Color Wheel for Artists Complete Introduction and Guide

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Color wheel in art

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Almost everyone will immediately recognize a color wheel when they see one. Many often have memories of creating one in school during art class – however few know what it really is. The precise definition of a color wheel is: ‘a circle that illustrates the relationships between primary colors, secondary colors, tertiary colors and so on‘.

In this article I will teach you the basic concepts of the color wheel and how color works. In addition, I will show you how to apply that knowledge to your painting. Knowing and understanding the underlying concepts behind the color wheel can help you grow your color mixing skills!

Introducing the artist color wheel

artist color wheel
Hand painted Color Wheel demonstration

The artist color wheel above shows 12 colors. Starting from the top going clockwise the colors are: red, red-orange, orange, yellow-orange, yellow, yellow-green, green-yellow, green, green-blue, blue, blue-purple, purple, and pink.

The theory behind the color wheel is important

What is behind color wheel theory and understanding what it represents is what is most important. The color wheel itself is not really that important actually!

Rather, once you understand the principles behind what the color wheel represents, it will purely serve as a visual reminder to yourself. You will not need to paint with it in your hand, however it can be helpful to have it hanging on your studio wall as a reference.

If you haven’t yet – get my FREE Color Mixing Guide for additional help with color mixing techniques!

Primary color wheel

Primary colors are the most important colors in the artist color wheel. In the primary color wheel image below you can see how they form a triangle – yellow, blue and red.

primary color wheel
Primary Color Wheel example

Primary colors are the most important because it is from these three colors that all colors can be mixed.

However, for a painter to mix all the colors they need from just primary colors would be quite difficult – because no tube of paint exists that is a pure form of blue, red and yellow. All colors contain some traces of other colors as well. Now, if you mix any two primary colors together you get… secondary colors!

Secondary colors in the color wheel

Secondary colors are orange, green, and purple. As you can see from the color wheel below, the secondary colors are in between the primary colors. This is so because you get secondary colors by mixing together two primary colors.

Secondary color wheel
Secondary color wheel

For example, if I mix together the primary colors yellow and red I get orange. And when mixing primary colors blue + yellow I get green. Last but not least, when mixing primary colors blue and red I get purple!

Now, for each of these secondary colors there is a complementary color!

Complementary colors within the color wheel

Each of the secondary colors is a complementary color with a primary color – and the opposite is also true – each of the primary colors is a complementary color with a secondary color.

Complementary color wheel
Complementary color wheel

When looking at the complementary color wheel above you will see that the secondary color purple is the complementary color of yellow, and yellow is the complementary color of purple. Orange is the complementary color of blue and vice versa. And lastly, green is the complementary color of red, and red is the complementary color of green.

You will notice that all complementary colors are opposite each other on the complementary color wheel! So, when looking at a color wheel you can always know that complementary colors are opposite one another.

Complementary colors in action

When you put two complementary colors next to one another it makes them stand out more than they would on their own. For example, look at the image below of the blue square inside the orange square. Both colors stand out much more than they would if they were by themselves.

complementary colors blue and orange
Complementary color blue and orange

The same holds true for the complementary colors green + red and purple + yellow. Because they are completely opposite, they make each other stand out more.

Complementary colors green and red
Complementary Colors green + red
Complementary colors, purple and yellow
Complementary Colors purple + yellow

So, if you ever want to emphasize something in a painting – then use two complementary colors next to one another. I have examples of how this applies to real paintings at the bottom of the article.

Mixing complementary colors

Mixing two complementary colors together will mute your color. So, if you want a muted blue then you would mix some orange to it. The opposite is also true – mix blue into orange to create a muted orange. The same holds true for the other complementary colors.

Muting a color by mixing it with its complementary color creates richer colors. Learn how to put color mixing into practice – I also have this free color mixing guide available to help guide you further. In addition, this article will help you to learn why muted colors are so important to painting.

Tertiary Colors in the color wheel

There are still more colors to talk about with the color wheel! Tertiary colors are also known as intermediate Colors. These colors fill in the gaps between the primary and secondary colors. As you can see in the tertiary color wheel below.

Tertiary color wheel
Tertiary Color Wheel

You can get a tertiary color/ intermediate color by mixing one primary color with one secondary color. So, if I mix the primary color yellow with the secondary color green I get the tertiary color yellow-green.

