and purple, are considered cool colors.

Warm colors remind us of fire and sunshine and other naturally warm things. So when an artist uses primarily warm colors, the picture can give you a warm feeling. Warm colors can also make a picture feel lively and happy.

Cool colors remind us of shadows, water, grass, and other naturally cool things. So when an artist uses primarily cool colors, the picture can give you a cool feeling. Cool color can also have the effect of making a picture feel sad or lonely.

Color Harmonies with Color Neighbors and Opposites

Analogous Colors

Analogous means “similar,” and analogous colors are color neighbors on the color wheel. For this example, I took three neighboring colors for each analogous group. In reality, an analogous color palette can be condensed or stretched to include more or less of the color wheel.

Using analogous colors in a color scheme will give your picture a sense of unity and order. In addition, looking at analogous colors can have a calming effect and are easy on the eyes. Designers use analogous colors for websites, logos, and interiors to put the viewer at ease make it easier to look at something for a long time.

Here is a fun lesson that teaches about analogous colors and helps students make a Gnome Drawing with Analogous Colors.

Color Complements

Color complements are the opposite of analogous colors, and they are the opposite of each other. They sit directly across from each other on the color wheel and are the most different. When mixed, color complements cancel each other out and make a neutral color or gray. When they sit side by side, they tend to fight with each other or produce a strong contrast.

Using Color Complements

The best way to make sure they don’t fight is to use the tint of one of the color complements so that there is a contrast in value and intensity. For example, pink and green together are easier to look at than red and green.

Mixing Color Complements

Color complements can also help you create some nice tones in your art. If you want to dull a color without black, you can add the color complement. The color it makes will be more lively than if you mix black with the color. For example, try adding a little orange in your sky color to make a dark cloud instead of black. The cloud will have subtle shifts between being more orange or a little bluer and will look more realistic and attractive to the eye.

Color Harmonies with 3-Color Limited Palettes

Split Complementary

A split complementary color group takes one of the color complements and replaces it with the intermediate colors on either side. Using the two intermediate colors softens the relationship between the complements and gives you more variety than just using the two color complements.

Keep in mind that using tints, shades, and tones of each color with this and any other color groups will give you even more variety and make your colors feel more natural.

Color Triads

Color triads are three colors that are equal distance apart on the color wheel. Primary and secondary colors are color triads. Above you will see two more examples of color triads using intermediate colors.

Tint, Shades, and Tones

A color wheel showing tints and shades
A color wheel showing tones

Tints

A tint is a color mixed with white. Pastel colors are examples of tints. Tints come in handy when you want to make something appear far away or when you want to increase the contrast between colors. Here is a lesson that helps students come up with a contrasting color scheme.

If you want to create a focal point or area of interest, try using tints next to darker or brighter colors. Again, the contrast will catch your eye more than an area where the colors blend together.

Using lots of tints in a picture shows that there is lots of sunlight or other light and can also lighten the mood of a work of art.

Shades and Tones

A tint is a color mixed with black.
Mix color with its complement to make a tone.

You will find tones in the second diagram where the colors are muted in the center of the circle.

There is a subtle difference between shades and tones, and they can serve different purposes. Shades tend to be duller and less attractive than tones in the mid-value range. However, if you need a color to be very dark, mixing black to get a shade is your best bet.

If you are working with skin tone or need to keep the colors from getting too dark, try using the complement of the color instead of black. Tones appear more lively because they have subtle shifts from one complement to the next and create a more life-like area of color.

Monochromatic Colors

A monochromatic color scheme uses tints and shades of one color. Mono means “one,” and chroma means “color.”
Using a monochromatic color scheme on a landscape or portrait gives the picture an unnatural feeling and turns the image into more of a graphic design.


Art students use monochromatic colors to focus on a picture’s value or lights and darks. A monochromatic painting is a great exercise to free students from the burden of matching both the color and value. This is also an excellent exercise since students tend to rely more on color and forget about value.

12 sets of monochromatic colors

Munsell Color System

Munsell Color Tree - the color wheel turned on its side
munsell color tree with chroma, value, and hue labled
Munsell Color Tree - 3 values for each color

Albert H. Munsell turned his frustration with describing color accurately into a system of giving colors notations or coordinates. This system resulted in a color tree using three variables: hue, chroma, and value.

I’ve created some diagrams that show a glimpse into Munsell’s color tree. In reality, there are many more colors and variations of color. My goal is to show how Munsell constructed the color tree and using hue, value, and chroma. My diagrams do not show his entire system.

Hue

The first diagram shows the hues (or colors) in a circle. Think of it as a color wheel turned on its side so that it is now 3-dimensional. Hue is another name for color and refers to the specific color in the color spectrum. Munsell uses letters to indicate the hue, such as Y for yellow and R for red.

Chroma

The second diagram shows where the color intensity changes as the colors get closer to the neutral colors in the core. Munsell gives each color a number value for chroma based on how many steps away from the neutral core in the center of the color tree. For example, at its most intense, red is 12 steps away from the center, so it would be labeled R4/12. Thus, R refers to a red hue, 4 refers to the value (4 steps up from black), and 12 refers to the intensity (12 steps away from neutral).

Value

The second diagram adds the variable of value. Value refers to the light or dark of a color. At the core of color arrangement, you will see a value scale with ten levels of value, beginning with the lightest values on top. Munsell assigned a number to each value, with black as number 1 and white as number 10. So Y5 is a yellow in the middle of the value scale, and Y8 is a lighter yellow or a tint of yellow higher in the value scale.

Some colors, such as yellow, are naturally lighter, so you will see it placed higher in the second diagram (in the middle above). Other colors, such as violet, are naturally darker, so you will see violet set lower than the circle of colors.

In the third diagram, you see a tint and shade for each hue floating around the value scale at the core of the Munsell color tree. This animation shows the full range of colors that make up the Munsell color tree.

You can read more about Munsell’s color system here.

The Munsell color system might be a little complicated for some students, but this system is a great way to show how hue, chroma, and value can describe colors. Now that so many designers work on computers, artists use CMYK, RGB, or Pantone colors to convey colors to others accurately to each other so that computers and printers can reproduce the exact color.

Color Wheels

You can get the color wheel images you see in this blog post here – Color Wheels for Teaching Color Theory.

In Summary

The color wheel can be a valuable tool in the art room and studio. Use the color wheel to help you remember how to mix colors to get exactly what you are looking for by first finding it on the color wheel and using the surrounding colors to help you find the right ingredients.

The color wheel can help you come up with an interesting color scheme using a limited palette. Choose colors that help you create the desired mood or give the viewer a calming or exciting experience.

Questions

  • What questions do you have about using color? Leave a comment and let me know what else you’d like to know.
  • What are your favorite lessons that teach color?

Social & Emotional Learning in Art

Click on this image to get a free copy of this infographic.

Remind yourself and others of the social and emotional benefits of art. This is a great graphic to include in parent newsletters or display in your room.

You can read more about Social Emotional Learning in Art in this blog post.


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A color wheel with the primary colors highlighted - Color Theory 101
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Stacey Peters

Stacey Peters

I create engaging drawing resources that help students build confidence and express themselves through art. I'm a former elementary art teacher of 25 years turned business owner. Giving you the tools you need to bring more drawing into your classroom brings me joy.

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