If you are working from life on a painting you will probably not use primary colors or secondary colors in your piece because they are very bright. Rather, it is more likely that you would use some softer colors like tertiary/ intermediate colors. Colors are much more natural when they are mixed.

The rule of complements ALSO applies to tertiary colors. Though the effect tends not to be as dramatic as a primary color mixed with a secondary color.

Complementary color wheel of tertiary colors
Complementary Color wheel Tertiary Colors

Notice that the complementary color of each tertiary color is also opposite from it on the color wheel.

What are analogous colors?

Analogous colors definition

Analogous colors are groups of three colors that are next to each other on the color wheel. For example, notice in the color wheel below of how yellow, yellow-green and green are all next to one another. Therefore as a group they are analogous colors.

Analogous Colors examples

Analogous Color wheel
Diagram of Analogous colors examples

Analogous colors are often found in nature and are known to create harmonious designs that are pleasing to the eye. Below is a close up view of the analogous colors highlighted in the color wheel.

Analogous colors from a color wheel

Extended analogous colors

There is also such thing as an extended analogous color palette – this would be a group of more than three analogous colors. Think of analogous colors as taking a slice of the color wheel – 3, 4 or at most 5 pieces that are grouped together

extended analogous colors
Extended Analogous Color Palette

Above is an example of a group of five analogous colors taken from the color wheel. You can see that all the colors are related since they are grouped together.

Analogous Colors in Art

Now we can’t end the conversation about analogous colors without showing some real life examples from the art world!

analogous colors in a van gogh painting
Self Portrait, Vincent Van Gogh

This Self Portrait by Vincent Van Gogh is made up of (for the most part) an analogous palette that has a lot of greens and blues – yellow green, green, blue green, blue, and purple blue. You can see the extended analogous palette that Van Gogh used below in his self portrait painting. It is made up of 5 colors and you can see why the colors in the Van Gogh painting are so harmonious.

analogous colors
Analogous colors used in Van Gogh self portrait

Complementary colors with an analogous palette

Besides the Van Gogh self portrait having a very analogous palette it also has a splash of complementary colors! Van Gogh’s beard and hair is red and orange which are complementary colors for green and blue.

Having complementary color contrast helps to make a painting more dynamic as seen in the Van Gogh painting.

Split complementary colors in the color wheel

A split complementary color scheme is a variation of the complementary color scheme. It uses a color and then the two colors that are adjacent to the complementary colors.

Example of split complementary colors

For example, in the color wheel below you can see that the split complementary colors here are purple, orange-yellow, and yellow green. Orange-yellow and green-yellow are adjacent colors to yellow (the complementary color of purple).

Split complementary colors
Split complementary colors in the wheel
Split complementary colors
Split complementary colors side by side

Examples of complementary color schemes in art

Where to find the use of the Color wheel in art

You will commonly find complementary color schemes in art because they work really well for a painting. All of the followings paintings by Vermeer, Degas and Cezanne each use a different complementary color scheme. Keep your eyes peeled next time you head to an art museum – you will be surprised at how many paintings use a complementary color wheel scheme.

Orange – blue complementary color scheme

orange-blue complementary color scheme in a painting by Vermeer, the astronomer
Johannes Vermeer, The Astronomer

Vermeer’s painting ‘The Astronomer’ is an excellent example of how an orange/blue complementary color scheme can work in a painting. Of course, not ever single area of the painting is either blue or orange. However, the general overall theme for the colors in the painting are blue and orange.

Having a complementary color scheme in a painting works well because the colors (orange and blue in this case) make each other stand out more. This in turn makes the piece stand out to the viewer.

For example, our eyes immediately go to the bright orange trim on the astronomer’s robe first because it is set off by being next to its complementary color blue. Vermeer meant for the figure to be the point of focus – which works thanks to the complementary colors.

Yellow – purple complementary scheme

purple-yellow complementary color scheme in a degas painting.
Edgar Degas, Dancers Practicing at the Barre

In this Degas painting we see a different kind of complementary color scheme – yellow and purple. The floor is a muted purple color, while the wall is yellow (including a yellow bow on the ballerina).

Having these two complementary colors makes the painting more dynamic by creating an intense color interaction. Our eye first goes to the area where the two complementary colors meet – the dancers. Again, you see here how the artist used complementary colors to guide the eye.

Red – green complementary scheme

red-green complementary color scheme in a Cezanne painting
Cezanne, Still Life with apples and a tube of paint

Last but not least we have a still life painting by Cezanne. The complementary color scheme used here is red and green. We have a painting that has a foreground and background that is mainly made up of green or light green. The apples range between deep red and orange.

In a complementary color scheme painting one will never have a piece that is made up of only 2 complementary colors . Rather, there will be a range – and most likely some other colors mixed in as well.

In the Cezanne still life we can see that the red apples really stand out against the green foreground and background! Another example of how complementary colors make certain areas stand out.

Practical application of the color wheel

Having thorough knowledge of color theory and the color wheel is not absolutely necessary to become a great artist. However, knowing the basics of how color works is VERY helpful when it comes to color mixing and making decisions on a color scheme for a painting.

Apply what you learn in this article to your painting. To get more practical application in terms of color mixing of some of the concepts discussed here read the color mixing guide.

All of the concepts in this article are the same whether you work in watercolor, acrylic, oil paints, gouache or any other medium! The rules of color mixing are universal so you can apply it to anything you do. So, go and explore the world of color and have fun color mixing. 🙂


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    19 thoughts on “Color Wheel for Artists Complete Introduction and Guide”

    1. william N selvig

      As a late beginner to painting, 80+, I have learned much from your articles. Thank you
      I am painting the “Calanais Standing Stones” in northern Scotland and am having difficulty mixing the colors for gneiss rock. There is no provision here for an attachment, so I ask that you access some internet photos and advise your acrylic paint mixing recommendation.
      Thank you

      1. Hello Bill, I am so glad to hear that my articles have helped you with painting. Thank you for sharing about your current painting project – I have been to Scotland and loved my time there but have never heard of the “Calanais Standing Stones”! It is now definitely added to my travel list 🙂

        Mixing colors for rocks can be tricky as they are muted and also required lots of subtle changes. I would think of the colors of the rocks in terms of cool and warm temperatures. A good base for mixing the colors you need is to use blue (ultramarine blue and or cobalt blue) and cadmium orange (or a mixed orange). When you mix blue and orange together you will get a nice greyish color. If it is too blue then mix more orange into it. If the greyish color needs to be even warmer than mix in some more orange. You can also warm it up more by mixing in a little bit of yellow. You will probably run into areas where the shades are more greenish – in this case mix a little bit of green into your grey color base (the blue and orange mixture). If the color ends up being too green then mix in some red. thinking of complementary colors will be very helpful for mixing up the colors you will need! An article on this topic will be coming up very soon.

        I hope that helps!

    2. This is an awesome article. I don’t know why I never saw it before. It was really informative and will help me very much in my future art work. Thank you. Louise

    3. Elisabeth,
      Thank you kindly for your information. They are really helpful. I did not received your colour mixing guide despite having tried several times to get it. I hope I will have it.


    4. Hi Elisabeth, thank you for your information. I did not received your colour mixing guide despite having tried several times to get it. I hope I will have it. Thank you! Lolita

    5. Thank you for reminding me of when I was in high school. I really forget what I just was so ironic that I’m going back to painting,that’s what I wanted to do as a lifetime dream somewhere and got lost. I became appreciative again. thank you for Reminding me. All is well and will indeed 💕Adele

    6. Hi Elisabeth,
      I just want thank you for this article. it was really helpful.
      and thank you for all of information you share with us .

    7. Hi Elisabeth,
      Thank you kindly for your information. They are really helpful. I did not received your colour mixing guide despite having tried several times to get it. I hope I will have it.
      Thank you


      I have followed you for a while, Elisabeth, and really find your articles and information very helpful. I’m an intermediate oil painter. For some reason I haven’t received your colour mixing guide and have tried several times to get it. If you could get it to me I would really appreciate it. Thanks!

    9. Warren Petherbridge

      Thanks Elisabeth this is a fantastic resource and will greatly assist me to mix colours. Thanks again for all your assistance.

    10. Thanks so much for the Color Mixing guide and now this new email on mixing colors.So very helpful. Anxious to give it a try.

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